HBR: How to Motivate Frontline Employees

“We’ve written before that why people work determines how well they work — that someone’s motive for doing a task determines their performance. Our work has shown that if a person’s motive is play (for example, excitement from novelty, curiosity, experimentation), purpose (the work matters), and potential (they are improved by the work), then their total motivation and performance increase. But if their motive is emotional pressure (shame, guilt, insecurity), economic pressure (mercenary behavior), or inertia (no motive), then total motivation and performance worsen.” Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi:

How to Motivate Frontline Employees

One question that has long plagued organizations is how to improve performance among frontline workers, the people who actually drive customer experience. Our work with hundreds of companies offers a clear and simple answer.

To show how it works, we’ll walk you through an example. In 2016 the leadership team of a national retail organization asked us to help boost their frontline performance. They wanted to improve revenue, cost, risk, and customer satisfaction all at the same time. (They reached out to us because we wrote a book describing how these performance outcomes would be improved with an operating model that increases motivation.)

We’ve written before that why people work determines how well they work — that someone’s motive for doing a task determines their performance. Our work has shown that if a person’s motive is play (for example, excitement from novelty, curiosity, experimentation), purpose (the work matters), and potential (they are improved by the work), then their total motivation and performance increase. But if their motive is emotional pressure (shame, guilt, insecurity), economic pressure (mercenary behavior), or inertia (no motive), then total motivation and performance worsen.

The retail organization wanted to see how this applied to its stores. So we ran an experiment: We fully transformed the operating model of four stores (which employed around 60 people) for one year, and then compared their performance with that of the other 750+ U.S. stores.

As we predicted, we saw the performance of our experimental stores increase significantly. Productivity (revenue divided by expense) increased by 20% year over year (far more than the 9% increase in revenue that the control group stores averaged); customer satisfaction increased by 11% (the control group saw it decrease by 4%); and sales increased by 8% (the control group saw only a 2% increase).

We should note that this organization is one of the top performers in its industry, so the baseline performance was already high. But we believe that by taking similar steps, the average organization can improve performance even further.

Focus on Learning, Not Pressure

Prior to this pilot, the operating model of the stores was focused on creating emotional and economic pressure to drive performance. District managers would often hear, “You need to get your team to try harder,” or “This is really not what we would expect from your store,” or “Other stores are doing better.” On occasion, managers would use special rewards or threats to motivate better performance.

This playbook is the norm in most organizations. Based on what we’ve seen, frontline employees are among the lowest in total motivation.

To engage the front line at the retail organization, we implemented a new operating model focused on optimizing play, purpose, and potential while reducing the pressure. This required four major changes:

Reduce the economic and emotional pressure. To ensure this front line could focus on learning, we eliminated high-pressure motivation tactics, including sales commissions, high-pressure conversations, sales-based promotion criteria, and public shaming. We explained to leaders that great leadership isn’t about pressuring people to do their work. Rather, it is about inspiring your people to want to do their work well, so they can perform adaptively.

Incorporate a spirit of play by encouraging experimentation. To drive performance with play instead, we wanted to focus on increasing experimentation. Experimentation fosters curiosity, allows for novelty, and sets the pace of learning — all of which are important components of play.

To encourage experimentation, each store maintained an idea board that tracked the primary challenges the store had to solve, as well as ideas for solutions. For example, in one store, a challenge was how to get more walk-in customers. Colleagues could add any ideas they had, whenever they wanted. The challenges themselves were used to focus ideation on what mattered the most.

Employees were asked to choose an idea on the board and experiment with it. Every person was expected to have at least one experiment that they owned at a given time. They learned about hypotheses and about how to reduce an experiment to its minimum effective dose to get a useful result. Each store also had a weekly 45-minute meeting for teams to review their past performance and experiments, without shame or blame, in the spirit of generating new ideas.

There were rules. Experiments had to be doable on the job using only the budget, tools, and time already allocated to each store. Colleagues learned how to focus on creating low-risk experiments (experiments that were “above the waterline” so as to not sink the ship). Once an experiment ended, lessons were systemically captured and shared. There was no pressure for an experiment to work as long as something was learned. If an experiment didn’t work, the team wouldn’t throw it out, but instead would seek to understand why and launch a different experiment.

