Finding time

If there is one sentence I have heard the most as an excuse in my career, it would be “I didn’t have the time to get to it”. This would be totally fine if it came from someone who had to do multiple jobs to take care of their family, or something along similar lines. But no – I am talking about people with one job that pays reasonably well. They are truly sorry about it most of the time too – they wanted it done and perhaps even wanted to do more tasks than the one they are referring to at the moment. Corporate world is full of them – and I was one of them .

To add to their woes – since they can’t find time to do everything on their plate, then they start worrying that this is detrimental to their family life, their career progression and general sanity . All of which may be true too in many cases.

Heroics do get rewarded in the corporate world – some of these folks get promoted to senior roles and the time crunch becomes even more acute for them. Eventually some find the way out of this , and unfortunately several just burn out or at least hit their Peter principle limits.

I want to share some thoughts on how to find the time that appears so elusive

I work under two constraints – 1. Big and small decisions both tax the brain 2. Brain only has finite capacity to make quality decisions

Picking the right shoes to wear, deciding what to order at Starbucks, deciding who to promote in your team, deciding how to message bad news to your client – these are all decisions that we need to make, sometimes on the same day. And we need some reserve capacity to deal with the inevitable surprises ( like Starbucks is out of green tea , your favorite promotion candidate has taken another job at your competitor ) that need quick thinking.

So the way I approach this is to minimize new decisions I need to make. Have a process with default values for routine decision making (For me – If I have a standard simple order for Starbucks , and a go to pair of shoes ).

Next, I tier decisions into A,B,C .

A level problems – the ones that move he needle, and ones I am uniquely qualified to solve – needs high quality thinking . These are like deciding on the next promotion candidate, or what school to enroll your kid . That needs focus without distraction , and probably a lot of data collection when time permits. Thankfully this is the minority of all decisions you need to take . So all the surplus thinking/doing capacity you make by having good strategies on B and C can be used for A.

B level problems are ones you can take the help of someone else to decide, and your value add is in quality assurance . The solutions are not unique, and are minor variations of things we already know how to do. In my world, a routine proposal response doesn’t need my time to draft – that can be delegated to my team. My value add is in the review process and providing guard rails.

For this to work – What is a B decision for me must be an A decision for who I delegate to . If it’s a B problem for me , and it’s a B problem for the team I pass it on to – then it will just keep getting delegated till someone who looks at it as an A problem gets it. When this happens – the right question to ask and solve for is why I was the one to be asked to solve it in the first place.

Then there are the C decisions – low risk and low reward types. Here I run on autopilot as my default option. If the Starbucks line is long, I am happy to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine and move on. But if I can’t find anything at all – I am happy to move on with no beverage too. FYI emails that have no explicit request for you to act is a C problem. Ignore it (or glance at it ) and move on .

Know your available time so that you can optimize it . For me – that means I decide upfront all the personal activities I won’t compromise on like picking my kiddo from school when I am not traveling, sleeping 7-8 hours every day, tending to my garden on weekends , reading a book etc . Those are explicitly marked as blocked time on my calendar . So I know exactly how much time I have left to tackle the problems I know of . I also block some time every day for potential A level problems . If none seem to appear by previous night, I will release the block to do something else.

Convert as many A problems to B problems to give yourself even more capacity . It’s an A problem because you are uniquely qualified to solve it. Start involving your team in those decisions so that they know how to do it too and then you can make it a B problem for you and an A problem for them. When most of your erstwhile A problems become B problems, and your boss agrees that is the case – then you are ready for your next role!

In your quest to optimize your life and career, please don’t overlook what’s on your team’s plate. If you delegate more than they have skills and capacity for – you still have the same problem as before , but now instead of just your boss hating you – your team hates you too 🙂

Control what gets into your plate . Since in most cases we can’t choose who our bosses are – it’s not unusual to get a lot more work than we can reasonably do with quality. Over time – and it takes significant time and effort – you need to cultivate the ability to say NO to things you know clearly that you can’t add value to.

A few things that have worked well for me here

1. Give my boss clear visibility on what my team is capable of . So some jobs that come to you , can go to your team instead without the boss thinking you are delegating mindlessly

2. Do an extraordinary job of A level problems so that you accumulate goodwill that can be used for when you say NO

3. Have absolute mastery over routine blocking and tackling so that it does not appear that you are spending a lot of non value adding time . Use delegation , automation, default values etc to your advantage

4. When unforeseen priority comes up – give a quick heads up to the boss on what you are reprioritizing. This gives a chance for the boss to rearrange it for you and have clear expectations on the trade off.

What do you do with all the extra capacity you hopefully created ?

1. Spend it on making more A problems converted to B problems and eventually C problems

2. Sleep more . Take your significant other out for something fun . Go for a walk with your puppy . Meet people . Unplug from the digital world. Give your brain a break

3. Learn something new . Teach something you know

4. When you are ready – and only then, take on the next A level problem new into your plate !

Parting shot

Even with all the best strategies and intentions, not every day and week will feel the same about having time. So you need to be ready for the unknowns life throws at you. But if 80% of the time you have a structure to solve the problems – you hopefully have enough capacity left in your brain to tackle the 20% that comes from left field .

(Cross-posted @ Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small)

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General Manager of AI,Analytics,IOT and Watson Health for North America in IBM GBS . Proud Alum of University of Kerala . Geek, Engineer , Blogger and dog lover . Previously senior executive at SAP and MongoDB.

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