In this article, Richard Spilg provides some suggestions for how busy executives can slow down and use their time more effectively.
One of my late 2017 resolutions was to finally follow my physiotherapist’s advice to take a break from jogging. So, I’ve taken to walking instead – missing the bigger chemical rush from running but getting great pleasure from slowing down and taking time to focus my attention on sights, sounds and smells of interest. That reminded me of the powerful connection between focused attention and moments of insight - which are only attainable when one’s brain is quiet and able to notice subtle internal signals.¹
In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”² Daniel Kahneman writes about our two systems for decision making. “System 1” is our quick, intuitive system while “System 2” is more reflective and considered. “System 1” is always engaged, dealing with run of the mill stuff – which is why we can drive a very familiar route without consciously paying attention to how we’re getting there. “System 2” springs into action when something unfamiliar happens – for example the need to brake suddenly when a cat runs in front of the car while we’re driving along that familiar route.
The problem with “System 1” is that it takes short-cuts and can rush to what we think is the most obvious response to a particular problem or situation. The problem with “System 2” is that it is lazy. Because it idles away in the background it needs to be called into action, either consciously or, as in the above example, when there’s an imminent threat. “System 2” also needs to be engaged when you’re weighing up difficult decisions and assessing probabilities – the sorts of things associated with strategic thinking and planning, probably the most important aspect of a senior executive’s role.
A coaching exercise I typically do with time-poor executives gives them insight as to how they allocate their time. It’s a relatively simple exercise - asking them to list all the things that take up a typical working day/week into three buckets:
- Doing – the day-to-day non-adding value tasks such as answering emails, travelling, administration, non-essential meetings, etc
- Managing – the more explicit aspects of their job descriptions such as managing large projects, managing staff, preparing for and attending executive/Board meetings, stakeholder management, etc
- Being – the strategically important tasks such as ensuring long-term business sustainability, growing market share, understanding market trends, evaluating potential threats/competitors, developing staff, developing self, etc
The most senior executives should ideally be spending around 70% of their time “Being”, with minimal time (no more than 10%) “Doing”. What is always instructive is how that compares with reality – with most of my clients surprised to find that by far the bulk of their time is spent in the “Doing” and “Managing” space. In helping them make the shift to “Being”, I find a couple of general ideas of value:
- Delegating more effectively can easily reduce time taken up by “Doing”. It’s important to remember that delegating tasks that may not be adding value in the life of a senior executive will probably add value to the role and status of someone reporting into him/her
- Managing distractions better ensures more effective use of time. A simple example is to deal with emails, phone calls and other potential distractions in discrete blocks of time. Studies have shown that office distractions eat up an average of 2.1 hours per day. A specific study in 2005 ² found that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption, it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all
- Dealing with the most difficult tasks (the “Being” tasks) when energy levels are highest. Everything we do consumes energy, so it doesn’t make sense to waste that precious resource on those tasks that add least value. So, if you’re a “morning” person, make sure to do the difficult stuff first thing and worry about the non-adding value tasks later in the day, when your energy reserves are depleted
In this age of acceleration,³ we have to deal with more information, noise and change at an exponentially faster pace than ever before. This places enormous pressure on senior executives to make good decisions quickly. However, making the most important strategic decisions – those that will impact on the future of your organisation - requires the activation of “System 2”. This enables you to assess probabilities, envisage alternatives that you weren’t trained to see, consider non-intuitive solutions, communicate and discuss options with key stakeholders, and accept feedback – all the things required to make a truly considered decision. And that’s before the challenge of actual implementation!
There is no way for busy executives to escape the mental equivalent of running in today’s fast-paced environment. However, if they want to maximise the value they add to their organisations (and to their own sense of self-development), they need to find ways to spend the bulk of their time in the “Being” space. That’s when finding the time to slow down will provide the greatest benefits – quieting the mind to find those invaluable moments of insight.
¹ David Rock (2009) Your Brain at Work
² Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow
³ Thomas Friedman (2016) Thank You for Being Late