A matter of time Advice from the Press Room archives

28 June 2017

So much to do and so little time. We take a trip through the Press Room archives to share insights and ideas about busyness, scarcity, and how to stay sane when there aren't enough hours in a day.

Time is the only finite resource of all executives. And it doesn't come back. They have to manage this resource well, not only for themselves but also [for] their organization.

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TANYA OTT: Hi there, I’m Tanya. And I have a problem. It sometimes keeps me up at night. And no matter how hard I try to work through it, I just can’t. 

There are just not enough hours in the day to get all of my work—my “work” work and my “home” work—done. If you’ve listened to this podcast before, you know I’m the host. You might even know that this is my side hustle. In my full-time job, I’m the VP of a media company. I’ve got a couple dozen people in my department. So lots of people, lots of issues, and not enough time. And that’s not even taking into account my husband, three kids, aging parents, two cats, and a sick dog.

And I’m not alone. In fact, the issue of time management has come up so often over the two years we’ve been doing this podcast that we thought we’d revisit some of those conversations. Consider it part therapy—you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed—and part self-help—there are tricks you can use to increase your own productivity and changes you can make to help your employees.

A lot of people—at all different levels in organizations—are feeling stressed. Last year, when we decided to do a podcast on why mistakes happen in the workplace, I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter for people to share their stories. This guy leads [the] communications department of a major university.

CONFESSION 1: I just sent a newsletter to about 1,500 people with a link that was broken. Happens all the time, right? Except the link in this case was to a message from the vice president. And the newsletter is the vice president's baby. He's been in the job for six months. The newsletter is one of his calling cards. He uses it to show people that he's engaged and interested and really concerned about them. So his message is front and center on the newsletter. And nobody could access it. He didn't like that very much. But we moved on. It won't happen again. Probably. Most likely. Maybe a broken link would go to something else. But not to his message. I hope.

TANYA OTT: Then there’s this, from a social worker who works on a very fast-paced, multi-disciplinary team.

CONFESSION 2: I got an email requesting me to simply verify a mailing address so that a foundation with whom I work closely could provide financial assistance for a client. Easy enough, right? Well, that email came to me on a day in which my family was in turmoil. I had non-stop texts [on] my personal cell phone. I stepped outside of my office several times during the day for private phone conversations with family members. I had to take several breaks just to clear my mind and to try to refocus and regain control. I get a call several weeks later. The financial assistance had never arrived and this had created a series of problems for this client and put them in a real risky situation. I was absolutely certain I had taken care of this and went to my inbox to search for proof. And I discovered that email that I had never answered. I spent the rest of the day striking all out. Making many, many apologies and corrections. Fortunately, I was able to get everything back in order without too much significant residual to this client. I spent the rest of the evening, however, processing through all of this with my professional self; and by processing, I mean beating myself up. I don't make little mistakes like this. That was easy. That would have taken two minutes of my time. And it made me wonder what else is out there. What other balls did I drop? What is waiting for me right around the corner? In social work, we have a code of ethics and the overarching theme is—do no harm. Well, I almost did.

TANYA OTT: Some mistakes are small. Others are—well, there’s just no way around it—they’re pretty big. I’ve got one more confession for you and this one comes from someone who….Well, you’ll hear more about her in a moment. First, her workplace mistake.

CONFESSION 3: I was an HR business partner and was charged [with] leading an outsource project for a company and as part of that, the unfortunate part was, we had to go in and restructure and do layoffs. I was in charge of calculating the severance packages for employees. This should have been a pretty relatively easy calculation. I mean, it was simply calculating weeks by tenure and unfortunately instead of putting in a 12, I put in a 10. And so it was a relatively simple error that I made and it ended up ruining everyone's severance packages. The first reaction from employees was, “Oh, my goodness, where's my severance? This isn't the right number.” When you have that by 250 employees, that definitely put me in panic mode and made me really want to reflect to understand how did that happen.

TANYA OTT: She didn’t just want to understand how she made her mistake. She wanted to understand how all of us—at some time or another—make mistakes that really shouldn’t happen. 

