Are you stuck in time management treacle? Why standard time management tips don't work

Loretta Brown

You know what the treacle is! It is the sticky, messy, muddle of busy, day-to-day expectations and tasks that takes leaders away from the important work. It's the interruptions, endless meetings, and emails. It's treacle that makes heart sink as you approach the office in the morning. Like treacle, the day traps you, holding you in conversations you don't need to have and chores you don't want to do. You start with the best of intentions, but endless demands rise up and snatch the morning. Yet another day flies by with very little to show for such hard w

Ironically the first paragraph of this article has taken more than 3 hours to write, as lots of other demands keep coming up. I am frustrated by the slipping hours and that the year's goals are no further ahead. Surely we are sophisticated and capable people who know all about focus and prioritization? We wouldn't have got where we are without our capacity to get things done. So why do we continue to drown in detail and trivia? What happens to the work we set out in the morning to achieve?

Reasons why we like to stay in the treacle

We already know how to diary out time and close the office door. We have expensive and stylish planners and time management systems.  But standard time management tips are not cutting it. There must be other reasons keeping us stuck;

Our brains crave connection

Brain researchers know that the connections established through email and social media are addictive. Social contact stimulates the part of our brains that crave interaction and belonging. An interruption reminds us that we are linked to others. Leadership work can be lonely, starving us of the human connections we are wired to pursue.

We like to feel important and needed

We may grumble and moan about constant disturbances but a part of us is hungry to stay at the center of things. Like missing a vital episode in a soap opera, we can't stand the thought that we might be missing out.  It feels great to be the queen bee in the hive.

We do the easiest thing first!

Simple and uncomplicated chores get the attention. Straightforward, busy work can be completed without thinking too hard! There is relief in completing minor tasks. Substantial, creative work requires blocks of time and deeper thought. It is more comfortable to get immersed in the hectic hurly burly of this and that. And we look busy and productive!

We are trained as experts

Leaders have often been promoted after success in an area of particular expertise, having gained respect for knowledge and know how. We are a little bit hooked on the buzz of being able to solve problems. The whole education system is based on success through knowing answers. We are not often reminded to ask wider questions or to pause to think.

Our role expectations are crazy!

Before we take all the blame for the treacle mire, work life has become more untenable. It is standard to "act" for another role whilst maintaining another as well. The average job size renders the most robust self-starter quite anxious. Expectations of what can be achieved in a normal working day have become completely unrealistic.

Break out of the sticky, busy, treacle problem

Just knowing why we are stuck does not always lead to change and tweaking a few habits won't sustain change for long. Change needs to happen at the deeper level of how we see ourselves. When the identity as a leader alters, so will the day-to-day work choices. 

Architect not builder

This is a common metaphor, but a good one for leadership. Is your next task related to designing the house or more related to hammering the nails?  Can you step back from actual construction and connect to the overall design? The architect only visits the site periodically and never picks up a hammer.

Capacity builder not problem solver

Leaders cultivate their people to solve the problems. It is wonderful for the ego to provide answers, but it is a dangerous habit. Is the main focus on helping someone else to sort things out or are you charging in with sleeves rolled up? Developing others takes time and patience and mistakes will be made. Your team will find different solutions (perhaps better solutions).  You become less visible and less immediately useful. It takes great confidence to stop being the font of all knowledge and start coaching others. Give the work back!

Weekly summary not daily detail

Leaders look for wider patterns, gaps and trends. Detail of the day-to-day has to stay in the realm of the designated experts. It can be scary not having all fingers in the operational pie. Are the next tasks on your list related to summarizing, synthesizing and planning? What is the minimum information or data you require to inform the bigger picture and the wider organisational goals? You can stay connected with your team but not to every detail.

Difficult stuff rather than lots of stuff.

What tough challenges need addressing and what issues have been avoided? If the myriad of smaller tasks were finished what would you be facing now? Focus on those challenges and begin the work. Get support around and start collaborating on the really gnarly concerns.

The right kind of treacle

No one is immune to interruptions and demands in work and family life, however reducing the "busy" treacle is possible. The road to leadership success will still be sticky but the work will be on true leadership challenges rather than on a diary full of minutia. Make the next thing you do focused on leadership work. Get involved in the difficult questions rather than the busy tasks.

I'm off to make a cup of tea and then to check emails.

Loretta Brown

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