Create a sense of purpose around the customer. To build a genuine sense of purpose and meaning, the employees in the experiment stores were taught how to connect every product, process, and policy to the benefit and impact they had on customers. If they couldn’t connect an action to a customer outcome, they were taught that it was safe to ask questions until they understood.

Systematically manage apprenticeship. While experimentation is focused on learning strategic or process improvements, it is equally important to manage the pace of learning through apprenticeship. In a culture of apprenticeship, people receive high levels of on-the-job coaching by others who are higher in skill. And just like the system of experimentation, the system of on-the-job apprenticeship has to be tightly managed.

Here’s what we did: Each store was given a set of 30 frontline skills for employees to learn. This included things such as “generating ideas through sales and service data” and “building advisory relationships with prospective customers.” Everyone was asked to choose the skills that they believed would most improve their performance if they learned them. While leaders would help with this decision, the choice was ultimately up to each individual, with leaders focusing on finding on-the-job moments to learn.

We told leaders to identify and share the strongest skill (the professional “superpower”) of each individual on their team. The point of this was to make it easier for colleagues to seek help with learning skills from their colleagues. For example, one person’s superpower might be “solving complex service problems,” while another’s might be “introducing new products to customers.”

Every week, employees would have a brief development discussion with their leader on how they were progressing on learning their skills. Goals and metrics were transparent to everyone so that nothing was hidden.

As leaders and colleagues focused on skill development, performance problems were no longer met with blame and defensiveness. Instead, if a colleague was struggling to perform, the immediate focus became learning and teaching.

Seeing Performance Results

Only a few weeks after this new model was put into place, the teams’ behaviors started to fundamentally shift.

For example, in one case, one of the most junior members of the store led a successful experiment on how to move customers through the checkout line faster. Another store member conducted an experiment on how to better explain a product’s features to a customer. Another had an experiment on how to improve signage visibility.

At an individual level, colleagues started to open up to their teams on what they wanted to learn. Coaching accelerated. People became far more engaged in their work. At the end of eight months, year-over-year performance at our pilot stores had increased significantly, compared with the control stores. The approach is now being scaled across the organization.

Broadly speaking, in front lines today, productivity growth has stalled, while employees are feeling less engaged and more stressed. Moreover, employee retention on the front line continues to be a problem. Too many organizations are responding to these trends with more pressure and micromanagement, which only worsens the problem and increases risk.

Small increases in productivity and retention can have a significant impact on the bottom line. Our rough calculation suggests that improving retention by one percentage point in a 5,000-person front line results, on average, in $2.5 million in annual benefit. (That number assumes a fully loaded cost of $50,000 per person, and a $50,000 cost to replace a new hire and make up for lost productivity while the new hire is found and trained.)

Now is the time for organizations to invest in workers. By implementing a frontline management system focused on driving performance through total motivation, you can build the ultimate win-win.

The authors give special thanks to the following executives and experts for their advice on this article: Deborah Moe, Mandy Norton, Dan Wilkening, Jamie Warder.

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HBR: How to Motivate Yourself When Your Boss Doesn’t

Do you request feedback from your peers and/or managers? What do you do to motivate yourself? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Julie Mosow:

How to Motivate Yourself When Your Boss Doesn’t

Let’s face it: some bosses are not inspiring. They don’t motivate us to perform at our best — let alone improve our skills. What should you do if your boss is too hands-off, ambivalent, or downright demotivating? How can you keep your engagement up and your own professional goals on track? Is it possible to motivate yourself?

What the Experts Say

The good news is that while your boss has a lot of influence over how engaged you are at work, you can put yourself in the driver’s seat. “Employees have more control than they realize over their ability to build and sustain motivation in the workplace,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. There are many factors that influence motivation, but “the most significant one is a sense of progress,” says Monique Valcour, professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France, citing Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book, The Progress Principle. “And that comes from the feeling that we are doing work that is meaningful to ourselves, to our colleagues, to the organization, and to the world at large.” Halvorson adds: “Changing your mindset and habits can drive a more fulfilling, more motivated approach to work no matter who your manager is.” Here’s how to motivate yourself when your boss doesn’t.