KELLY MONAHAN: My name's Kelly Monahan. I'm a researcher within the Center for Integrated Research here at Deloitte and I specifically focus a lot of my time and energy around researching initiatives that impact the talent space and how behavioral economics can help explain some of the issues we sometimes have when we’re at work.

TANYA OTT: Kelly and her research partners write about those issues in a new article titled Does scarcity make you dumb? I sure hope not! 

KELLY MONAHAN: We're taking somewhat of a different approach where we're not necessarily talking about a physical scarce resource. What we're saying is really the state of mind that happens when we perceive a sense of scarcity. Whether it be time or energy, it can even be relationships—you know, a sense of loneliness—what happens to our minds and the way that we think and make decisions when we feel like we're lacking something in our lives?

TANYA OTT: Why did you want to look at this?

KELLY MONAHAN: It's funny, the team that I work on, we spend a lot of time reading and researching and analyzing behavior in the workplace. At some point in time, our director had asked, “Why do people make dumb decisions?” You see competent people, you see people who are really talented, highly educated, and yet in certain circumstances, there's almost a breakdown in positive decision making. We really wanted to unpack the reasons and psychology behind that. Because we have the sense that we're not dumb as humans. But a lot of times, circumstances and environment can cause us to do dumb things.

TANYA OTT: What does the research say about what's going on in our heads when we're feeling this sense of scarcity, whether it be time or relationships or something else?

KELLY MONAHAN: We now know from neuroscience … a lot of the technology really helps pinpoint how our brain is reacting to circumstances. What they've been able to prove now is when we're experiencing a state of psychological scarcity, we cannot help but be interrupted by the constant pull and thought of what we lack. We talk a lot about how you can be physically present, but mentally absent, because you're constantly going through, “I have this deadline to meet,” or “I'm lacking this companionship.” Whatever it is, it's constantly ticking over our thoughts, completely outside of our conscious control. What ends up happening is we end up having to start making trade-off decisions. Do I go pursue this unmet need I have, and what am I going to have to give up in order to take hold of that? 

Let's say I've got this pressing deadline today. But I also have to attend my son's play. You're going to have to make a trade-off decision. You have such a limited source of time. What do you end up doing? As we start making those trade-off decisions, we see [that] our brain fatigues. We become much less vigilant in our thinking and in our decision making because we're just simply depleted. Our brain is much like a muscle and, as any other muscle in our body, with use it begins to fatigue. And a scarcity mind-set really causes us to constantly be engaging in part of our brain [and] that quite simply exhausts us.

TANYA OTT: I would imagine with the example that you give—Do I work on this, I've got this major deadline at work; and yet I've got a kid’s play or a soccer game or something like that—and even if you choose one over the other, you're thinking of the other one you didn't choose.

KELLY MONAHAN: Correct. A 100 percent and that's why we call this a cycle. It's so hard to get out of it because even though you might have made a decision in attending one thing, physically it's still in [the] back of your mind what you may be missing.

TANYA OTT: That's something that, I imagine, most people struggle with. And you're looking at this from an organizational standpoint….

KELLY MONAHAN: I think what’s happening in a lot of ways is because of blurring lines of work and personal that technology has now brought into our lives, it's really hard to stay focused on the main thing. So the very first thing we tell organizational leaders [is], “What is the mission of your organization and then set aside all else.” Because there's so much now you can go pursue. That is the opportunity that technology and globalization and some of these other micro factors have allowed organizations to pursue. But it also is a risk of entering the scarcity effect.

So No. 1 is start with your mission: Why are you doing what you're doing? Start to evaluate from a timing perspective what is realistic. As humans, we have this optimism bias that we think we can accomplish a lot in a very short period of time. Instead of taking and looking at a year or two years, what we do a lot during strategy planning sessions is, start with the next six weeks. Start breaking tasks and missions down to sizable chunks, as that is the way in which our brains are wired to think. We will be thinking much more rationally in the short term as opposed to the long term.

We think it's very important to create a sense of slack in the system. There's a tension with that. It's not just saying, “Hey, allow your employees 80 percent of their time to go pursue knowledge-growth activities.” But what we do advocate for is the recognition—especially as we continue that transition into a more knowledge- and data-based economy—that we have to start questioning commonly held management principles and assumptions of how work should be structured.

