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Where not what matters in time management

What you spend your time on reflects your priorities.


I'm sure most people have heard some variation of this phrase. The implication is that if I spend my time unthinkingly responding to e-mails, the e-mails are my priority. Not what I've stated is my priority. If I wake up, turn my attention to e-mails, and respond to the e-mails that arrived overnight, I may feel like I accomplished a lot, but these e-mails will distract me from the more difficult and important task of writing (this blog for instance).


My attention is diverted by the immediate and urgent. "Distractions are just ways of avoiding discomfort," wrote Oliver Burkeman in 4,000 weeks. This challenge is heightened in any role that requires you to exhibit leadership qualities. These behaviours necessitate a focus on a specific set of priorities. Some of these priorities are not always easy to accept. Problems you're dealing with are frequently particularly difficult; we tend to put these off until they become urgent. As a result, what could have been a small fire is now a much larger and more complex problem.


Yet, choosing what to focus on when you are in a leadership position can be difficult. This generally comes down to a question of where you focus your time. The challenge is that we’ve all built habits that reward us for focusing on the urgent and immediate rather than taking time for the important.


So far, this is standard leadership advice. Manage your time and set aside time for important tasks. Of course, the problem with this advice is that we have a lifetime of habits and a lot of immediate stimuli that encourage us to focus on the urgent. So, how do ordinary leaders respond?


According to interviews and discussions with ordinary leaders, there are three things that anyone can do to help focus on the important over the urgent.


1) Give yourself permission to spend more time engaging with the people you work with.


This does not imply managing their tasks or telling them what to do. It simply entails spending time with them, getting to know them and their goals. This will be difficult if you are like me - conversations without a 'what' or specific output can be difficult, but this is the first step in acting your way into a new focus on the important. According to one ordinary leader I recently interviewed, by focusing on aligning their direct reports' objectives and motivations with the strategy, they liberate significant energy and motivation to move key objectives forward. This is an example of a "where focus"; it is directional and focused on achieving team alignment to move forward rather than on what needs to happen today.


Leadership is a process of setting direction, similar to using a map that has not been fully explored or revealed. When I ask people in positions of leadership what they prioritise, the response is almost always a practical and tangible output. You get a directional response when you ask a leader where their attention is focused. They are concentrating on aligning their team, and they are concentrating on solving this problem rather than another because they believe it has the best chance of unblocking a problem that they have seen. Inquiring about where I should concentrate my efforts opens up new possibilities. What leads to where - the team, a specific individual, resolving a specific bottleneck.


2) Challenge your desire to be ‘doing’ all the time.


When I first started in management, I thought of leadership as providing direction, doing work, and pushing myself harder than everyone else. In short, I was preoccupied with 'what' I (and, I assumed, my team) was doing. As a leader, I did not serve my team well. Instead, I was an excellent activity manager. This situation only improved when I shifted my focus from 'what' tasks to 'where' tasks. By prioritising where to focus over what to focus on, I allowed myself to spend more time focusing on the people in my team and less time worrying about the strategic outputs you will produce - the next multi-page strategic plan or set of KPIs.


According to Hackman's research, what leadership focuses on in teams is rarely the most important aspect of overall success, contributing only 10% to team effectiveness. Instead, where a leader concentrates their efforts on team design, setup, and launch can significantly impact long-term performance. In short, if a leader focuses on aligning the team and launching a team well, with clear objectives and a clear direction, the team is far more likely to succeed than if the leader focuses on what the team is doing.

As an exercise, review your to-do list. How many activities are related to ‘what’ to do, either what you need to do or what your team members need to do? How many tasks are where, focused on setting direction, providing clear direction, and coaching for performance?


Now consider what it would be like to do none of the 'what' tasks and only the where tasks. Based on what you know about your team, which tasks will help them effectively achieve your shared goals? As you ask these questions, consider which tasks you can cross off your list. You won't be able to eliminate all of the what tasks; some admin is required everywhere; however, see if you can achieve a better balance of where and what tasks.


3) Fake it until you make it.


I'd like to believe that I can change my default habits by thinking about them. I can't. Recognizing that being in a leadership position necessitates a shift in focus necessitates the formation of new habits. Developing these habits is difficult. Changing the emphasis of how you spend your time in any role necessitates what Herminia Ibarra (Act like a leader) refers to as an outside-in approach or, in other words, a 'fake it until you make it' approach. We must act rather than plan our way into changing how we spend our time. In terms of leadership, I think of it as actively choosing where to focus rather than what to focus on.


Ordinary leaders I've met who have succeeded in making this change have worked hard at it, often ingeniously 'faking' a where focus while overcoming their proclivity to focus on 'what' until 'where' becomes second nature. You can do it, too; it just takes a little effort to make a big difference in your daily interactions, team well-being, and performance.


Let’s connect. If you found this blog interesting, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect. I set aside two hours every week to make new connections and renew old ones. We have half an hour to talk about whatever you want - how we could work together, your projects and ideas, or something else. It's space for connection. You can book a slot here, and there is more background here.

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Let's connect.

 

If you found this blog engaging, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect.

 

I set aside two weekly hours to make new connections and renew old ones. We have half an hour to discuss whatever you want - how we could work together, your projects and ideas, or something else. It's space for connection.

You can book a slot here, and there is more background here.

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