Not long ago, I was talking with a senior Executive Assistant who was frustrated that some of her high priority initiatives were not moving fast enough. After exploring various reasons for the slow uptake, I asked her to look at her calendar and calculate the amount of time she personally spent on these initiatives. The answer shocked her: a grand total of two hours over the course of two months, and this was being generous.

In my years of consulting, I’ve found that this disconnect between stated priorities and the actual allocation of time is extremely common, and often happens without the assistant even realizing it. The only exception is during a crisis or in the face of an impending deadline ‑ when somehow the use of time magically shifts to match the short‑term priority. But in the absence of crisis, their schedules fill up with all sorts of lower‑value activities that water down the focus on high‑priority projects, change efforts, or opportunities.

In fairness, a senior assistant probably shouldn’t be spending as much personal time on high‑priority initiatives as their subordinates, to whom they may have delegated all or part of the responsibilities. But delegating is not an excuse for disappearing. If an assistant like the one mentioned above wants to see progress, they need to visibly demonstrate support for the initiative, run interference with other related groups in the company, create a sense of urgency, and make decisions. These, and many other activities, take time.

Through the years I’ve found that there is a very tactical, but unconscious, trap that many professionals fall into: they let their calendars manage them.

Beneath these symptoms lies the disease: anxiety that comes with tackling innovative activities ‑ causing many professionals to retreat into performing more routine tasks they already know how to do. So how busy are you in reality? Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

You receive a phone call from the president of your company. He asks whether you’d be interested in taking on a special assignment for which you have some unique qualifications. In this assignment you would report directly to him, and you would participate in making some of the important strategic decisions facing the company. The job would also involve some interesting travel. This assignment would allow you to make a valuable contribution to the company and also provide you with major growth opportunities.

The offer has only one catch: because the assignment is part time, requiring about a day a week, you would have to do your present job in the remaining four days. Would you take the assignment?

In the past few years, we have posed this hypothetical question to hundreds of employees, most of whom believed that they already lacked the time to do their jobs properly. Ninety‑nine percent of them take the assignment. By doing so, these staff are in effect admitting that, if the motivation were powerful enough, they could eliminate or do in much less time eight to ten hours’ worth of activities each week without negative consequences.

Since most of these people could improve the performance of their current jobs, why don’t they go ahead and free up one day each week to focus on pressing job concerns? Because, if the professionals we’ve observed are typical, many of them are not fully in control of the way they use time. Even though they know they should shift their use of time and attend to high‑priority problems, they seem to be compelled to keep busy with less consequential matters. Thus, although many professionals may rationally acknowledge that they do not use their time as well as they should, they cannot change how they spend it. Why? Our observation is that, to a significant extent, we spend time performing unproductive, time‑wasting activities to avoid or escape from job‑related anxiety.

Almost all professionals escape some job‑induced anxiety through a variety of unproductive, often unconscious, psychological mechanisms – such as rationalization, blaming, denial, and so forth. One of the most prevalent and costly of these escape mechanisms is what we call busyness: the escape into time‑consuming activities that we find less threatening to perform (though much less productive) than the tough aspects of our jobs.

So how do we free up time to do the things we really want to?

Think about how your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule is constructed.

First there are corporate or divisional meetings ‑ essentially command performances ‑ in addition to the standing and ad‑hoc meetings called by your boss. Many of these are dictated by the rhythms of corporate processes such as strategic planning, budgeting, and performance management ‑ and include countless other preparatory meetings. Of course if you are an operational manager or running a team, you also have to schedule your own meetings: staff meetings, one‑on‑ones, town meetings, visits to key locations, and more. Somewhere in this mix are interactions with customers, either external or internal, depending on your job.

You may also be invited to staff meetings and various project review meetings which may or may not be about your own priorities.. On top of all this is the time required to actually accomplish your day‑to‑day job ‑ reviewing reports, reading spreadsheets, preparing and modifying presentations, and the like. Finally ‑ if you’re really well‑organized ‑ you might devote a little time to “thinking and planning” (although not much in the formal sense), your family, and other non‑work pursuits.

Collectively, the demands we face at work are daunting and require constant juggling and trade‑offs. Much of this juggling is done often with the assistance of electronic scheduling that automatically puts meetings on the calendar. Unfortunately, this method is no substitute for thoughtful prioritization by you. Without such prioritization, the outcome is often a schedule that bounces you from meeting to meeting, trip to trip, and requirement to requirement ‑ without a sense of how to add the most value.
If you are concerned that your calendar is managing you, here’s how to start taking back control.
First, do a calendar analysis. Examine the events and activities described above that apply to you, and find out how much time you are really spending on the areas where your presence will make a difference. If that’s not enough, conduct a zero‑based reconstruction of your calendar to reflect a better balance of value‑adding time. To do this, start by designating specific times that you will devote to your highest priorities, even if you’re not sure how you will use those times. If you find later that you won’t need all of those slots, you can change them. But if you don’t save them now, you’ll lose that choice. Next, build your calendar from the ground up. Add in the mandatory meetings that you have to attend that also add value, such as decision‑making meetings or customer visits.

These tough questions may be worth addressing with your boss, your team, or with a coach. But if you don’t address them, and continually try to zero‑base your schedule, it will end up managing you (instead of the other way around).

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.

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