Very few of us today are actually making widgets or producing something, yet we structure our organizations as if we were. We still expect people to sit in a physical location X amount of hours a day, even if that's not necessarily optimal to how they work or think. We start thinking from an organization perspective, we start getting into some of those meeting norms. All the time, we set up 60-minute or 30-minute meetings. What if instead of 30 minutes, you do 20- to 25-minute meetings that allow people to transition and start bringing up cognitive capacity before they move on to their next one?

A lot of this is creating almost the permission, as an organization, for people to take a step back, to engage in mindful activities again. We're doing some other research [where] we're finding it just takes 15 minutes on a Monday morning to really start the week off right by engaging in some sort of reflective, mindful activity. What we're really advocating for at an organizational level is giving permission and almost some slack in the system to allow humans to be human and continue to operate in an optimal fashion.

TANYA OTT: One of the most stressful times on any job is the first three to six months. Of course there’s the excitement of meeting new people, thinking about how you can move the company forward. But it’s also overwhelming. Lots of meetings, lots of email, lots of learning—just a lot of everything, whether you’re running a small business, working your way up middle management, or find yourself sitting in the C-suite for the first time.

Ajit Kambil can sympathize. He’s global research director for Deloitte’s CFO program and creator of the Executive Transition Labs. It’s a one-day workshop for senior execs where they come in, think through their organization’s priorities, and how they’re going to allocate their time and their organization’s time to meet those priorities. He says one of the biggest challenges facing these new execs is that their workdays easily stretch to 12 or 14 hours a day. 

AJIT KAMBIL: What we’ve really learned is that it's very intense for executives. In fact, just the other day, I was doing a transition lab and I was asking the CFOs: How much time do you spend reading anything outside of your work? And it was less than 10 minutes a day, maybe five minutes a day. That's just capturing the news that comes on the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. These jobs can be so intense that at times they're going from meeting to meeting to meeting or dealing with different issues. They're not getting enough time to step back and really think through the heart of the problem and focus on a strategy to overcome the problem. It’s really important that they make time for themselves and capture that time back.

We talk about five things that can help them capture their time back. One is screening and scheduling things better than they have ever done before. Another part of it is routinizing and delegating tasks. Another thing that's important is to have a kill list.

TANYA OTT: Let's talk about those and I will just share my experience. I'm not a Deloitte employee, but I am the vice president of another organization. So not exactly at the C-suite level, but it was a big jump for me professionally. I found that I really struggled with meetings because people would put meetings on my calendar and there would be meetings I would have to be in. It took me a while to really figure out which of them I really do need to attend, which of them I don't need to attend. What advice do you give to the folks that you're working with?

AJIT KAMBIL: Obviously in the first 30 to 45 days, you'll get invited to a lot of meetings. It's really important, perhaps, to go to those meetings because you’re still getting to know the people and the context in which you will operate going forward. But after that time, it's perhaps time to say, “Hey, these particular classes of meetings are not so important to me to be successful and I need to have somebody else from my team attend those if it's needed for them to attend.” Now [when] obviously the CEO is asking you to meetings, and perhaps even marathon meetings, you cannot avoid that. But there are going to be other meetings you could probably start declining and stop doing.

TANYA OTT: Yeah, my CEO certainly gets precedence when she calls.

AJIT KAMBIL: Absolutely. In fact, for me too, I have a seven layer list; when my boss asks for something, that's high priority. I've asked my executive assistant, who is very critical to all of this, to schedule calls based on seven different levels of criteria to get to me. That helps screen and make sure that my time is used for the most important things that I can allocate my time to. The same thing applies to the CFOs or C-suite executives.

Having a great executive assistant is really important. Having them understand your priorities really early on and having almost a rule set that they can use for screening calls, deciding who to put on your calendar, and when to put them on your calendar is a really important discussion we encourage C-suite executives to have. And it's surprising. Many don't do that or many don't pay attention to having a really good executive assistant to support them.

