Making time: A very brief guide for CEOs

Students of time management will know the Eisenhower Matrix, which plots tasks by urgency on one axis and importance on the other.

The simple genius behind this approach – popularised by the American General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower – is not that you do what’s urgent and important, and ditch what’s unimportant and not urgent, which is something of a no-brainer. It’s that you prioritise importance over urgency, the long-term over the short.

For a CEO, this means you need to work on the business, not just in the business. What’s working and what’s not? Are you still heading in the right direction? Is there a threat or an opportunity on the horizon you haven’t thought of? None of this is easy to do when you’ve got your head down with the day-to-day.

The challenge is that it can be almost impossible to find the time to step back, when everything about the role seems almost designed to pull you back in again.

Each of the responsibilities in a CEO’s job description – for example setting the strategy, aligning the organisation, allocating resources, hiring and leading the senior management team, guiding the culture, interfacing with the board and the wider world – is important, and could easily be a full-time job.

The obvious, yet unavoidable, danger with trying to do them all with insufficient time is that you won’t end up doing any of them well.

So how can you carve out time for the important stuff?

1. Give yourself a break

It’s tempting, when you’re overworked, to get frustrated with yourself for not getting everything done as quickly as you wanted, but that doesn’t help anyone. Give yourself a break – literally and figuratively.

There are only 24 hours in the day, and they can’t all go into work. The answer to not having enough time isn’t to steal time from your personal or family life (or to sleep less), it’s to optimise the work time you have.

And yes, there’s abundant evidence that taking short breaks improves concentration and performance, so don’t forget to get up occasionally and make the tea.

2. Take control of your diary

 It can take months to book an appointment with some CEOs, because their diaries are so full, but not every problem can be solved with a meeting. Some things require contemplation, or less structured discussion, so if that’s what you need, then block some time out in your diary to do exactly that. Find a quiet room, go for a walk, join a peer mentoring group, whatever works for you.

If you struggle to hold onto thinking slots – and I know from personal experience how easily calls overrun or things pop up – then consider who really has control over your diary. All too often, our working practices mean people default to putting an hour in your calendar whenever they want to involve you, which effectively means other people are dictating your priorities.

A good PA, or even better a working culture that doesn’t default to meetings, can hand us back at least some control of how we spend our time, on what and with whom.

3. Figure out where you need support

As a business grows or evolves, what’s required from its leaders changes too. Sometimes that means that a job a CEO was effectively doing themselves – for example, leading a digital transformation, looking for M&A opportunities or advancing a group talent strategy – now requires a new, dedicated member of the senior management team.

Of course delegation doesn’t mean the CEO shouldn’t still be involved, but if you have a strong, supportive team with complementary skills and clear remits, then it means they can take the heavy lifting in their areas, allowing you to focus on the big picture.

The irony of course is that you may need time to determine which areas you actually need support in – sometimes these things are obvious in hindsight or to outsiders, but you’re so busy you don’t appreciate them. Yet just starting that process could prove the best investment of time an overworked CEO will ever make.