Lessons from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker: Know Thy Time

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Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units. This three-step process:
– recording time,
– managing time, and
– consolidating time
is the foundation of executive effectiveness.

– The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker

Drucker writes that we are terrible at sensing time and are likely to over-estimate or under-estimate where our time goes. If we take the time to record how we actually spend our time, we would be surprised by the reality of how we spend our time.

Being mindful of time and being strategic about its use begins first with creating a time log and then asking the right questions. Drucker offers three questions that are used to diagnose time:

  1. What would happen if [x activity] were not done at all?
    If the answer is “nothing at all”, then it’s obvious that the activity can be eliminated.
  2. Which of the activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better? 
    Drucker insists that this isn’t an excuse to dump unwanted activities on someone else (“delegation”), but that the executive carefully consider and assign work that would free up time for more important assignments.
  3. What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to effectiveness?
    Executives may unknowingly be wasting other people’s time. Asking for honest feedback and acting on it can save everyone valuable time.

Drucker also offers a taxonomy of time-wasters:

  1. “The recurrent crisis, or the crisis that comes back year after year” that is the result of a “lack of system or foresight.”
    These are the stressful fire drills and last-minute rescue jobs that result from an organization’s laziness and unwillingness to develop sound processes.
  2. Time-wastes that result from overstaffing.
    Drucker believes that a bloated team in which people spend too much time sorting out communication issues and various person-to-person disputes is a big drag on time. Being lean gives people room to move and get stuff done. I’ve seen this with project teams that have too many specialists whose involvement wasn’t absolutely necessary.
  3. “Malorganization” whose symptom is “an excess of meetings”
    I’ve written about this specific lesson before. Too many meetings and poorly structured meetings are all time-wasters. I typically have 2-3 days a week when it’s nonstop meetings from 10AM to 6PM. I have tried to combat such occurrences, but it’s been a challenge. Drucker is right in saying that “too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components.” Something for me to think harder about.
  4. “Malfunction in information”
    This happens when people in the organization aren’t on the same page about what’s going on and people who need to know aren’t informed in a timely matter if at all. I know we’ve had such challenges at Barrel when on-boarding team members to projects that have already started or when we’ve neglected to give contractors/freelancers complete information about certain tasks. These often result in false starts and ineffective outputs that require time to fix.

By going through the time diagnosis and then pruning the time-wasters, the executive will have a clearer idea of the “discretionary time” that’s available for important work. Consolidating discretionary time into large blocks enable the executive to have greater control over his/her schedule. These blocks–perhaps half a day or a few hours–enable the executive to focus on important (often non-urgent) tasks that can have great impact on the organization.

Personal Lessons from Dealing with Time

I have a couple more time-wasters that Drucker doesn’t mention: passive content consumption and messaging.

Passive Content Consumption
I see this behavior everywhere at work and catch myself as well: the casual browse of the LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds; the scroll through different news apps; the quick read of a few Medium blog posts; the refresh of the reddit page; the read of some newsletter that’s popped up in the email inbox. For knowledge workers who’re on their computers all day or have their smartphones on hand, I believe many of us are borderline addicts to content that momentarily stimulates and distracts our minds from the tasks that demand greater focus and cognitive energy.

Whether it’s SMS, Snapchat, Slack, or any other messaging app, the demands that messaging has on our time and the switching costs it has on our work is probably as much or perhaps even greater than passive content consumption. Messaging offers a readily available outlet to express or vent certain emotions and get immediate feedback. It, too, is an addictive behavior and one that eats up time with deceptive velocity.

I know that on certain days, my passive content consumption and messaging activity can combine to exceed 5 hours. I would argue that many people average much more. These also seldom come in chunks but in 5-10 minute spurts that add up.

One of the most time-freeing things that I did this year was to delete Instagram and Facebook from my phone (I’ll check FB a couple times a day on my laptop, though). It’s been six months since this happened and I’ve found myself filling the time with activities like writing, exercise, and reading (books and more challenging articles that take 20-30 minutes). Of course, a good deal of my time still goes to being distracted by texts to and from friends, checking on stock market prices, reading tech and sports news, and watching movie trailers on YouTube, but I’ve begun to consolidate hours here and there for both business and personal assignments that give me time to focus and work on things that require greater mental energy.

What’s kept me motivated and honest is the use of a stopwatch (on my phone), which I start and stop for only the moments where my mind is totally focused. When I get distracted or drift off, the stopwatch is paused. At the end of the activity, I can see how much “real time” it took to do something. A few observations:

  • It’s incredible how much you can do in 10, 20, and 30 minutes of hyper-focused time. In 10 minutes, it’s possible to write 2 full pages in a journal. In 30 minutes, you can get pretty engrossed in a book. Think about how tiring it is to do continuous burpees or push-ups for 5 straight minutes. In some ways, timing chunks of time is conditioning the mind to focus on tasks singularly for longer and longer periods of time.
  • Using a stopwatch can also reveal how quickly certain daunting tasks can take. I used to think that it took me 3-4 hours to properly prep for the upcoming work week including organizing my To Do’s, updating progress of new business and accounts, and doing some outbound emails. I would block out my Sunday evenings for this and typically go from 8PM to 11PM. One week, I decided to use a stopwatch and also focus 100% on the key activities without being distracted. I saw that it took me no more than 75 minutes. I repeated this for a few more weeks and it was the same result – 75 minutes max. I realized that I had been going down the rabbit hole of reading LinkedIn posts, watching videos of various influencers in the space, and doing research on things not directly beneficial to the task at hand. It would be better, I believed, to consolidate my workweek planning to a 75-minute chunk and, if necessary, give myself a block of time to randomly consume relevant business content. This way, I would stop conflating the necessary work with the unnecessary act of content consumption, giving me a few extra hours to do something else on a Sunday evening if I so chose.

And looking at my stopwatch now, I can see that this blog post took me 1 hour and 23 minutes to write.

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