TANYA OTT : The other benefit of taking yourself out of some meetings and putting another person on your team in those meetings is that it, at some level in some instances, is a professional development tool for those folks on your team.

AJIT KAMBIL: Absolutely. It's a wonderful professional development tool. One of [the] things we see as these C-suite roles really expand in scope and responsibility—sometimes we encourage the executives to think about taking, not a direct report, but a high-talent person that's reporting to one of their direct reports, and have them become a chief of staff or have a title like that for about a year rotation. What the individual would do is shadow you as a leader. Attend meetings on your behalf and do a variety of things on your behalf where you cannot make the time to directly attend meetings. That does two things: it gives that individual real visibility into your role and then it gives them an opportunity to connect with a number of stakeholders within or outside the organization and really learn what it takes to be a senior-level executive.

TANYA OTT: A few months ago, I talked with two folks who look at the idea of scarcity, whether it's scarcity of resources, but more importantly, scarcity of time is what we focused our conversation on and some of the things that can result that are maybe not so positive in the workplace if we're all feeling incredibly stressed to get things done. You're largely alluding to this idea of scarcity of time and there are things that take so much attention and distract us. One of them, I think we might all agree, is email. I mean the volume of email that we get is intense.

AJIT KAMBIL: You hit the nail on the head. I called email a weapon of mass distraction. You see it all around. You see people constantly looking at their iPhones, looking at their computer, getting distracted. There's lot of research done on distraction and how much time it takes to come back to an issue if you do get distracted. Time is the only finite resource of all executives. And it doesn't come back. They have to manage this resource well, not only for themselves but also [for] their organization.

One of the ways I manage my email, probably to the frustration of some of my colleagues, is I only respond to emails at certain times of the day. I block off email time and the rest of the time, I choose to focus on what I need to get done and then I'll get back to an email toward the end of the day. I think it's important for folks to say, you know, technology for the first time allows us all this connectivity, but at the same time, it doesn't mean we have to instantaneously respond. It may be better if we take some time to think through our responses and not get caught up in this email cycle.

TANYA OTT: It’s all about setting boundaries. In our work lives and our personal lives. Many of us have an overwhelming need to take some time to de-stress. It’s pretty ironic that when I tried to dial up two people who’ve spent a lot of time researching mindfulness and how it can help in the workplace, we had so many technical difficulties it was maddening! There was an echo on the phone line, then feedback. Ah, technology! We all took a day or two to breathe deeply, then tried to connect again; from different phones.

TANYA OTT: Okay, can you hear me? Can you hear me?


TANYA OTT: Great. Okay, Duleesha, can you hear me okay?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Yeah, I can hear you well.

TANYA OTT: Fantastic and you guys both sound really clear. That is what we like to hear. Thank you so much, Maggie, for setting up the alternate conference call. Do we call this the Amish conference call—it's the old landline?

MAGGIE WOOLL: Yeah, exactly! 

TANYA OTT: Sometimes, you just gotta go with that. Okay, we've already done all the preamble stuff before in terms of explaining how this works. I ask them both to introduce themselves. This time without the vintage reverb.

MAGGIE WOOLL: Hi, I'm Maggie Wooll and I lead eminence development for the Center for the Edge. I came out of Consulting and Strategy and Operations, working also with tech companies. At some point, I decided I no longer wanted to do that. I left Deloitte and spent a few years writing novels and writing fiction. Then I gradually decided I wanted to work my way back up the food chain and start engaging my brain a little bit more again. [I] started freelancing, doing perspective for companies like Deloitte. And then came back to the Center for the Edge when the opportunity came up.

TANYA OTT: Great. And Duleesha?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: I’m Duleesha Kulasooriya. I’m the strategist for the Center for the Edge. Prior to the center, which has been about 10 years now, I was [a] consultant with Deloitte. I'd actually come to a point, like Maggie, where consulting was less interesting. I wanted to look for something else. The center [had] just been set up and what I agreed to as a six-month assignment ended up being the last 10 years.

MAGGIE WOOLL: At the center, we try and stay as colocated as possible. We spend a few days a week in the office together where we can write on the walls and talk through things.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We actually sit right next to each other; stand right next to each other… 

TANYA OTT: I thought for a minute there you said sleep right next to each other, and I thought, “Well, this interview is going in a completely different direction that I did not foresee!”

