Tell Me About Your Day

Here’s something people often say in companies when you ask them what they accomplished last week, last month, or last year:

“A lot of time is taken up by everyday stuff.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the everyday stuff? Is the work being produced commensurate with the expense?

A few years ago I wrote a post called Too Busy To Save Your Company. I refer to this post often when I am asked to look at a company and comment on why it is not as productive as it should be. It can be a consulting or investment meeting, but when I see lots of people running around or pounding on keyboards but an income statement in decline, I usually start by asking a few key people in the company to describe their days to me.

They often tell me that they spend a lot of time going to meetings and responding to email. When I remind them that meetings and email are not tasks, they are tools for accomplishing tasks, there is often an “Aha Moment.” That’s when I know we can make some progress.

You are wasting time. It is inevitable. How do I know? Because I waste time. Everyone does. No one is 100% efficient. The question is one of scope. Do you own your priorities or do distractions own you? When you start there, you begin to take control of your destiny.

Time management is neither a touchy-feely topic nor a chokehold on creativity. It is how you allocate your most precious and perishable resource, the ways you choose to spend your hours. The portion of your time that is discretionary and how you choose to utilize it is the difference between having a shot at winning and losing for sure. Note that I say it is a choice, because even if you don’t make active decisions about how you spend your hours, the choice to squander time remains a choice.

Try this exercise for a week: Write down hour by hour what you do on the job. If you spend an hour on researching the cost of something, write that down. Log each of your phone calls and meetings chronologically. More importantly, note what you were talking about and if any key decisions were made. Be as detailed as you can. If you read an article on the internet write that down, including what you learned or didn’t learn. If you shopped for yourself, chuckled through laugh-inducing videos, or commented passionately on Facebook, account for these by collecting them into small blocks of time. Don’t worry about the confession, you can delete the audit later. Be brutally honest and exceptionally thorough. This is solely for you.

Now go back and look at your goals for the year. If you don’t have any goals, that’s a much bigger problem which you need to solve before this post will be relevant to your progress. I’m going to assume you have 4 – 6 overarching annual goals agreed upon with the people who pay you or your partners, stuff like “increase sales 25%” or “decrease customer complaints 10%” or “launch 2 new apps per quarter” or “hire 15 regional salespeople.” You get the idea, stuff that matters, the stuff that keeps you from falling into the trap of being too busy to save your company.

Color code each item on your time accounting to match one of your goals. Try green for sales or blue for product improvements, soothing colors of accomplishment. If a block of time doesn’t match up with a goal, use a different color for DOES NOT APPLY TO A GOAL. A good color for this is red because it should be a warning color.

If you see very little red and an even distribution of the other colors against your 4 – 6 goals, you’re doing fine and can stop reading here. Congratulations, you are in perfect harmony and have a well-balanced calendar. As long as your company is growing and generating a healthy profit, this post is not for you.

On the other hand, if what you see is a disproportionate allocation of color — say, 80% blue but you have 4 other goals with minimal color showing— you are out of whack. If what you see is a sea of red, either quickly finish this post and get back to work or find another good post about writing a resume.

Now on a clean calendar, I want you to block your time as you should be spending it. If cold calls are 25% of what you should be doing, block 10 hours per week; it can be 2 hours each business day or 5 hours twice per week, whatever you fancy. I know, you work way more than 40 hours, but for budgeting purposes use that as a baseline.

Now compare the calendars. Want to know why you are not making a bigger dent in your goals? That’s why.

Time management is a subject I address regularly with colleagues as a proactive tool. Each time I assemble a new team, I have this talk with the senior people about their own time management and how seriously they take it, manage it, and monitor it. Leadership by example, right? The people who take it seriously are usually much more successful than the ones who blow it off. At its core, it is active versus passive resource management. Time lost is unrecoverable.

Oh, one more thing: Please don’t forget to set aside time for brainstorming and dreaming. Sometimes we call that shooting the sh*t. If it’s about stuff you think doesn’t matter, it might be wasteful. If it leads one big idea in a year, it can transform your business. Leave time to shoot the sh*t productively. The 5% to 10% of your time you leave for dreaming is where real change starts to happen and companies begin to reinvent themselves. If every minute of your day is consumed with scheduled or forgettable tasks, big ideas are going undiscovered.

Don’t leave all your time to everyday stuff. Do stuff that matters. Then dream on.

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on People

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about People.

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It was getting late in the evening, and as yet there was no additional update on the flight departures. At this point Paul was sort of hoping it would go that way. To leave this conversation unfinished was not something that held much appeal.

“What don’t I know that I wish I knew?” asked Paul, knowing that didn’t exactly come out right. “We put everything into this new game, everything we had to give, but the end result isn’t flourishing.”

“Seems like we’re making quick progress with that wall,” prodded Daphne. “The truth is, you already know everything you need to know. All I can do is perhaps get you to rethink it in a different context. Take me through the project from the beginning.”

“The good one or the follow-up?” asked Paul.

“Why would I want to retrace the path of mediocrity?” replied Daphne. “The good one, the big winner—where did you begin with the original Ethereal Gaze?”

“We started with a pitch. We’d been kicking around this concept for a few years, the idea of an enormous war game, galactic in scope, but without a lot of weapons—without any bullets, or tactical bombs, or spleens exploding, any of the normal shooter stuff that was leaping off the shelf. We said we’d try to do it with clever ideas of strategy, mind-blowing graphics, a full symphonic soundtrack, and characters that made you believe they were real.”

“Sounds visionary, heck of an agenda for a library of program code,” lauded Daphne. “You even went against the grain and tried to build something that wasn’t a proven big seller. But tell me, and I sort of asked you this before but it is worth repeating, who is we?”

“We, the team,” answered Paul. “The core design group, the people I see every day who completely know this stuff, who come up with the ideas that make it happen.”

“Cool, got it, then let me ask you, which came first, the concept, or the talent to create it?”

“Why do I think this is another trick question?” asked Paul.

“The last time you thought I asked you a trick question it wasn’t, so go with your instinct. Which comes first, the idea, or those who offer the idea? This is a key starting point, kind of like the chicken and egg thing, only we’re going to solve it.”

“You can’t have an idea without someone expressing it,” said Paul, hoping he hadn’t said something too obvious.

“There you have it, bulls-eye,” declared Daphne. “Not just someone expressing it, someone with the ability and training to express it, and then be able to deliver on it. A team or an individual, it doesn’t matter, the foundation is the same. Let’s talk a little about talent.”

“I’ll try to keep up with you,” remarked Paul. “You have a lot of big ideas.”

“Too many people I’ve encountered over the years in business think it’s solely the big idea that matters,” continued Daphne. “Don’t get me wrong, big ideas are critical to success. You need spectacular concepts when you envision new products and services you want to bring to market. We’ll talk about that shortly. But before you can even think about creating, marketing, distributing, and selling anything of value, you have to have the right people in place to get the job done. Desperate leaders spend too much time worrying first about output. Long-term leaders spend the majority of their time thinking about talent.”

“I don’t know about that,” replied Paul. “I live in a world where customers need to be hugely excited, almost frothing at the mouth, standing in line overnight outside the store, waiting for the product to release before it’s even on the shelf.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, in one way or another, we all do,” countered Daphne. “Great ideas can be thrilling, but they don’t make payroll. Ideas get the ball rolling, but they are overrated. We worry too much about those who would steal them. Getting a product to market that embodies a great idea is what matters, and that is extraordinarily difficult. Products don’t build themselves.”

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Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.