Time is the one thing we could all use more of. And research shows that knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on low value tasks. People can make time for the work that matters if they think deliberately about how they spend their time, decide which tasks matter most, and drop or off-load the rest. In one experiment, 15 executives found that, on average, they were able to cut their weekly desk work by six hours and their meetings by 2 hours.
In other words, they freed up one full day a week. And they achieved this without making a huge effort and without any management directive. Let's look at how this worked for one participant in the experiment, an insurance company manager named Lotta. She quickly identified several meetings and routine administrative tasks she could drop. That allowed her to devote more time to working directly with her reports by listening in on their sales calls, giving them one-on-one guidance, and thinking up improvement strategies with them.
The payoff was clear: In just three weeks, sales in her unit increased 5%. The key to freeing up time in your schedule is to look at your day and identify tasks that are both unimportant and easy to off-load. Research suggests that at least one-quarter of knowledge workers’ activities fall into both categories. Some companies try to help their people eliminate tasks through initiatives like banning e-mail on Fridays and placing time limits on meetings. But it's hard to change institutional norms and workers who don't buy in find creative ways to resist.
So making changes on a personal level is often more effective. To set up your own self-intervention, follow the authors’ five-step process. The first step - figuring out which tasks you can eliminate - requires answering a series of questions. First, list the tasks you did yesterday or the day before and describe them as specifically as possible. For example, instead of just listing “e-mail,” say “sending e-mails to my support staff” or “responding to e-mails from clients.”
How much time did you spend on each? Now ask yourself how much does each task contribute to your firm's main objective? Imagine you're updating a senior executive on your performance. Would you mention this task and justify spending time on it? Next, rate how necessary each task is. Imagine that you've arrived at work two hours late because of an emergency, and now you have to reprioritize your day. How urgent is this task?
Then assess how much value you get from each task. Imagine that you're financially independent and creating your dream job. Do you enjoy this task enough to keep it? Last, ask whether you can outsource the task. Suppose you've been tapped to lead a critical initiative and you'll have to reassign some of your work. Which tasks need to be done by you? Which could you delegate or drop? With the answers to those questions, you can lay out your daily activities on a grid like this one. You'll be able to see what you should keep doing but could spend more time on, what you should keep doing but might do more efficiently, and what you can stop doing all together.
You may identify meetings and routine administrative tasks you can get off your calendar, or you might realize that you're too involved in project planning details. The next step is deciding how to get the tasks off your plate. Start by sorting the targeted tasks into three categories: Things you can drop them immediately with no negative effects, activities that can be delegated with minimal effort, and work that needs to be redesigned or overhauled. Bear in mind that your reports aren't the only people you could reassign activities to. You might outsource them to an external service, hire a virtual personal assistant, or enlist some administrative support.
Now comes the hardest part: delegating. You'll need to identify the best people to take this work on and invest some time in training them. Participants in the study admitted that this wasn't always easy. They struggled with things like gauging junior people's capabilities and managing handoffs. In the end, managers found that the rewards of off-loading were worth the effort. Most participants overcame the stumbling blocks and delegated their work without seeing any decline in their productivity or their team’s.
And they saved a lot of time each week. People said that lightening their load made them feel more relaxed less stressed, and more energetic. As a bonus, junior employees appreciated their new opportunities and began to benefit from being more involved. The fourth step in making time for the work that matters is deciding what to do with the hours you’ve found. The goal is not just to be more efficient, but also to use the extra time effectively. Spending it on the highest-value activities you already do is one obvious way to go.
But two other exercises can help: Write down two or three things you should be doing but aren't, and start keeping a log to assess whether you're using your time well. Some people in the experiment found their extra time was eaten up by new problems. But the majority used it to do better work - for instance, to give employees in-depth coaching, focus on strategy, or learn more about customers’ needs. Others chose to spend the extra hours with their families. The last step is making a commitment to follow your plan.
Even though this is a self-directed process, it's crucial to share your plan with your boss, a colleague, or a mentor. Explain which activities you'll be off-loading and why, and agree to discuss what you've achieved in a few weeks’ time. If you don't do this, it will be all too easy to backslide. Your boss or a colleague may also help you identify people you can delegate work to. This exercise should significantly boost your productivity and you won't need to redesign parts of your organization, reengineer processes, or transform your business model. All you have to do is ask the right questions and act on the answers.