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How Great CEOs Spend Their Time

Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. ~Eleanor Roosevelt

One of the best things about being a business owner is FREEDOM. In any given moment, I’m the only one that I have to answer to. My time is my own and I use it as I like.

One of the worst things about being a business owner is FREEDOM. There is no one to tell me what to do! I am 100% responsible for how I use my time! (And I’m frequently disappointed in myself…)

This paradox is like a tiger stalking around the back of my brain. It keeps me up at night. Am I doing a good job? How would I know…?

So when I saw that Michael Porter published an extensive study called The Leader’s Calendar in the Harvard Business Review, I dug in.

Here are some of my key takeaways:

1. CEOs spend an average of 72% of their time in meetings.

I have a lot of clients who tell me how much they hate meetings, how meetings are a waste of time, how the meetings are keeping them from their “real” work. If you are nodding along I have a shocking statement for you. Are you ready? Here it is: Meetings ARE your job. If your role is ultimately to coordinate the work of others, then meetings are where you get your work done! Yes, meetings are an interruption in the day of an individual contributor. But for managers, meetings are how you leverage your time to get more done.

Porter says it well; “Face-to-face interaction is the best way for CEOs to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced.”

So you hate meetings, but they are your job. Do you just capitulate to an endless march of mindlessness? No, there are things you can do to make them more effective. For instance:

  • Agendas (it’s YOUR meeting) Successful CEOs initiate at least half of the meetings on their calendar.
  • Make them shorter Porter says it best, “‘Standard’ meeting times should be revisited with an eye toward shortening them. Doing this can significantly enhance a CEO’s efficiency.“ As one CEO in the study concluded, “Whatever they ask for, cut it in half.”
  • Include fewer people You don’t need a whole department; only include those who have something significant to contribute. Inform everyone else of the outcome with an email afterwards (trust me, they’ll thank you).
  • Memorialize key outcomes Don’t leave the meeting without writing down specifically what was decided, who will follow up what by when, and when deliverables are due!

2. CEOs spend 24% of their time in email!

Email is the devil (and Slack is no better). Nothing can steal hours in your day quicker than email, Slack, text messages, etc. The best way to spend less time in messaging apps (especially email) is to send fewer emails. If you send an email, then people reply back! If you ignore emails, many problems will often resolve themselves by the time you get a chance to revisit them.

Porter sums it up, “E-mail interrupts work, extends the workday, intrudes on time for family and thinking, and is not conducive to thoughtful discussions. CEOs are endlessly copied on FYI e-mails. They feel pressure to respond because ignoring an e-mail seems rude.”

If you spend time in email, then email becomes your job. Schedule two 30 min windows a day and get done what you can. Same with Slack, and other messaging apps.

3. Great CEOs spend more time (43%) furthering their own agenda than they do reacting to other people’s problems (36%).

Other people want to talk to you. Your team, your clients, your vendors—they all want your time and attention. If you respond to all those requests, it becomes impossible to make progress on the things you know are important.

This cannot happen.

Instead, you need to find a way to spend around half your day focused on those things that only you can do to advance your business.

4. Protect time to think and do your work.

Leaders in the study spent 18% of their time alone thinking or working for long (2 hrs or greater) time. Do you have the equivalent of one day a week blocked on your calendar for you to think and get your work done?

5. The average CEO spent just less than 7 hours sleeping and 45 minutes exercising every day.

If you want to perform at the top of your game, you need to treat your body the way an elite athlete does. Skimping on sleep or exercise may seem like a short term gain, but you won’t be at your peak performance; shortchange your body for a week and you’ll be way off your game. Don’t mess around with your health.

6. CEOs spend 11% of their time on what I call “ceremonial” duties.

There are times when you, as the boss, just need to be there. When they are cutting the cake for the monthly birthdays; when they are welcoming new employees; when your top customer’s CEO shows up for a visit. You have to be at those events, but they can’t eat up a lot of your time. Be there, but keep it short!

How effective CEOs spend their time

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