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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

helping a boss manage his time better ... my time management rant

A reader writes:

How do you put order/structure to a boss’s calendar that is out of control with constant meetings and no time to get any work done? Due to downsizing, etc., he oversees three departments now instead of just one. My boss has meetings on top of meetings on top of meetings, many of which he requests. I block off “Office Time” on his calendar and those times only get bumped for more meetings. I simply must help him take control of his work days, but can’t figure out where to start. HELP?

You've come to the right place on this one. I'm obsessed with this topic.

At its core, good time management is about clarity – clarity about what the person is there to accomplish. I'm assuming that your boss has important things he must accomplish other than sitting in meetings, right? But his schedule indicates that he is not being honest with himself about how he allocates his time and that he's not applying the necessary level of rigor required to have his time reflect his priorities. He has a lot of company in being that way.

Obviously, there's only a finite amount of time in the day. That means that people with lots of demands on their time need to pick and choose what they will and won't do. When people refuse to make those decisions, often because they aren't being honest with themselves about the fact they can't do it all, they still end up not doing it all -- but since they won't make deliberate decisions about what won't get done, they instead end up letting those undone items get picked by default. And that's no good. If some things aren't going to get done, it's far better to choose those things strategically, not just wait to see what's undone at the end of the week.

People who mismanage their time are people who aren't thinking clearly and logically about this. Just because there are a lot of things you'd like to do, or that you should do, doesn't mean that you can do them all. People who refuse to recognize this reality will find themselves overextended, stressed out, and often neglecting high priorities in favor of lesser ones. This can turn someone who should be a high performer into a weaker performer, all because of fuzzy thinking about priorities, time management, and what's realistic.

Ultimately it's about being brutally honest in response to this question: Since we can see there isn't time to do everything, what things can you decide to cut out? Most people in this situation initially respond, "I need to do it all." But what they keep forgetting is that they aren't doing it all now. It's not happening, because it's not possible. Like with your boss, they're not getting to everything, and often some of what doesn't get tended to is more important than what their time is getting spent on. So since you can't do it all anyway, you need to pick consciously and deliberately, not leave those choices to chance.

So. Where does that leave you with your boss? You have the right idea about scheduling your boss appointments with himself -- work blocks that are deliberately built into his schedule. But your boss is then overriding this by letting those work blocks get bumped. So you need to sit down with your boss and talk straightforwardly about what's happening.

Your boss needs to be honest with himself and decide whether or not he's committed to having room in his schedule for this. If he is, point out to him that he's been routinely sacrificing that need and that you're both going to need to more strongly commit to protecting that time from intrusions. This is a painful concept for people when they first grapple with it, and if he agrees too quickly, it means he's not fully processing it -- so tell him, "Look, this sounds easy now, but in practice, things are going to come up that will tempt you to backtrack. I think we need to agree that we will protect these work blocks at all costs, except in very unusual cases."

If he's logical, he's going to see the reason in this. If he's not logical, well, good luck with that. You may not be able to change him much.

(By the way, I also wonder whether your boss really needs to be in all those meetings. I'm skeptical of most meetings, let alone a day or week packed with them to the exclusion of all else. Your boss may need to delegate more, or say no more things, or teach his staff to use his time better. And if all the meetings truly are necessary, then it sounds like your boss's job is more than a one-person job, which means that either his job description needs to be pared down or he needs to compromise on issues like how much he'll involve himself in certain areas. But trying to magically do it all, when it can't all be done, guarantees he'll fail at some of it.)


Melanie said...

For meetings requested by others, are they higher ups or your manager's subordinates? If it is subordinates, try making some rules.

For example:

1. Requesters must let you know the major discussion points before the meeting is scheduled (this ensures no time wasters).

2a. Assess meeting requests by importance and urgency. I find the important/urgent matrix useful, i.e. : A. important and urgent, B. Important but not urgent, C. Urgent but not important, D. Not important and not urgent.

2b. The goal is that most meetings on a day-to-day basis should be either priority A or B, so your manager isn't wasting time with unimportant 'stuff'.

2c. Don't be afraid to schedule C priority meetings out a little. Or even can D priority meetings completely.

2d. And remember that C & D meetings can always be rescheduled to accommodate urgent and/or important meetings.

