Future Hindsight - Life is No Dress Rehearsal

Stephen Baum

February 1, 2008

It never ceases to amaze me how many leaders cannot give an accurate portrait of how they spent their time over the past thirty days. They may have a general sense of it and a concern that too much of it is beyond their control or even misspent. But the time of the leader is a scarce resource of the enterprise and deserves stewardship.

So, when a leader is ready to take a hard look at how his or her time is really spent, motivated to take greater control of their own time, there are several simple exercises from which I suggest one that seems to fit the person and the position. Of course, they need to be customized. But the Executive Assistant can be a great support in this arena. Here is one of them with two ways to execute it.

Diary Analysis

Professional service providers keep weekly time sheets. It is not only a requirement for getting paid, but second nature. Most important, it causes reflection each week about whether time spent was as desired. For the more disciplined, it reinforces the questions my best clients ask each morning:

-What must I do today and who else can I get to do it?
-Is there something I can do today with very little time and effort that will make a later day’s activities much more efficient or productive or even unnecessary?
- Is this one of the days when I have scheduled two hours of personal time for creative thinking, writing or whatever? How will I protect it?

I am not suggesting that CEOs must keep weekly time sheets, but should have a tight grasp of how their time is spent and where they can make improvements.

So, begin with a look back at the last 30 days. Create a spreadsheet of each of the seven days of the week as columns and activities as rows. What labels to put on the rows? It depends.

One easy way to get a first baseline is to create rows which reflect major, standard aspects of most leadership positions such as (illustrative, not exhaustive list):

-Client/customer meetings (internal or client-facing, individual or mass)
-Internal meetings (functional, geographic, business unit; groups or regularly scheduled one-to-ones)
-Regulatory and compliance meetings
-Public persona/representing the company brand (external appearances, speeches, meetings with the board and with investors, service on boards and committees of other) organizations) – if extensive, perhaps this row should be disaggregated into the major applications of time
-Financial work of all kinds (financial reviews, budgeting, prep for analysts calls and board meetings)
-Personnel matters of all kinds (recruiting, orientation, problem-solving, team development)
-Family time (perhaps separately, spousal time)
-Personal pursuits (exercise, golf with friends, intensive reading, et al)

This list should ideally be no more than about a dozen categories. If one in particular is a major issue (say, recruiting or technology), or if one is a huge time sink (e.g., reading and answering emails), you might give it a separate listing. Significant travel time should be included.

Fill in the spreadsheet for the past thirty days. Prepare a pie chart or bar chart (visual display is often more compelling) of all waking hours with the slices sized by the hours spent. With the chart in hand:

1.What are the patterns?
2.Is this the best use of my time?
3.Is this typical or does it get much worse or better at other times of year?
4.Which activity can I re-think so my time is more effective (my eliminating it or delegating it or better anticipating it or revising it in some way)?
5.Is there one activity which uses far too much time? Far too little? One absent which you wish were on the chart?

Are the rows the best way to keep track or are there other ways to reflect the value you add or to reflect uses of your time that add very little value? What would be a better set of rows?

Time Alignment with Goals

A second way to construct the diary analysis is to make the rows the principal business and personal goals of the leader. Examples might be more specific statements within these categories:

-Repositioning the company
-Sales or financial target
-Talent acquisition objective
-Health and weight loss
-Making sure personal papers are in order (financial, tax, legal, etc.)

The process is the same: create a visual display of the past month or two, ask the same questions about the pattern.

Putting the Charts To Use

Having asked the questions, develop a hypothetical pie chart which you much prefer to have lived for the next month or two (future hindsight). Ask what are the top three things you must do to move in the right direction.


Beyond these exercises, investing some time in learning about “time management and the organized executive” pays huge dividends. But that is a topic for another time.

Stephen Baum © 2008.
You can view his website at

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