by Achim Nowak

How Do People Who NEVER Have Enough Time Manage Their Time?

September 11, 2020

Since the 1980’s, Harvard’s Michael Porter has conducted research that has shaped how a generation of CEOs define strategy and make strategic decisions. So I was kind of surprised to stumble on an article by Porter and Nitin Nohria in a 2-year-old issue of Harvard Business Review about how CEOs manage their time (Porter & Nohria, How CEOs Manage Time, HBR, July/August 2018, p. 42)

Porter and time management. Really?

Then I thought to myself duh, of course. When there never is enough time, how we use time is strategic. It is game-changingly critical

Porter and Nohria tracked the time allocation of 27 CEOs over the span of a quarter. Their companies have an average annual revenue of $13.1 billion. During this time, their time allocation was coded in 15-minute increments.

The basics: These CEOs work an average of 62.5 hours a week. It comes with the territory. 79% of them conduct some work on week-ends. They spend about half of their time (47%) at corporate headquarters, the other half on the road. They are fiercely protective of the time they have with their families. They are equally vigilant about self-care to be able to sustain the rigors of their work pace. They dedicate time for health, fitness and rest.

You may not be the CEO of a big corporation, but all of us are the CEOs of our own lives. Here is just some of the rich wisdom from Porter’s current research that resonated with me and that, I believe, is relevant for anyone who wishes to make smart choices about how s/he uses time:

Know Your Agenda. Not the agenda for a meeting. No, the agenda for your work, a period of your work, a portion of your life. The stuff that is most important to you and your business. The area where notable progress will yield the most compelling results. It sounds ridiculously obvious and is at times so tough to execute: Spend the bulk of your efforts in this area or areas. Say no to other areas. Resist the urge to have too many agendas. Have too many, and none of them will rise to the level of crucial importance.

Choose Face-to-Face Contact: In-person contact with a CEO is powerful time. It holds symbolic importance. It says you, your concerns, your department’s agendas and goals are important enough that I won’t delegate them away. Your business is important enough that I will make the trip and show up for the Town Hall meeting. Yes, we’re on coronavirus time. But 1-1 intimacy is equally powerful in a Zoom meeting. And just this week, two of my clients told me they were holding in-person off-site events in October. That’s how strong the pull of in-person contact is. With proper precautions, of course.

Smart CEOs understand the symbolic importance of their presence. They rely less on impersonal email communication and choose the power of face-to-face contact whenever possible. A very smart practice, not just for a CEO.

Allow for Spontaneity: CEOs never have enough time. Yet many of them know that part of their job is to respond to the unexpected. The larger their business portfolio, the more likely it is their days will be touched by the unexpected. Instead of fully booking every minute and every hour every day, some CEOs protect time every day that is not scheduled. Flex time, if you will. There will always be plenty to do during this time in the absence of the unexpected. More importantly perhaps, this time allows for spontaneity when that is what’s required.

Have Clear Email Norms: Don’t spend an inordinate amount of your time answering emails. Be vigilant about which emails you would like to be copied on, which not. Ensure you don’t get stuck in long email chains. Make your norms explicit. A 5-minute informational update call may be more relevant than never-ending email ping pong. Yes, be vigilant.

Rely on Your Supporting Players: Pretty straightforward and at times easier said than done. Have a great team. Hire folks that are good at what they do and complement your skills. Continue to develop and challenge them. Give them the space to truly excel and do what they do best. And listen to them. Yes, listen, listen, and listen some more.

Claim Your Down-Time: The best CEOs are militant about protecting down-time. That is the time they require to exercise and take care of their bodies. Time to unwind before they go to bed. Time they spend with their families. Time they need to think and do nothing. They know how much they need this time, and just how much of it. They claim this time, and they do not negotiate it away. Ever. Because they know that when they do, they invariably make less cogent decisions. And nobody wants that.

The one area where all CEOs in Porter’s study crave improvement? I chuckle because it comes up so often in my conversations with the leaders I support. We need to do meetings better.

CEOs admit that they get trapped in unexamined meeting norms. Meetings are scheduled in the cadence of a well-worn habit. We have always had 1-hour meetings. We always schedule 30-minute calls. We always do 2-day off-sites. We always invite all business units. We always have a packed agenda. We always review meeting notes. We always, always, always.


Stay conscious of how you use time.

Question how you schedule your time. Question it all.

Leave time for down-time and spontaneity. And get ready to be surprised. You may have more time on your hands than you thought possible.

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