Understand what makes you tick

If your manager doesn’t motivate you or, even worse, undermines you, it’s important to figure out what drives you personally and professionally. In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer stress that motivation stems from three things: love of the work itself, the desire to receive recognition, and a sense that our work matters and connects us to others. So ask yourself: When was the last time you felt a sense of meaning and purpose at work? What were the conditions that allowed those feelings to flourish?

Set your own goals

Valcour points out that many people feel they’re sprinting in place with no extra time to tackle anything other than their day-to-day responsibilities. However, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture. Make an individual career plan to help you track your projects and results and set goals for your own development. While some of these goals may be directly related to your current role, others may be geared toward learning and exploring areas of interest outside your job description. Even though it’s tempting to set demanding goals for yourself, Halvorson cautions against going overboard. “Although it’s counterintuitive, setting unrealistic or overly ambitious goals can actually be demotivating because there’s so much on the line,” she says. Instead, set goals with smaller milestones so that you can celebrate your progress each step along the way.

Use if-then planning

Once you’ve decided on your goals, Halvorson recommends using “if-then” planning to stay on track or to handle setbacks. “Accepting that challenges are a part of life and being prepared to deal with them is critical to long-term motivation,” she says. For example, if your goal is to finish a presentation, but you find yourself getting distracted by conversations with colleagues, you might say, “If I haven’t finished the presentation by the end of the day on Wednesday, then I will come in early on Thursday to finish up while it’s quiet.” Or you might use if-then planning to move past a low point. For example, “If we don’t receive funding for this project, then I will rewrite the business plan and approach the partners again.” By anticipating obstacles, you’re less likely to get stuck.

Evaluate your own performance and ask for feedback

One way that poor managers undermine motivation is by not giving sufficient feedback. “Seeking feedback is important,” Valcour confirms, “even if we sometimes hear things we’d rather not.” Halvorson believes that most managers are willing to offer feedback if you ask. You might request the feedback directly and in the moment by saying something like, “How did you think the meeting went? Is there anything I might do differently next time?” You might also look to peers for an objective assessment of your performance. Ask people who will be candid with you and whose opinions you trust. Another option is self-evaluation. “We’re more capable than we realize of generating meaningful feedback about our professional accomplishments,” Halvorson says. “Look critically at your own work and ask yourself the same questions you would use to evaluate the work of others. For example, consider if you’re moving fast enough or if the quality of your work is what it should be.”

Expand your internal and external networks

If your manager isn’t motivating you, it’s essential to look for support elsewhere — not only to boost your confidence but also to increase your visibility. Find mentors within your own company to give guidance and perspective, and, if possible, develop an in-house peer group designed to help all of you move forward. You can also seek out and develop external relationships. Valcour is a strong proponent of online networking. “Particularly for people who live far away from their colleagues, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other networking sites provide a sense of connectedness to a larger professional community that might otherwise be difficult to maintain.” Even for someone in a major metropolitan area with many opportunities to connect, online networking is an effective way to stay in touch with colleagues and to keep abreast of industry-wide developments.

Focus on learning

By shifting the focus of your work from performing perfectly to consistently learning and improving, you create the conditions for both heightened motivation and success. “Research suggests that this change in mindset reliably results in better performance,” Halvorsen says. “When it comes to achievement, attitude and persistence are often more important than innate abilities.” Her advice: break the habit of kicking yourself when things don’t go perfectly and replace it by telling yourself that you’ll learn from your mistakes, move on, and do better next time. “No matter your manager’s approach, breaking away from results-oriented thinking is one of the most powerful things you can do to boost your own motivation.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Determine your own personal and professional motivators ­— you can’t rely on your boss to get ahead
  • Ask for feedback from your colleagues
  • Build a support system inside ­— and outside ­— your company

Don’t:

  • Set unreachable goals that stall your sense of moving forward ­— keep your goals manageable and celebrate your progress along the way
  • Underestimate the value of self-evaluation — look critically at your own work
  • Dwell on your mistakes ­— it’s more important to keep learning

Case Study #1: Cultivate a supportive, effective network

A vice president of human resources in the financial services industry, Lisa Chang* has had five different bosses during the past two years. The revolving door of managers proved to be very demotivating. So she looked elsewhere for support and decided to create an internal network beyond her team. Lisa developed relationships with three senior women in the organization: a woman who was briefly her supervisor before taking a role elsewhere in the company, another who is a leader in the client group she serves, and the chief human resources officer. “It’s unusual to have such a candid, open relationship with someone so senior, Lisa explains. “The chief human resources officer has given me opportunities at every turn in addition to being someone I can go to for advice.”