2e. Also remember to reassess meeting priority as you work with each day's or week's schedule. Something that isn't important or time critical today may become so tomorrow...

3. Make meetings shorter. The default length for meetings should be 45 mins instead of 1 hour. Shoot for 30 mins if possible. Topics often expand to the time allocated to them, so this encourages meeting holders to be consice.

2 & 3 can also work for meetings that your manager requests; Get him into the habit of letting you know the importance and time criticalness of the meeting when he asks you to schedule it.

You could also try not just blocking out 'Office Time', but also some 'Last minute meeting time' each day for those absolutely-positively-must-have-this-meeting-NOW meetings.

Hope this helps.

Melanie said...

Oh, another rule for subordinates:

All meeting requests to come through you, not your manager. And you will need to educate your manager to say "give my assistant a call" when someone catches him on the fly with a meeting request.

For you to properly manage and add value to his schedule, he needs to trust and delegate this task to you. If this is beyond your manager's comfort level, you could suggest that you review all meeting requests with him for urgency/importance before they are scheduled.

Rebecca said...

The OP did say that the boss used to oversee just one department and now oversees three... is it possible he's still getting his bearings with the two new departments?

Anonymous said...

Yes, my boss is still learning the new departments which involves a lot of additional meetings.

I will speak to him about his delegating his calendar to me for proper management. This advice has been very helpful. Based on this information I've determined:

1) My boss needs his subordinates to better manage his time with fewer weekly informational the very least shorter weekly meetings.
2) We must assess meeting importance to avoid time waters.

Yes, he is doing more than one person can realistically handle, but this is the hand he has been dealt, so if we take your advice we need to:

(a) strategically determine what will not get done
(b) decide how much time he will involve himself in certain areas.
(c) block out office time on his calendar and strictly enforce those times

Ironically, I will now schedule a 30 minute bi-weekly meeting with him to put a plan in place to review and prioritize his calendar three weeks out. We will discuss pending projects and what meetings he anticipates he'll need to attend that aren't already on his calendar. We'll discuss what meetings are flexible and which are not, as well as changes in priorities as a result of pending projects or restructing of the department.

Communication is key! My boss and I both are looking forward to taking control of his time again, rather than letting it control him.

Kimberley said...

I agree with Melanie - all meeting requests should go through you.

Also when your boss is in a meeting, why not knock on the door at the meeting's scheduled end time? If the requesters know that the meeting will end on time, they will get to their point sooner.

Good luck!

class-factotum said...

You mentioned "informational" meetings. Does your boss need to be in a meeting where the only purpose is to give him information? Shouldn't those people be able to give him a one-page weekly status report? (ONE PAGE! ONE PAGE! No more than ONE PAGE!)

I had the misfortune of having to spend hours and hours in meetings with people who would not write things down. (I was a Peace Corps volunteer.) When I came back to corporate US, I was ruthless about meetings. The purpose of my meetings, for which I sent out detailed agendas beforehand, was to make decisions. That was it. I invited only the people necessary to make the decision. I gave them the information necessary before the meeting so they would be ready when they arrived. We discussed, got everyone's input and expertise, and then made the decision. Over.

OK, on some long-term projects, we had to have weekly meetings, but again, ongoing agendas, pushed for decisions and action, finished early whenever possible.

Anonymous said...

The informational meetings are to keep him abreast of matters of which he oversees from a distance. Technically he's responsible for all activities in all three departments (now combined into one large departmet), but he cannot possibly touch every activity himself, so he delegates a responsible party. Then that person reports back to him, so that he can speak intelligently about the subject at meetings with upper management. In theroy, the informational meeting (typically one hour) replaces many hours of his being directly involved with a task. However, one page reports would take-up less time on his calendar and he'd be able to take that report to the upper-level meetings. I will suggest that.

Ethan Bull said...

Something you might want to consider is having your boss appoint someone from each of the three departments that can sit in on SOME of these meetings on his behalf. Obviously, this is after your boss has a solid feel for each department but with someone like this in place, your boss will know to stay on top of their memos and emails as they will be updates or potential problems gathered via meetings that you boss doesn't need to attend. A step further would be to see if your boss would let you sit in his place in the low level meetings if his time is being usurped by operational issues and such regarding each department. Just some thoughts... good luck.