There has been a constant throughout my career of managing teams and coaching executives, “I don’t have the time to do the things that I know I should be doing.” Other common catchphrases to listen for are, “I don’t have any bandwidth,” “I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” and “If you’ve ever gone to the circus and watched the guy spinning plates on sticks where he has to keep spinning plates to keep the momentum going or all the plates will crash, that’s me.” While I’m always amazed that work has magically found a way to demand 110% out of everyone, I’m also saddened at times to see someone fight so hard to maintain a miserable status quo. It forces me to ask where are you spending all that precious time?
A typical engagement begins where I ask the client to lay out their schedule detailing where they spend their time throughout the week, what they produced by the end, and what impact that had on the overall organization. In most cases, they can tie their efforts back to the overall mission with a slight melancholy knowing that as hard as they’ve been killing themselves at work, that it made very little of an impact. More depressing is the rare occasion where they cannot point to any tangible benefit for the exhaustive efforts that they went through.
The exercise is then closed with how they define value for their role which gets very visionary and inspirational. They describe great topics of meeting with partners to open up new growth opportunities, researching trends to establish organizational strategies for long-term sustainability, and coaching their team through decisions so that they have the perspective and experience to become the next wave of executives. The definition of value is different for every person and role, but the constant is that they struggle to find time to dedicate to focusing on these high-value items.
Later analyzing work calendars and schedules a continued trend arises that shows most of their time is spent on maintenance tasks. Ranging from multiple staff meetings and metric reviews to approving timecards and extensive nitpicking over the next quarterly business review deck. Steven Covey became a millionaire many times over addressing this same topic in his capstone courses of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “First Things First” on people focusing the bulk of their time and efforts on low-value tasks. Taken from both of these works is his big rocks analogy that people tend to fill their lives up with the smaller value rocks or tasks and then do not have time for the larger rocks or significant items because their capacity has reached its maximum.
This focus will be related but shifted to looking at this through the view of maintenance tasks and growth tasks. While both are necessary and important, an imbalance of one dominates the other until it is close to extinction. This is routinely experienced where someone gets overwhelmed in maintenance tasks and has no available time left to dictate the future.
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