Having interviewed 50 senior managers recently, the common theme that emerged was a daily struggle to find time to think and plan. They are so busy trying to keep on top of everything that they reported losing sight of what they were trying to achieve and the bigger picture of why these things needed to be done. The paradox is that the more senior you are the more you are paid to think and the less to do. When you start your career you are paid to ‘do’, to learn the basics and complete the tasks set. As you move up through the ranks your value comes from the knowledge, wisdom and experience you have to make things happen. By the time you make CEO, your role is almost exclusively to think through what the business should be doing and quite frankly, you’d be dangerous if you tried to do anything. Thus, for senior managers to be struggling to find time to think and plan means we are not getting the value from them we should. Simply putting in planning time into your diary rarely works. All that happens is something comes along that seems urgent and important and the time dedicated to thinking and planning gets consumed by other activities. Coming in earlier or staying later may be an effective short term solution, but at what cost? Working longer hours just means you are in effect willing to be paid less for what you do (salary divided by hours worked). It may mean you experience greater stress and all the negative consequences that brings. You can learn to delegate more, which is good unless all that does is to free up more time that gets filled with other things and so leaves you no better off.
What then to do? I once had a triathlon coach who would send me a training schedule each month of what he wanted me to do. The trouble was I rarely knew from week to week what my diary was like and so fitting in the sessions became something of a lottery. After several months of completing less than 50% of the sessions, I switched coaches and tried a different approach. Instead of trying to fit my life around the training schedule, the training had to fit into my life. Each week I would send to my coach when I could realistically train the following week and he would set the sessions accordingly. The impact was staggering. From struggling to complete 4 – 6 hours training a week I ended up averaging almost 25 hours a week. This was simply because the sessions slotted into when I could actually do them. In just the same way, I now look at my schedule a week in advance and identify times when I can do some of the research and planning I need to do to keep up to date in my job. To avoid other tasks creeping into these slots, I have learned the lesson from the sports coaching and given each session a specific aim and I have an expectation of what I want to achieve. I’m much less likely to give this time away to other pressures when I know the work that will be sacrificed as a result.
Whilst this type of planning has influenced how I plan my work, the single statement that makes the biggest difference in the moment was coined by Lou Holtz, the American Football player, coach and analyst. It is: “What’s important now?” This single, simple question I find to be incredibly useful at keeping me focused on the task at hand. So often my head is full of noise of all the other things I have to do or worrying about the things that are happening around me. But by asking myself this simple question: “What’s important now?” I can quieten the distractions and focus on the immediate task in front of me. I find it helps me waste less time, come up with better solutions and reduces worry. I really recommend you ask this of yourself from time to time during the day, whether it is whilst attending a meeting, or writing a report, or sitting down for a meal with friends and family or at the gym in the middle of a workout.
From feedback received from those with whom I have shared these lessons, they appear to resonate and have helped people become more forward thinking in their approach and better focused in the work they are doing. Try them and see whether they work for you.
Dominic Irvine © 2019 All rights asserted.