Lisa has looked to her peers as well but she feels that these mentorship relationships have been a far more effective way for her to stay motivated. “My peers and I are all in the same boat, so most of them wouldn’t have been a great help to me. By looking to more senior employees at the company, I’ve been able to create the kinds of relationships I might have had if I had been working with a great boss.”

While the lack of consistent, managerial support is not what Lisa would’ve hoped for, the situation has provided Lisa with the opportunity to learn from company leaders she otherwise wouldn’t have met. She says: “I’ve been able to seek feedback, challenge myself through new opportunities, and perform effectively in my role despite the leadership vacuum.”

Case Study #2: Stay focused on your own growth and development

Mark Barnaby* has risen through the ranks at several different investment banks, but with a string of managers who were either completely hands off or overly involved, staying motivated hasn’t always been easy. He coped by staying focused on his own ambitions. “Focusing on my manager’s faults just distracted me from my own goals, so I made it my priority to find ways to help him succeed while learning myself.”

He figured out what his bosses weren’t good at and stepped into the gap. “One of my bosses was a big picture thinker, but her approach wasn’t the right one for our work. I helped her by drilling down into fine points of regulatory policy, providing much needed detail in meetings, and being an in-house resource for her. Doing all of this helped me develop the subject matter expertise I needed to continue to move forward professionally.” Developing and meeting his own objectives kept Mark going even when his bosses didn’t.

Early on, Mark knew his growing interests would serve him well. “There is enormous demand for this kind of knowledge,” he explains. “During the past decade, regulatory policy has emerged as a critical focus of the banking industry.” Even though Mark admits that helping managers who weren’t helping him was frustrating, he acknowledges that it was the right decision for him and for everyone involved to approach each situation with a positive, goal-oriented attitude. He advises, “No matter what, never make an enemy of your boss.”

*not their real names

 

HBR: The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Are you multitasking? What do you do to stay focused on one task? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Ron Friedman :

The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Suppose each time you ran low on an item in your kitchen—olive oil, bananas, napkins—your instinctive response was to drop everything and race to the store. How much time would you lose? How much money would you squander on gas? What would happen to your productivity?

We all recognize the inefficiency of this approach. And yet surprisingly, we often work in ways that are equally wasteful.

The reason we keep a shopping list and try to keep supermarket trips to a minimum is that it’s easy to see the cost of driving to the store every time we crave a bag of potato chips. What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and switch activities to satisfy a mental craving.

Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up. Research shows that when we are deeply engrossed in an activity, even minor distractions can have a profound effect. According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy. And the consequences can be surprisingly serious . An experiment conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like emails and text messages.

The trouble, of course, is that multitasking is enjoyable. It’s fun to indulge your curiosity. Who knows what that next email, tweet or text message holds in store? Finding out provides immediate gratification. In contrast, resisting distraction and staying on-task requires discipline and mental effort.

And yet each time we shift our focus, it’s as if we’re taking a trip to the store. Creativity expert Todd Henry calls it a “task-shifting penalty.” We pay a mental tax that diminishes our ability to produce high-level work.

So what are we to do?

One tactic is to change our environment to move temptation further away: shut down your email program or silence your phone.  It’s a lot easier to stay on task when you’re not continuously fending off mental cravings. This approach doesn’t require going off the grid for a full day. Even as little as 30 minutes can have a major impact on your productivity.

The alternative, which most of us consider the norm, is the cognitive equivalent of dieting in a pastry shop. We can all muster the willpower to resist the temptations, but doing so comes with considerable costs to our limited supply of willpower.

