by Achim Nowak

How To Navigate Time When There Is Never Enough

January 18, 2024

I think of Michael Porter as “the strategy guy.” Porter’s research and books, including his revered article “What is Strategy?” featured in Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy, have shaped how a generation of CEOs make strategic decisions.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled on an article by Porter and research partner Nitin Nohria in a 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review about time management. (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 always strategic.

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 two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

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 research that resonated with me. I trust that it is relevant for all of us, especially in a time when Covid invites us to question everything.

5 Essential Time Habits

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.

While we’re no longer on coronavirus time, 1-1 intimacy can beequally powerful in a Zoom meeting. 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 of 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.

WHY? Really, WHY?

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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