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"Managing Time" Is Not the Problem

The real challenge is managing yourself toward effectiveness (Real-World Time Management, part 1)



Li #227 Managing Time Is Not the Problem
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ASK 100 BUSINESS professionals how work is going, and 95 will answer “Busy.” My immediate thought is “So what? It doesn’t take any talent to be busy. I want to know, Are you effective? Are you accomplishing anything meaningful?”


While people commonly complain about their need for better “time management,” we must face the truth that the real challenge is not managing “time.” It is managing ourselves.


Unlike industrial workers with a supervisor looking over their shoulder and managing every move, knowledge workers must be largely self-managing in their use of time toward their most important objectives; that is, toward effectiveness. While Efficiency is “doing things right” (easier, quicker, cheaper), Effectiveness is “doing the right things.” Many intelligent hard-working business professionals are shockingly ineffective. Why?


The problem: “Passive Reactivity”


The root of the problem is an attitude I call passive reactivity. Well-meaning people step into the current of their jobs in the morning and proceed to be swept away. All day long, they react to people and circumstances rushing at them. They maintain a helpless attitude about the relentless onslaught of other people’s urgencies and circumstances.


After ten or more hours of constant activity, they step out of the current and think: “I’ve been running all day. I’ve worked hard. But what do I have to show for it in terms of real accomplishment?” Too often, the answer is “precious little”; sometimes “nothing.”


That’s discouraging enough. How much more when they don’t see any way out of their hamster-wheel experience.


As an executive coach and leadership developer working in a wide variety of companies, I have seen this everywhere. The good news is that you can do better than this. You don’t have to accept this as your unchangeable reality. To improve it, however, you must attack it at the root attitude by choosing to become an empowered agent.


The essential attitude adjustment


To be an empowered agent means you reject the helpless victim attitude. You determine to take as much control of your time and activities as you can and direct them toward your most important functions, that is, toward being effective.


Immediately, many fall back on the helpless victim stance, thinking of all the things they have no choice over: Directives from the boss, organizational requirements, meetings, interruptions, and so on. Those are obvious, so let’s face the truth: No one has total control of their time. But that should not stop you from taking as much control as you can and pursue doing the right things.


All or nothing thinking is ridiculous. What if you could get, say, 20% more discretionary time to use as you see fit? What could you accomplish with some uninterrupted time to apply to truly important things?


Busyness does not equal achievement! Don’t accept a hamster wheel existence. The challenge never ends, true, but determine to fight the long fight to be effective.


A model for pursuing effectiveness


I have worked extensively in the world of medicine with both physicians and executives. From the physicians I learned a useful concept that translates to any profession or business called “working at the top of your license.”


Physicians and other providers have a literal license that defines a window of potential activities and procedures they are authorized to perform: From state-of-the-art surgery at the top to taking patients’ blood pressure or having them step on a scale at the bottom.


Are physicians capable of performing those lower-level activities? Of course, but should they? Are taking patients’ blood pressure and checking their weight wise uses of a doctor’s time, expertise, education, and training? No. Further, think of the question from an economic standpoint. Do you want to pay someone $200 an hour to take patients’ blood pressure? Or would you rather pay a medical assistant $20 an hour to do the same?


That’s why there is a constant drum beat in the world of medicine to get all practitioners working in the upper regions of their license. It is too important for medical outcomes to achieve the highest benefits they can bring. And it simply makes good economic sense.


The concept applied to you


This concept applies metaphorically to any profession. Whatever you do, you also have a window of potential activities to which you can devote your time and energies. You could be working in the upper regions of your window, devoting significant portions of your weekly schedule to your most important functions. Or you could be frittering away huge amounts of time and energy doing things of lesser value.

Let’s take Sharon, a CEO I’ve worked with. Like all chief executives, she is responsible for the effectiveness and results of her entire organization. Is she capable of running copies, going to the office supply store, or emptying trash? Of course, but that’s not the question. This isn’t about being “too good” to do lesser activities. It is simply a recognition of the weightier responsibilities a CEO bears and the necessity of staying focused on those.


Working at the top of your license, thus, is just another way of describing the pursuit of effectiveness: “Doing the right things”!


If you are not intentional in your use of time and efforts, your activities will be determined by forces outside of your control, often other people’s urgencies that don’t match your priorities. You’ll be working in the mid-range of your window or below.


Identifying the top of your “license”


1. Thinking time is essential


How can you fight back in the effort to be effective? There is no way without a plan. It starts with identifying the top of your license. Think in broad categories here, not a 20-point list of details. These questions can guide you:


  • “What are the most crucial roles and results for which I am responsible?”


  • “If I do nothing else this week, I must do _____.” Fill in the blank.


  • Remember to think ideally: “In an ideal world, I would _____.” Do what?


  • Consider your own strengths, talents, and inclinations: “Ideally, what would be the highest and best application of me? What could I be contributing to our mission?”


The how comes later. Don’t let a tendency to perfectionism stop you. It’s more like improving your batting average. Making incremental improvements in your efforts can pay off with tangible results. With a plan you can do better than you may think.


2. List activities in the “Important but not Urgent” category


Include things like long-term projects, team development, and — often ignored — self-maintenance. Because these activities do not flash a red “urgent” light, they can be put off indefinitely. They must be planned if they’re going to happen.


The sum of these two lists will constitute the top of your license. This thinking time is often the hardest step, but it’s worth it. We’ll examine next action steps in Part 2 next week when I’ll introduce a concept called “Schedule Sculpting.”


Only you can choose to be effective


Face reality: Who on this planet is concerned for your schedule? For your priorities? For your plan? Who is going to ride in on a stallion to protect your priorities and enable you to be effective?


No one.


Don’t play the helpless victim card. Determine to take as much control over your efforts as possible and pursue effectiveness. Make no mistake. This battle never ends as long as you are a business professional. Dedicate yourself to the long haul and you can accomplish an enormous amount of good.

Consider hosting a workshop


I have created a workshop on this subject called “Managing Your Time for Greater Effectiveness,” an all-day intensive training with options for additional subjects. It can also be narrowed for a half-day or two-hour workshop. Get in touch if you’d like to explore possibilities for you and your team. Li

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