Know Thy Time

One of my client managers operates “down in the weeds” of the functional team she leads and is overworked and overwhelmed. Her goal is to grow a capable team and delegate. But where to start?

Peter Drucker wrote that effective executives need to, “Know thy time”. So that’s where we start. I ask the manager to track their time for 20 working days so we get a map of what a typical month looks like.

I provide the manager with a spreadsheet template and recommend they set a timer to go off every 30 minutes at work and record the major task they performed during each 30-minute time slot.

I want them to write a brief statement and be as specific about each Task, using 5 to 10 words. e.g. Don’t just put “Sales call”. What sort of sales call? To what customer? Don’t just put “Train Bob”. Train Bob in what skill?

Then I want the manager to grade each task on 2 binary dimensions.

  1. Is this a high-value task for the manager to be performing, or a low-value task?
  2. Does the task energize me, or drain me?

Let’s break each of these grading dimensions down:

  1. Is this a high-value task for the manager to be performing, or a low-value task?

It might be a high-value task for “the business function”, but is it a high-value task for “the manager”? Notice the distinction.

What is the manager’s role? Here is my definition, a hybrid of Andy Grove and Peter Drucker wisdom:

“Increase the output of the team. Spend most of your time performing tasks that only someone in the manager’s role can do.”

So we use these 2 follow-on questions to be more discerning (and ruthless) about what is truly high-value:

i. Does (or will) this task increase the output of the team?
ii. Is this task something only the manager can do?

If the answer is “No” to any of the 2 follow-on questions, it is not a high-value management task.

2. Does the task energize me, or drain me?

Imagine your energy is like a cellphone battery. Is your battery filling up when performing this task, or does it drain your energy levels?

Energizing tasks are often things you “love” doing. You are good at them naturally. You lose track of time when doing them. You like learning more about them.

Draining tasks are often things you “loathe doing”. You procrastinate. They make you feel uncomfortable. You might have mastered the skills, but still dread doing them.

Interpreting the data:

I ask my clients to capture reality as best they can for the month. This time-tracking exercise is not about showing me how long or hard you work, or justifying your importance. It’s about gaining insights as to how to invest your time more effectively and gain greater leverage.

We all need to eat, take rest breaks, and take care of our physical and emotional health, so I want the manager to record those things too. How they prioritize these things is another issue we may need to address. Whether the manager builds sufficient slack into their schedule is also something I look out for.

At the end of the month, we discuss the insights from the data. Often by virtue of “the observer effect“, the client has already modified how they allocate their time during the course of the month. They start to question, “Why am I doing this task?” and identify candidate tasks for delegation.

If they don’t do it, I will. I go through their task list day by day, line by line, and challenge them to justify why they should be spending time on each activity.

It can be useful to agree on a “hurdle rate” to determine if a task really is high-value. e.g. does this activity have a potential gain (or loss) of $100k+ associated with it? If not, you probably should say, “No” to these tasks. (Each manager will need to determine the appropriate hurdle dollar amount for their role).

Our goal is to (re)structure the manager’s time to spend a greater percentage of each month performing high-leverage, high-value tasks that only someone in the manager’s role can perform.

If the person is a good fit for the role, most of the high-value management tasks will be energizing. However, there is always a percentage of tasks the person does not enjoy. These responsibilities often include things like: facilitating meetings, getting commitments from others, following up with staff to make sure things get done, confronting poor performance, etc.

I call these “Suck it up tasks”. They go with the territory of being a manager and “That’s why they pay you the big bucks”, I say. This usually elicits a chuckle from the client about how they are not getting paid enough. For these tasks, we need to create supportive processes to optimize results while minimizing their energy drain.

For all the tasks the manager has marked as low-value, I frame these as projects for the manager. Regardless of whether or not they love the activity, we pick a due date for each low-value task and work backwards to identify what needs to be put in place for the manager to fully hand off each item.

Some tasks they can let go of straight away. Other tasks may take several months to systemize and train someone else to take over.

Some client leaders repeat this exercise every 12 months. As your company evolves, the way you invest your time needs to evolve as well.

How well do you, “know thy time”?

Until next time…