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: I was going to say we’re a “work couple,” but…

TANYA OTT: Oh my gosh, that's too funny! What was it about this topic that really interested you guys? What's going on in the world right now that would have you going, “Oh, we should really look at this.”

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We track trends. That's one of the things we do as a center and we recognize there's a lot more stress than ever before. We saw this mindfulness popping up all over the place as a reaction to the stress. That was one of the markers to say, “Huh, this is interesting. We should be paying attention to this.”

MAGGIE WOOLL: At the same time, what we do at the center is thinking about how institutions are going to change, which leads to thinking about how work in the future is going to change, and how the workplace of the future will change. Then we thought about, “Well, what does that actually mean for individuals?” It was both kind of what we [are] feeling ourselves right now, as well as thinking about how it played in with the center's larger topics.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: When you think about each of us, I’m very much “outside in.” I’ll go out exploring and maybe not spend as much time reflecting upon it. Then I usually go to Maggie and say, “I just saw this thing. What do you think it means?”

MAGGIE WOOLL: We realized that we were both coming from very different ends of the spectrum—the “roots and shoots.” That same value that we find in working together led the way to start thinking about, “What's the value of these two separate ideas that are each really beneficial to individuals, but how much more powerful are they when they're combined?”

For instance, if Duleesha’s out very much in the shoots, exploring and making connections, if you don't have time and the mechanism to come back and reflect, you don't learn as much from the insights. You don't make those interesting connections between the things you're observing and experiencing.

TANYA OTT: Let's talk about the roots and shoots that you're making reference to, before we get too deep into it. When you say “roots,” what do you mean?

MAGGIE WOOLL: When we talk about roots, what we're really talking about is this movement toward mindfulness, meditation. It's the things that really are about slowing down, taking time to build your foundation, and some of that’s your personal relationships. Some of that can be your health, the quiet spaces for free time to think.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Yeah, roots are being grounded, and shoots are exploring. It's looking outward and learning new things. But each one of them in isolation doesn't lead to much.

TANYA OTT: Give me an example of how you guys envision combining roots and shoots.

MAGGIE WOOLL: A lot of times, people don't come to some of these roots practices—even basic rest, mindfulness, [or] reflecting on their values—until they reach some sort of crisis in their lives. Whether it's suddenly finding yourself crying every Sunday night before you go back to work, or you have an illness, or someone you care about has an illness, and suddenly it makes you think about what really matters.

People tend not to come to these roots practices until they have a crisis. Rest is very useful, but how much more effective [is it] if you can be building in the rest and reflection into your life as you go along, so you don't have to reach a crisis point. You can continue to check the exploration and the learning that you're doing in the shoots against what your core values are. So that it's not 10 years down the road you realize you've become very far apart from your core values; you're actually on a regular basis checking in, seeing how what you're doing and the actions you're taking are actually aligned with the goals you have and the values you have.

What we envision is really an ongoing cycle. It’s not a straight-line path. It really is about learning and continuing to test your ideas back against what you've been thinking about and then kicking it back into the world. Take some action, gather some new information, gather some new data, and then again bring it back into reflection.

TANYA OTT: Should I be embarrassed that on my calendar I actually have scheduled “Think”? Like, there's an hour [that] says “Think.” It's kind of sad, right? But on the other hand, if I don't schedule that hour to just think about my industry or think about my organization, I often don't do it because I run, run, run…

MAGGIE WOOLL: That's all the living in the shoots, right? It's like you are constantly acting, and never getting a chance to figure out what it all meant, and to bring it back and realize that you've actually learned some really important things, or that there is a new direction for you to take that would be really productive. You miss that connection if you never have that time to think.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: What you've done is an example of a new practice that you’ve developed in order to step away from the constant busyness.

MAGGIE WOOLL: What you highlight there is really important, which is one of our messages: These practices don't have to be big practices or complicated practices, and it's not some elaborate plan. It's starting to just take small actions. Using your calendar is a great way to do it to start just building that space.

