Tackling Time Management & Efficiency Requires Clarity & Discipline
Some years ago, I was chatting with a leader about the prospect of coaching. He was excited about working together, but the momentum waned as he proposed a three-month delay, citing an overloaded schedule.
I reassured him of my flexibility, and we connected again to discuss the benefits of coaching—specifically, improved prioritization skills to focus more intentionally on the most crucial aspects of his work and life. He hesitated for a split second, then quickly conveyed that he honestly was too busy to begin coaching.
This talented leader had joined our call ten minutes late. He’d been delayed by a previous meeting that had run long, but his tone made it evident that he was anxious to deliver his message to me quickly and get on with his day.
After the call, I considered the paradox of our conversation. This leader, seeking solutions to streamline his schedule, appeared disinclined to allocate time to the very process that could alleviate the time constraints he was struggling to manage.
Many of my executive coaching clients have shared that our work together has empowered them to clarify their goals and priorities, confidently decline non-essential commitments, make decisions aligned with their values, and more closely align their work with what’s truly important to them.
Better Time Management Requires Clear Priorities
Most senior leaders and executives' roles necessitate a delicate balance between professional responsibilities and personal well-being. These leaders grapple with a variety of challenges and stakeholder interests. Balancing these interests is no small feat—especially when they diverge—and prioritizing them to meet everyone's needs can be an intricate puzzle. But we can’t begin to navigate the dynamics of time management until we acknowledge the inherent complexity of these roles—and their impact on our lives outside of work.
Over the past fifty years, only a handful of researchers have explored the complexities of time allocation and management for CEOs and senior leaders. Still, their work has shed light on the demands placed on these high-level executives. Among these studies, a 2018 report from Harvard provides comprehensive insights into how CEOs spend their days—both within and beyond the confines of the office. While the study primarily focuses on CEOs, I believe these findings can be extrapolated and are relevant to the lives of other leaders at the highest levels within an organization.
The Harvard study underscores the demanding nature of leadership roles. It’s likely no surprise that their findings included that these leaders typically work extended hours, often spilling into weekends and vacation days.
A Paradoxical Finding
However, in the midst of this rigorous professional life, the study also reveals a perhaps paradoxical finding—these leaders are particularly mindful about safeguarding their time outside of work.
Specifically, they make a concerted effort to protect their personal time, foster relationships with loved ones, engage in hobbies, prioritize exercise, and ensure adequate sleep, averaging close to seven hours a night. This phenomenon underscores the importance of effective, efficient time management in pursuit of balance and boundaries between professional intensity and personal well-being.
Harvard Business Review’s writeup of the study emphasizes the "relentless" nature of a CEO's job, underscoring the need for these executives to adopt a disciplined approach akin to elite athletes. In order to sustain and meet the demands of their roles, it’s not just a priority but a necessity to carve out and protect time for health, fitness, and rest.
For senior leaders, the takeaway is clear—a nuanced approach to time management is crucial. Recognizing the complexities of their roles, they must proactively allocate time for professional obligations and personal well-being. The study suggests that protecting personal time is not a luxury but a necessity, enabling senior leaders to sustain the intensity of their roles over the long term.
Sharpen the Ax First
As I considered these findings, I was reminded of a famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening the ax."
I love the pragmatism of this quote. When we make time to care for our tools—especially our minds, bodies, and souls—they reward us with efficient performance when we need them the most. They save us precious time, in effect creatingmore time. On the other hand, if we neglect them, they might not do their job very well when we do need them, thereby wasting valuable time. Or, in a worse scenario, they might even break down—causing us to lose time or find ourselves idling while we recover.
While it takes planning, effort, and even humility to change how we do things, neglecting to care for ourselves is virtually effortless. It should be no surprise that we routinely choose to forego all kinds of important self-care, even when we know that our inattention leads to less productivity, less efficiency, or even a less fulfilling life.
The price of cutting ourselves short can be high, but the good news is that we don’t have to live that way forever, even if that’s our habit today. We have to start and continue taking a few steps at a time. One day after another, a little bit of mindful effort goes a long way toward leading a more values-based, productive, balanced, and fulfilling life.
As you’re considering your habits and time management, consider how you can pivot. You might begin by asking yourself questions like:
Where am I neglecting myself? What are the consequences of that negligence?
How could my life and work improve if I invested in myself?
When can I set aside time to “sharpen my ax”? Can I block this time on my calendar regularly?
What new habit would I like to form? What’s stopping me from doing it today or this week?
Do I need help clarifying my priorities and managing time efficiently? Is there someone I can reach out to for support?
These aren’t easy questions to think through, but as the Harvard study demonstrated, it is possible to strike that delicate balance between professional demands and personal well-being. Still, a more sustainable and fulfilling professional journey necessitates a more disciplined approach.