Another worthwhile approach is to cluster similar activities together, keeping ramp-up time to a minimum. Instead of scattering phone calls, meetings, administrative work, and emails throughout your day, try grouping related tasks so that there are fewer transitions. Read reports, memos and articles one after another. Schedule meetings back-to-back. Keep a list of administrative tasks and do them all in a single weekly session. If possible, try limiting email to 2 or 3 predetermined times—for example 8:30, 12:00 and 4:30—instead of responding to them the moment they arrive.

In some jobs, multitasking is unavoidable. Some of us truly do need to stay connected to our clients, colleagues, and managers. Here, it’s worth noting that limiting disruptions is not an all or nothing proposition. Even small changes can make a big difference.

Remember: it’s up to you to protect your cognitive resources. The more you do to minimize task-switching over the course of the day, the more mental bandwidth you’ll have for activities that actually matter.

 

HBR: 3 Ways to Make Time for the Little Tasks You Never Make Time For

How do you handle your low-value work? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Dorie Clark.

3 Ways to Make Time for the Little Tasks You Never Make Time For

We’d all like to spend our time at work on high-value activities: setting strategy, fostering innovation, mentoring promising employees, and more. But every professional faces a relentless deluge of niggling tasks — the overflowing inbox, the introductions you promised to make, the stack of paperwork you have to file, or the articles you really ought to read.

This low-value work is particularly vexing in light of the Pareto Principle, the adage — now gospel in Silicon Valley and many business circles — that 20% of your activities are responsible for 80% of the value you create. If you can jettison what’s least important, the thinking goes, you can double down on what’s driving your most important contributions.

Indeed, sometimes you can let go of these activities. But you have to recognize, and reconcile yourself to the fact, that there is a price. Tim Ferriss, author of the bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, advocates this approach. After one extended trip abroad during which he avoided email, he wrote that he had missed a large number of critical messages, including a fulfillment center crisis that caused him to lose more than 20% of monthly orders for his business, media interview opportunities that had expired, and more than a dozen partnership offers. Rather than mourning these lost chances, however, he embraced them. “Oftentimes,” he wrote, “in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen. This is a skill we want to cultivate.”

Perhaps. Though if you work for someone else, rather than being self-employed, the tolerance level for these missed opportunities is a lot lower. If you can’t afford to ignore email or other low-value tasks entirely, and your options for delegating to others are limited, here are three techniques you can use to minimize the pain and get things done.

One possibility is to batch your less important tasks and accomplish them in one fell swoop, creating a sense of momentum. You can do this solo — I used to park myself at a local café and vow not to come home until I’d completed my to-do list for the day — or, in some cases, communally. New York filmmaker Jeremy Redleaf recently launched “Cave Day,” an event in which professionals pay a small fee to spend a Sunday at a coworking facility, plowing through tasks such as cleaning your inbox and writing thank you cards.

Another technique, for those who prefer an incremental approach, is the “small drip strategy.” This involves identifying small blocks of time in your schedule (typically 15–30 minutes per day) and matching them with low-value tasks that need to be accomplished. Yesterday I had to look up how much I had paid my virtual assistant last year in order to get the information to my accountant, so he could issue her tax forms in a timely fashion. That’s no one’s definition of “strategic” or “high value.” It’s a boring, but mandatory, task that would be easy to put off. But when I reviewed my calendar the night before and saw I had a 15-minute window between two calls, I slotted it in and accomplished it. You can look for these scheduling holes serendipitously, or deliberately schedule in a half-hour of grunt work every day, perhaps at the end of the workday, when most professionals’ energy is waning and your ability to do creative thinking has tapered off.

Finally, you could procrastinate strategically. This differs from simply ignoring all incoming email, Tim Ferriss–style. What you do is weigh the value of the opportunity and set your own timeline for handling it. If the timeline happens to work for the other person, it’s a happy coincidence; if it doesn’t, you’ve already reconciled yourself to the possibility of missing out. I’ll often take this approach when it comes to requests from miscellaneous bloggers. I respond quickly to inquiries from official journalists, but if someone is writing a post for their personal blog, I’d like to help them out, but don’t want to sacrifice an important task (such as finishing book edits) to do so. I always write back eventually, but it may take me a number of days, or even weeks. If they can still use my quote, fantastic; if they can’t, it’s only a minor loss.