TANYA OTT: What are some of the other small actions like that that you think are particularly helpful to keep us grounded, but also to keep us thinking about how we can progress?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Quite a few that we've come across, we've tried ourselves. One of the other ideas we came across was this idea of Digital Detox—stepping away from our devices for some period of time. The founder of Digital Detox, the first thing he told me [was], the easiest thing you can do is get a dumb alarm clock, something that is not connected. You know those bright red lights? The reason to do that is we've become so accustomed to using our phone as an alarm clock—I do it myself. The problem is, as soon as you pick up that phone as an alarm clock, you go into automatic mode to check your email, to check your Facebook, to check all those things. And that whole world immediately takes over everything. You have no time for reflection or no time to even think about what you might have processed in your sleep.

TANYA OTT: Duleesha, you self-identified as the shoots guy in this equation. Have you done a full digital detox?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We tried. We as a family tried to do Sundays .

TANYA OTT: How's that working for you?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Well, we also realized that our digital devices are also nannies for our kids and we don't get a break.

Another experiment we tried was we tried to create a locker with chargers where you can charge your phone outside the room. So you're going into a digital detox room where you don't take your devices with you. And it just wouldn't fly. Couldn't get people to agree.

TANYA OTT: They were like, “No, not going to do that”?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: They’re too attached to being constantly connected.

TANYA OTT: So Digital Detox is one sort of life hack that you have. What's another one that you think is really useful?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: There’s a shoots one that I’ve been doing for a while now, which has given me a lot of positive feedback.

Anytime I go for a conference or a meeting or to do some talks or anything like that, if I'm traveling to a new place, as much as I can, I'll try to add an unscheduled day or half a day or a few hours. [That way,] whatever comes up during that time that I'm there, I get to extend it and explore something new. One of the big things we're finding is that people are so busy—our calendars are completely full—that when you come across something that's really exciting, you actually don't have any time to dive deeper. And if you have to wait for two weeks to get that free time to dive deep into it, you've already lost that momentum.

MAGGIE WOOLL: The problem when we go traveling for meetings, or conferences even, is that people tend to book in all of these conference calls and everything with the office back home in between their sessions. That really stops [us from] having any ability to connect with people more casually in between formal meetings.   

TANYA OTT: In addition to having that hour in my schedule that says “Think,” I also started blocking off my entire lunch period so no one could schedule meetings for me at that time. So I can go out and walk. I had to do that to make myself do it. I know it's important, but it actually had to appear on my calendar to make me do it.

MAGGIE WOOLL: I think that’s what’s really important—that this is actually hard and it's a process. [On] paper, we talk about rest being the first place that you start. And it really is for most of us, because even though it doesn't sound like the most exciting part of it, just finding that break and breaking from the busyness cycle is the most important thing most of us can do to even begin down the path for any of the other practices.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: It's actually hard to take on these practices. These are not easy and all of the basic habit-building things come into play. What does help today is technology—the same technology that is disrupting and making things harder in life in general—is also supporting us and making things easier. When you have technology like a Fitbit that gives you the number of steps, and you know there are so many exercise meters today, that feedback loop is very useful. There's another one called Spire, which tracks your breathing and it'll tell you if you're breathing erratically without you knowing about it. So technology, while it is the disrupter, is also the enabler for a lot of these new practices that we need to develop.

TANYA OTT: Well, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been wonderful talking with both of you.

MAGGIE WOOLL: Thank you, Tanya. 


TANYA OTT: Maggie Wooll and Duleesha Kulasooriya’s paper is titled Unlocking human potential: Proactive practices for individual elasticity. You can find their article at dupress.deloitte.com—where you’ll also find dozens of podcast episodes on useful topics [such as] meeting and managing your new team and the myth of the first 90 days.

We even [did] a really deep dive into behavioral economics where I got to talk to some of the biggest names in the field including Richard Thaler—who wrote the book Nudge—and Michael Norton who researches happiness and money at Harvard. And we [did] some experiments in a beer bar to illustrate just how irrational otherwise smart people can be when it comes to making decisions about how to value the things in their lives.

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I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room. Thanks for listening and have a great day!

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