In 2013, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the world was “more dangerous than it has ever been.”
In 2020, it feels worse.
Each day, we’re bombarded with headlines that reinforce our unease. The Corona virus, violent protests, school shootings, rapes, terrorist attacks — it’s just a matter of time before the human race implodes and SkyNet takes control.
But here’s some pleasantly surprising news: The world isn’t falling apart. No ma’am! We’re living in the most peaceful period in history (although the media doesn’t want us to believe it).
Yet, the rate of a specific crime has skyrocketed with each passing decade — the crime of wasting our time.
In AD 50, Seneca wrote:
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
Fast forward to 2020 and this has turned into a global epidemic without a cure. Almost everyone treats the finite resources of time and attention like they treat Mother Nature — they take them for granted assuming they’ll last forever.
Nobody is guiltier of this crime than leaders.
Why leaders are the biggest criminals?
When individuals waste time, they impact themselves. But when leaders do it, they impact others as well.
Leaders often waste time by micro-managing people or by trying to do everything themselves. In the process, they don’t just end up as glorified, overpaid employees. They also become hurdles in their people’s paths, causing delays and increasing stress for everyone.
Under stress, leaders turn defensive, make poorer decisions, and lose the “executive” function. This behavior cascades down to their people who react in confused, defensive, and unproductive ways. Eventually, such behavior becomes the organization’s culture.
A leader’s behavior sets the tone for the organization.
That’s why it’s important essential that they invest their time and attention judiciously. Such constructive actions also cascade down the line to make people more productive and discover meaning in their work.
Here are four simple steps effective leaders take to manage their time and attention constructively, and how you do the same.
1. They Prioritize Tasks
It’s common practice to manage our time, to squeeze in as many tasks as it permits.
This worked well during the industrial era where productivity meant cranking out more widgets per hour. But in the knowledge era, the temptation to do more leads companies down the wrong rabbit hole.
HubSpot, for instance, wanted to try many things to reduce their customer hold and transfer time. But deep-diving into the issue made them realize they were pursuing the wrong goal. They ended up training their Tier 1 customer support reps instead. This task alone drastically cut the wait lines.
Productivity is no longer about doing more. It’s about more of what matters which, conflicting means doing less and giving meaningful outcomes to actions.
Takeaway: Prioritize tasks that yield the maximum returns for your effort rather than throwing the spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks.
2. They Optimize Meetings
Despite being a rampant practice in the corporate world, meetings are undoubtedly the biggest black holes of our time.
Meetings are important for certain outcomes that other forms of communication cannot achieve. But entering a meeting without an agenda is a game of corporate Whack-A-Mole.
Endless meetings make leaders pull people away from work and choke their already-clogged pipelines with more busywork.
Effective leaders also conduct meetings. But they do three key things to make meetings constructive:
- They share clear objectives for the meeting beforehand and only invite relevant stakeholders. These objectives often focus on making decisions about predefined situations, not defining the problems themselves.
- They end meetings with specific action steps rather than making “ let’s discuss further” the outcome.
- They avoid meetings where the agenda can get addressed on emails, thus ensuring they don’t optimize something that can get avoided altogether.
Amazon staff meetings are a terrific example. They begin with 30 minutes of silent reading of a 6-page memo from the presenter. Writing it gives the presenter clarity on her ideas. Executives must also read the complete memo without asking questions since they might find the answer to the question they had on page 2, on page 4.
As a result, their meetings often end up decisive action steps that get implemented quickly.
Takeaway: Let meetings guide you towards action rather than turning into actions themselves.
3. They Focus on the Right Metrics
It’s not leaders’ fault that they want their fingers in every pie. People expect them to stay on top of everything.
Effective leaders align the entire team or company on specific OKRs — Objectives and Key Results. In such a system, everyone knows what objectives to achieve and the SMART key results to monitor them.
This fosters a culture that welcomes feedback, makes people feel engaged, and places the customer at the center. In the long term, such companies reduce attrition, disrupt industries and increase profit.
Square uses OKRs to make the entire company focus on the end-user experience. It doesn’t just measure the number of transactions and revenue. It tracks “the perfect swipe,” which includes the time to complete a transaction, the percentage of successful swipes, and the time it takes for a receipt to arrive after the purchase is made.
Takeaway: Focus on the right metrics and track them hawkishly. Everything else will fall in place.
4. They Value Progress Over Perfection
An ex-boss of mine was a country manager. But he fixated on the color schemes of each marketing creative, often at the expense of larger goals.
Naturally, sales numbers stagnated. And we often bore the brunt of his ill-temper which, ironically, stemmed from his own inaction.
In their penchant for perfection, many leaders repeatedly fuss over trivial things. In the process, people either get worn down or take decisions after the moment passes them by. Or, they end up with so many pending tasks that they remain busy but nothing gets done.
“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. — Jeff Bezos
Perfection might look like the shield will protect you from failure. But in reality, this shield is the weight that prevents you from taking flight.
Effective leaders know that nobody has all the answers and that real learning occurs from doing, not from brainstorming in air-conditioned conference rooms. They don’t just make decisions with 70% of information; they also track outcomes and act quickly to correct bad decisions.
Being wrong is less costly if you can correct your course quickly, while being slow is always expensive.
In a nutshell:
- Prioritize important tasks over time.
- Optimize meetings (and shelve the ones that can get rather than optimizing them).
- Track the right metrics.
- Value progress over perfection.
As a leader, your time is worth $1,000 an hour. Will you treat it like that? Or will you sell it for a pittance?
Focus less on maximizing time and more on optimizing important tasks. This is what it takes to be a leader in the 21st century and beyond.