 

No matter how productive we become, we’re never going to permanently rid ourselves of low-value work. By following these strategies, we can at least handle it more efficiently and leave more white space in our days for the projects that are truly meaningful.

12 Apps for a Better Life

The following applications and websites can be used to make your job and life better. These are just a few of the applications in the marketplace. I’ve used most of the services listed and may be contacted if you want more information.

Time Management

Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro Technique is a time management method. The technique uses a timer to break down work into an interval of 25 minutes then take short breaks. This method is based on the idea that a frequent break improves mental agility.

RescueTime

RescueTime is a time tracking application that gives you an accurate picture of how you spend your time on your devices. This application highlights poor usage of your time. It can also set alarms to tell you how much time you spent on Facebook.

Doodle

Doodle is a cloud-based calendar tool for coordinating meetings. Users are surveyed to determine the best date and time to meet.

Remember the Milk (RTM)

RTM is a cloud-based task and time management. Some of the features are emailing your task to RTM. Also, it can be used to setup tags, locations and integrates with Outlook and Gmail.

IQTell

IQTell is a cloud-based task and time management application. It utilizes the concepts and techniques designed in GTD by David Allen. This application will sync with emails, Evernote and ICloud.

Collaboration

Slack

Slack is a cloud-based team collaboration tool. Slack allows a team or group to communicate on one platform. This platform allows communication without email or group texting.

Dropbox

Dropbox is a file hosting service. Dropbox can be used as a collaboration of files with other users. It’s a good application for sharing large files or photos with others.

Organization

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping is a diagram used to visually organize information. This method is used in brainstorming, memory, visual thinking and problem solving. You can use paper or software to mind map.

IFTTT

IFTTT is a free web-based service that allows users to create chains of simple conditional statements, called “recipes”, which are triggered based on changes to other web services such as Gmail, Slack, Twitter, and Evernote. IFTTT is an abbreviation of “If This Then That”. Here are some of my recipes:

  • If new SMS received from [Phone Number], then post a message to a Slack channel.
  • Email me when the president signs a new law.
  • If the new final score for the Clemson Tigers, then send me an email at [Email].

Evernote

Evernote is an application that can be used to organize data and list by using notebooks and tags. The application allows users to create text, web pages, photographs, voice memos, or handwritten notes. Also, Evernote has a good search engine inside the application.

Trello

Trello is a cloud-based project management system. This uses boards (Projects) and cards (tasks). You can also set up teams for your projects.

Focus@Will

Focus@Will is a music based on human neuroscience. It helps you focus, reduce distractions maintaining your productivity, and retaining information when working, writing and reading. This is a paid subscriptions service, but other music services might offer Focus@Will playlists.

HBR: Is Your Calendar Managing You?

How do you get more control over your time? Are you spending time on low-value activities? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Ron Ashkenas:

Is Your Calendar Managing You?

Not long ago, I was talking with a senior executive who was frustrated that some of her high priority initiatives were not moving fast enough. After exploring various reasons for the slow uptake, I asked her to look at her calendar and calculate the amount of time she personally spent on these initiatives. The answer shocked her: a grand total of two hours over the course of two months, and this was being generous.

In my years of consulting, I’ve found that this disconnect between stated priorities and the actual allocation of managerial time is extremely common, and often happens without the manager even realizing it. The only exception is during a crisis or in the face of an impending deadline — when somehow the use of time magically shifts to match the short-term priority. But in the absence of crisis, managers’ schedules fill up with all sorts of lower-value activities that water down the focus on high-priority projects, change efforts, or opportunities.

In fairness to managers, they probably shouldn’t be spending as much personal time on high-priority initiatives as their subordinates, to whom they may have delegated all or part of the responsibilities. But delegating is not an excuse for disappearing. If a manager like the one mentioned above wants to see progress, she needs to visibly demonstrate support for the initiative, run interference with other related groups in the company, coach the designated leaders, create a sense of urgency, and make decisions. These, and many other activities, take time. And although most managers know that they should make this commitment, they still don’t.

