Time management: why being ‘busy’ isn’t always a good thing

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Blaire Palmer
Author, speaker, agent provocateur for CEOs and their teams
That People Thing
Columnist
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Advances in digital technology mean that we’re now expected to be ‘always on’, but how useful is this in a leadership context? Thinking time is an underrated commodity today – but it’s one that leaders should fight for.

An HR director I know hangs out at reception from 7.55am in the morning in the hope that she will catch her CEO as he arrives. The walk between his car and his office door is the only opportunity for them to speak.

Maybe you’re thinking this is rather a good idea and will start hovering in the lobby tomorrow. Or maybe you’re like the CEO in this scenario, jealous that this guy isn’t already on the phone when he exits his car.

The end of open diaries

The days when senior leaders had such an open diary that they had time for a round of golf mid-week, or simply time to think, are gone.

The implication is that if you’ve got time you must be neglecting your work. If, however, you’re so busy no one can get in to your diary, you must be really successful. Well done you.

According to research published in Harvard Business Review 62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours a week and 10% work more than 80 hours a week. We’re all very, very busy.

We act as though we are paid by the hour and that our value comes from being busy, but is that true?

What are we so busy doing, and is it making any difference?

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence that long hours don’t actually lead to greater productivity.

As long ago as the First World War, research in to workers at a munitions factory showed that productivity after a 70-hour week was no higher than when people worked for 56 hours.

Having a rest day (e.g. Sunday) was also shown to be important. Workers who did 48 hours without a complete day off each week were less productive than those who did 48 hours with a rest day.

Despite this, business has been ignoring such correlations for 100 years.

Time = productivity?

In an industrial company, time does equal productivity. If a worker steps away from their station for lunch, their company loses an hour’s worth of them putting munitions into boxes.

How busy they are and how many hours they do (up to a point as shown in the research from the munitions factory) does equate to their value.

If you work in the service sector, however, or in a support function or in management, this doesn’t apply.

Your value lies in how many problems you can solve, how many great ideas you can have, how much progress you can make (or how much progress you can enable other people to make) to move the company towards its ambitions.

Yet almost everything about the way companies are run keeps people so busy that it is impossible for them to be valuable. We sit at our desks opening and closing emails as if we are packing boxes.

The more emails we reply to in a day the more productive we feel

The same applies to most other activities that fill the diary. Senior managers spend approximately 37% of time in meetings.

According to research my company commissioned, the vast majority of those managers feel most of that is wasted and contributes nothing to the company.

Frankly, you may as well be sorting out your sock drawer for all the value you’re creating - although you may not be able to convince your boss to see it that way. This is clearly a flawed state of affairs.

Forward-thinking businesses are experimenting with revolutionary ideas about how to structure and organise their company to release as much brainpower as possible.

They are killing the working hours culture, taking out layers of management, putting wheels on desks so people can relocate to sit with whomever they need to sit with, introducing results-only environments where it doesn’t matter how long you sat in meetings, only whether you delivered to outcome required.

Re-thinking working patterns

It is surely a leader’s job to question what’s been taken for granted for the last 250 years about how companies are run.

After all, are people at their most imaginative when they are sitting in their cubicle or are they at their most imaginative when they are walking and talking with colleagues in the park?

Do problems get solved at their root cause in a stuffy meeting room during the 10 minutes allocated to a topic in an over-packed agenda? Or do they get solved when there is time to mull them over with glass of wine?

Maybe a revolutionary re-think is a bit radical for you just at this moment (especially as you’ve got all those emails to wade through).

It is surely a leader’s job to question what’s been taken for granted for the last 250 years about how companies are run.

If what we need of employees is their brainpower, the job of leaders should be to find ways to ensure as much of that brainpower is released as possible.

It’s solving this problem that should be taking up most of your time, energy and brain-space. That’s what will make you a leader, rather than just the manager of a broken system.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read Work/life balance: ditch the clichés.

About Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer, That People Thing

Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a "secret weapon", a "business muse" and "that lady who does the leadership and team stuff". She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.

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