How do you do what really matters when there are 100-plus things on your to-do list, 99 of them demand a resolution this week, and the list will grow the moment you check your email? At the same time your diary is blocked with back-to-back meetings and your colleague just took eight weeks holiday. It’s only Monday morning and you’re already frazzled. You took a five-hour ‘redeye’ flight home from an interstate meeting on Saturday night and spent Sunday feeling half comatose. This week you have two days away on the road, a one-day board meeting for an industry group, and then you have a mission critical presentation to your own board next Monday and Tuesday that requires extensive preparation.
Welcome to business at the speed of inefficiency. Welcome to the world of fragmentation, acceleration and saturation.
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The scenario above was described to me by a client living on the executive edge in a fast-moving environment. He feels like the treadmill is getting faster and that he lacks any control over the speed or the slope. This contributes to rising stress, which contributes to inefficiency, which contributes to stress: a vicious demanding cycle with no relief in sight.
How can you set priorities when you barely have time to stop for breath? What can you do to not only stop the treadmill speeding up, but perhaps start to slow it down? The key is knowing — and doing — what matters.
When you don’t have much time to figure that out, and need to make immediate changes that will deliver some sort of control over your diary, here’s a quick exercise to establish priorities.
Grab a piece of paper and draw a semicircle, and write your purpose along the line. “We exist in order to …” Quickly write down the reason why your business exists. Then under the ‘umbrella’ draw a quadrant with four boxes. Label them Strategic, Operations, People, Personal. In each box write your top three deliverables. What really has to get done in each of these quadrants? Ask whether doing those things moves you and the firm in the direction of your purpose. If not, revise your top three.
Now look at your diary and to-do list and ask whether what you are doing, or about to do, or scheduled to do contributes to meeting those priorities. If not … delegate it or drop it.
Here’s some helpful tips:
- This first one I heard from Kevin Roberts, worldwide chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi, and a very busy guy. When asked about how he chooses what to do in the midst of competing demands he mentioned a simple rule: “Only do what only I can do.” Delegate away what doesn’t pass this test.
- Be ruthless with your diary and your time. Not just careful or deliberate. Not just efficient or effective. Ruthless. Be clear about the reason for a meeting, the reason for your presence, the time it starts and the finishes and the outcome required. If your presence is not required any longer, make a graceful exit.
- Only fill 80% of your diary. Then populate the other 20% with ‘flex time’ or ‘meeting with muse’ or something that shows you as busy on shared calendars. When you have 20% ‘free’ it becomes available to reply to calls, write up notes, do some thinking, advance the stuff that matters. It also keeps you sane. When the freeway is at 100% capacity it grinds to a halt. Your diary is the same.
- A final tip: stay calm. Exude confidence. Display gravitas. You may be under the pump, but you don’t have to impress others with how frantically busy you are, or the long hours you are putting in. It’s unlikely to attract a sympathy vote, and more likely to lower their respect for you.
You know the danger of continuing at the speed of inefficiency. Before long something or someone breaks. The days of leisurely, easy-paced work are gone, and not returning.
You need to become comfortable with saying no to people and opportunities that don’t align with your purpose and direction. You will find that the more focused you become, the more time you will seem to have.
Anthony Howard is founder of The Confidere Group and the author of Humanise: Why Human-Centred Leadership is the key to the 21st Century.