I’ve written previously about some of the psychological dynamics of why managers spend their time on low-value activities. Through the years I’ve found that there is a very tactical, but unconscious, trap that many managers fall into: They let their calendars manage them.

If you are a manager, think about how your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule is constructed. First there are corporate or divisional meetings — essentially command performances — in addition to the standing and ad-hoc meetings called by your boss. Many of these are dictated by the rhythms of corporate processes such as strategic planning, budgeting, and performance management — and include countless other preparatory meetings. Of course if you are an operational manager or running a team, you also have to schedule your own meetings: staff meetings, one-on-ones, town meetings, visits to key locations, and more. Somewhere in this mix are interactions with customers, either external or internal, depending on your job. You may also be invited to staff meetings and various project review meetings which may or may not be about your own priorities. If this is not enough, many managers also attend industry conferences and briefings, leadership workshops, or other developmental events. On top of all this is the time required to actually accomplish your day-to-day job — reviewing reports, reading spreadsheets, preparing and modifying presentations, and the like. Finally — if you’re really well-organized — you might devote a little time to “thinking and planning” (although not much in the formal sense), your family, and other non-work pursuits.

Collectively, the demands we face at work are daunting and require constant juggling and trade-offs. For senior people much of this juggling is done by an executive assistant and/or chief of staff, while middle or junior managers do it themselves, often with the assistance of electronic scheduling that automatically puts meetings on the calendar. Unfortunately, neither method substitutes for thoughtful prioritization by the manager herself. Without such prioritization, the outcome is often a schedule that bounces managers from meeting to meeting, trip to trip, and requirement to requirement — without a sense of how to add the most value.

If you are concerned that your calendar is managing you, here’s how to start taking back control.

First, do a calendar analysis. Examine the events and activities described above that apply to you, and find out how much time you are really spending on the areas where your presence will make a difference. If that’s not enough, conduct a zero-based reconstruction of your calendar to reflect a better balance of value-adding time. To do this, start by designating specific times that you will devote to your highest priorities, even if you’re not sure how you will use those times. If you find later that you won’t need all of those slots, you can change them. But if you don’t save them now, you’ll lose that choice.

Next, build your calendar from the ground up. Add in the mandatory meetings that you have to attend that also add value, such as decision-making meetings or customer visits.

Finally, go through the calendar and create a list of recurring meetings and other activities that seem to create less (or no) value. For each of these, ask yourself:

 

  • Is the activity or meeting needed at all?

 

  • If needed, do I need to attend or can I designate someone else?

 

  • Can this be done less frequently?

 

  • Can it be done in a different way that will require less time?

 

These tough questions may be worth addressing with your boss, your team, or with a coach. But if you don’t address them, and continually try to zero-base your schedule, it will end up managing you (instead of the other way around).

How do you get more control over your time?

 

SMART Goals

The practice of goal-setting is helpful in the pursuit of happiness. Psychologists tell us that people who make consistent progress toward meaningful goals live happier, more satisfied lives.

If you don’t have written goals, I encourage you to make an appointment on your calendar to work on them. You can get a rough draft done in as little as an hour or two. Few things in life pay such rich dividends for such a modest investment.

A SMART goal is an acronym for achieving your commitments. Below are the five meanings:

  • Specific—Your goals must identify exactly what you want to accomplish in as much specificity as you can muster.
  • Measurable—If possible, try to quantify the result. You want to know absolutely, positively whether or not you hit the goal.
  • Actionable—Every goal should start with an action verb (accomplish, organize, increase, develop, budget, etc.) rather than a to-be verb (am, be, have, etc.)
  • Realistic—A good goal should stretch you, but you have to add a dose of common sense. Go right up to the edge of your comfort zone and then step over it.
  • Time-bound—Every goal needs a date associated with Make sure that every goal ends with a “by when” date.[1]

Your next steps are as follows:

  1. Write them down. This is critical. There is huge power in writing down your goals.
  2. Review them frequently. Writing your goals down makes them real but the key is to review them on a regular basis and break them down into actionable tasks.
  3. Share them selectively. Sharing them with those that are important to you and someone to whom you can be accountable.

[1] Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy, Living forward : a proven plan to stop drifting and get the life you want (Baker Books, 2016), 95