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July 15, 2018
I considered myself a fairly good time manager – until I started a business.
Seemingly overnight, the tasks started piling up. I fell behind on email. Some calls took days to return. I don’t think I ever missed a critical deadline – the reporter in me probably couldn’t process the idea of that – but I definitely struggled to cover all the demands on my time.
I gave myself a year. I told myself if the business was going well, then it probably was going to take that long to figure out how to manage the increased workload.
Nearly 18 months later, I’ve not mastered it, but I’ve definitely made progress. Halfway through the year, I’m still keeping my 2018 resolution, which involves how I schedule my days.
My natural energy is in the morning, so I’ve done my best to keep time open in the morning for writing. I can write a lot more productively at 9 a.m. than at 3 p.m. I moved my calls and meetings mostly to the afternoons. I save my more creative writing – like this column – for occasional evenings.
I also realized my default appointment scheduling was in one-hour increments. Some meetings do require an hour, especially if it’s for an in-depth interview, but most can be done in 30 minutes or by phone in that or less. So I’ve tried to be careful how many in-person meetings I do, which also saves me travel time.
When I first started the business, people often asked me how much sleep I was getting. Today, they ask if I’m finally able to get any sleep. The truth is, I know myself well enough to know I require between seven and eight hours per day. I wish I were one of those people who only needs five, but I’m not, so I generally stick to what I know I need.
To get that much sleep and not live at work, I need to watch how much time I work during the week. I try to leave the office by 6 p.m. and then not work anymore, but I do work part of the day every Saturday and most Sundays.
I figured out most of this through trial, error and instinct. So it was a little bit of a relief to discover a new report by the Harvard Business Review that looked at how CEOs of major corporations manage their time.
While I’m far from that level, the insights definitely can apply to me, and I’m guessing to many of you as well.
While CEOs have immense resources at their disposal, the article noted, “they, more than anyone else in the organization, confront an acute scarcity of one resource. That resource is time. There is never enough time to do everything that a CEO is responsible for.”
The CEO’s schedule, it continued, has a direct effect on the leader’s effectiveness and the company’s performance. “It also affects their legitimacy. A CEO who doesn’t spend enough time with colleagues will seem insular and out of touch, whereas one who spends too much time in direct decision making will risk being seen as a micromanager and erode employees’ initiative.”
The Harvard study launched in 2006 and has tracked the time allocation of 27 CEOs — two women and 25 men. Their assistants coded their time in 15-minute increments in and out of the office.
Here’s a sampling of what was revealed.
The average CEO worked 9.7 hours per weekday. They also worked on 79 percent of weekend days, on average almost four hours daily. They worked on 70 percent of vacation days, averaging 2.4 hours each day.
As someone who just spent the past week trying to sort of be on vacation, that also was accurate. I worked some every day, just not nearly as much as I would have in Sioux Falls.
The Harvard CEOs worked an average of 62.5 hours per week.
“Why such a grueling schedule? Because it is essential to the role,” the report said. “Every constituency associated with a company wants direct contact with the person at the top. As much as CEOs rely on delegation, they can’t hand off everything. They have to spent at least some time with each constituency in order to provide direction, create alignment, win support and gather the information needed to make good decisions.”
The study also found that the CEOs slept an average of 6.9 hours per night, and many exercised regularly – about 45 minutes daily. That’s an area I neglected during my first year in business, but I’ve now found time to fit it in nearly daily, and it’s definitely helped me.
“To sustain the intensity of the job, CEOs need to train – just as elite athletes do,” the Harvard piece said. “That means allocating time for health, fitness and rest.”
The study paid particular attention to the 25 percent of time when CEOs weren’t sleeping or working – about six hours per day. Most spent half that time with family and found some time for hobbies and downtime.
CEOs spent 72 percent of their work time in meetings, the report found. One-hour meetings accounted for 32 percent, longer meetings for 38 percent and shorter ones for 30 percent.
“Standard” meeting times “should be revisited with an eye toward shortening them,” the report said. “In our debriefs, CEOs confessed that one-hour meetings could often be cut to 30 or even 15 minutes.”
The report cautioned about how CEOs communicate. Face-to-face interaction took up 61 percent of the time, but email ate up 24 percent. The rest was written and by phone. The lure of email, though, was “a dangerous time sink,” the report said.
“Email interrupts work, extends the workday, intrudes on time for family and thinking and is not conducive to thoughtful discussions.”
There are all sorts of issues for CEOs with email, it continued. They often are copied on too many and thus drawn into “the operational weeds.” Emails from the CEO often create a chain of other effects internally, and depending on when they are sent can cause the organization to fall into the habit of emailing at night and on weekends.
CEOs can have an assistant filter and delegate their emails before they even see them, the report suggested, but in the end it’s more about being disciplined and resisting the call to engage via email.
“This is a topic our CEOs were often animated about, and best practices in this area are still emerging,” it said.
I don’t know about you, but my inbox overflows semi-regularly despite how I try to keep up. I also receive messages through text message, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And some people actually still leave voicemails. I guess I’d say my best practices for managing it all are still emerging too.
The one area where CEOs in the Harvard study “were dismayed,” it said, was in how much time they spent with customers – on average, 3 percent.
“Customers are a key source of independent information about the company’s progress, industry needs and competitors,” it said, adding that in the B2B space, meeting with customers’ CEOs is a valuable peer-to-peer connection and that in B2C companies, unannounced visits “are an indispensable way to talk to regular customers.”
Scheduling time with customers so it becomes a habit seems most effective, the report concluded.
One thing I’ve learned is that in business leadership there’s never enough time to do everything you’d like to do.
I’ve definitely had to get used to not being as prompt as I’d like with some responses and to saying no to all kinds of things more often than I ever have in the past.
But being strategic about how we spend our time is essential, and making small adjustments can have big payoffs.
Feel overwhelmed with duties as a business leader? A look at how these CEOs spend their time might help.