In search of Lost Time
Time is valuable. Are you using it strategically?
A hilltop moment
About 3 years ago I went up a hill in the South Downs thinking of myself as an employee, and came down it pretty convinced that it was time for independence.
I’d spent eighteen years working in some great communications agencies. It was largely a wildly enjoyable period (though latterly with diminishing returns of satisfaction).
A convenient escape hatch was clearly about to open up. There were still one or two mountains to climb internally, and I was in the latter stages of interviews for some radically different employment opportunities. But none of it felt right. What to do next?
I couldn’t escape the thought that what I really wanted was the agency that would come from simply…being me. Applying my own standards, my own ethics, my own practices, my own routines. To work in my own way, and at my own pace, to make my own decisions about how I spent my time.
And this is the kind of thought that grabs hold of you when you are on the top of a hill. That fleeting illusion – why am I ever down there (on the train, or in a meeting room) when I can be up here?
A journey through time
The truth is these journeys are never quite that simple.
I was still six months, a bit of negotiation, a lot of bureaucracy and fifty miles of swimming away from Hook Strategy.
Even since then, the truth is that my employee mindset, and everything that comes with it – the need to grind, to occupy my time, to compete, to maximise – is still only gradually ebbing away. I regularly find myself repeating the unnecessary patterns of employed life: sitting in meetings I don’t need to have, pursuing projects that aren’t right for me, worrying about the opinions of peers who aren’t even my peers any more.
And here’s another interesting thing: at night I still regularly dream about office life, my subconscious perhaps unable after all these years to deal with the absence of structured employment, and the contextual minutiae that come with it.
But the big, hard-won revelation I have finally captured is this: after three years of pursuing this thought, I feel like I have finally taken control over my time.
Those underlying desires that were running through my head at the top of that hill – to go sometimes much faster, sometimes a little slower; to create more; to make an impact; to get perspective – are all fundamentally issues about time and how it is spent.
I’ve gradually, almost aggressively, taken more control over how I use my time:
- I balance my time. I pool all the time I have, and share it between the things I need to keep in balance: creativity, meetings, outputs, admin, exercise, family. Each needs a different kind of space. It’s my job to make the right space for each.
- I create time zones. I schedule everything. Not just meetings. It’s the things that get knocked aside by meetings that need scheduling the most, and defending.
- I focus in sprints. Most tasks, most conversations, most projects, will expand to the time allowed for them. Very little quality is lost, in most cases, from going faster. Sometimes people need time to absorb, reflect, chatter – but that should happen in between sprints, not in them.
- I say no. Very rarely to requests, or favours, or opportunities – but quite often to bad habits, additional steps, and other forms of wasted effort that break the flow of getting things done.
The result is I am getting more of everything done than I ever have before.
Taking back control
As a strategist, I get to learn a lot about how different organisations use their time.
The truth is that as business, employees or managers, the single biggest thing that we do is aggregate the time of talented people with highly specific and valuable skills, and then deploy that time to the places of maximum advantage.
In the case of most individuals and most businesses that I encounter, we do not do that very well. And the impact is significant, both for the effectiveness of what we are doing, and for the psychological satisfaction of everyone involved.
A case in point: the world of agencies. In agencies skilled, well-choreographed time is the key asset and the currency both of income and activity. It’s over-stretched, and under-charged. It’s capable of extraordinary feats of creativity and problem solving. Yet despite all of that, it is treated carelessly, and wastefully – and the pressure it creates for some of the people involved is extraordinary.
I’ve seen all kinds of proposed solutions to the time problem, many of them in the form of software that immediately starts developing its own time hunger.
But the biggest improvements I’ve seen always come from strategic intent. Intentional decisions about how time is and isn’t used, linked to value.
Some questions to ask yourselves:
- Is your time zoned? Do you know what balance of time is right for your team to create value? What kind of time does each thing need? What else do you, and they, need to spend time on to be happy?
- Is your time zoned? Is there a logic and a shape to it? Or is it just a series of accidents, an explosion in Outlook? Are you passing that on to your team?
- Are you focused? A task that meanders aimlessly is worse than no task at all. If it needs to be done, sprint it. If it doesn’t, don’t touch it.
- Do you know when to say no? The point of strategic thinking is to create negative space – it’s an infinite list of things you don’t need to do. Make it – and stick to it.