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Ron Ashkenas

Ron Ashkenas

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Is Your Calendar Managing You?

Posted: 02/ 3/11 03:30 PM ET

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

Not long ago, I was talking with a senior executive who was frustrated that some of her high priority initiatives were not moving fast enough. After exploring various reasons for the slow uptake, I asked her to look at her calendar and calculate the amount of time she personally spent on these initiatives. The answer shocked her: a grand total of two hours over the course of two months, and this was being generous.

In my years of consulting, I've found that this disconnect between stated priorities and the actual allocation of managerial time is extremely common, and often happens without the manager even realizing it. The only exception is during a crisis or in the face of an impending deadline -- when somehow the use of time magically shifts to match the short-term priority. But in the absence of crisis, managers' schedules fill up with all sorts of lower-value activities that water down the focus on high-priority projects, change efforts, or opportunities.

In fairness to managers, they probably shouldn't be spending as much personal time on high-priority initiatives as their subordinates, to whom they may have delegated all or part of the responsibilities. But delegating is not an excuse for disappearing. If a manager like the one mentioned above wants to see progress, she needs to visibly demonstrate support for the initiative, run interference with other related groups in the company, coach the designated leaders, create a sense of urgency, and make decisions. These, and many other activities, take time. And although most managers know that they should make this commitment, they still don't.

I've written previously about some of the psychological dynamics of why managers spend their time on low-value activities. Through the years I've found that there is a very tactical, but unconscious, trap that many managers fall into: They let their calendars manage them.

If you are a manager, think about how your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule is constructed. First there are corporate or divisional meetings -- essentially command performances -- in addition to the standing and ad-hoc meetings called by your boss. Many of these are dictated by the rhythms of corporate processes such as strategic planning, budgeting, and performance management -- and include countless other preparatory meetings. Of course if you are an operational manager or running a team, you also have to schedule your own meetings: staff meetings, one-on-ones, town meetings, visits to key locations, and more. Somewhere in this mix are interactions with customers, either external or internal, depending on your job. You may also be invited to staff meetings and various project review meetings which may or may not be about your own priorities. If this is not enough, many managers also attend industry conferences and briefings, leadership workshops, or other developmental events. On top of all this is the time required to actually accomplish your day-to-day job -- reviewing reports, reading spreadsheets, preparing and modifying presentations, and the like. Finally -- if you're really well-organized -- you might devote a little time to "thinking and planning" (although not much in the formal sense), your family, and other non-work pursuits.

Collectively, the demands we face at work are daunting and require constant juggling and trade-offs. For senior people much of this juggling is done by an executive assistant and/or chief of staff, while middle or junior managers do it themselves, often with the assistance of electronic scheduling that automatically puts meetings on the calendar. Unfortunately, neither method substitutes for thoughtful prioritization by the manager herself. Without such prioritization, the outcome is often a schedule that bounces managers from meeting to meeting, trip to trip, and requirement to requirement -- without a sense of how to add the most value.

If you are concerned that your calendar is managing you, here's how to start taking back control.

First, do a calendar analysis. Examine the events and activities described above that apply to you, and find out how much time you are really spending on the areas where your presence will make a difference. If that's not enough, conduct a zero-based reconstruction of your calendar to reflect a better balance of value-adding time. To do this, start by designating specific times that you will devote to your highest priorities, even if you're not sure how you will use those times. If you find later that you won't need all of those slots, you can change them. But if you don't save them now, you'll lose that choice.

Next, build your calendar from the ground up. Add in the mandatory meetings that you have to attend that also add value, such as decision-making meetings or customer visits.

Finally, go through the calendar and create a list of recurring meetings and other activities that seem to create less (or no) value. For each of these, ask yourself:

  • Is the activity or meeting needed at all?
  • If needed, do I need to attend or can I designate someone else?
  • Can this be done less frequently?
  • Can it be done in a different way that will require less time?

These tough questions may be worth addressing with your boss, your team, or with a coach. But if you don't address them, and continually try to zero-base your schedule, it will end up managing you (instead of the other way around).

How do you get more control over your time?

 

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