As a manager or leader, it’s your job to make decisions. But your choices don’t just steer the company’s ship, they also have a direct impact on how your team spends their time.
Asking for another round of design changes? That’s someone’s time.
Calling another meeting to discuss your marketing strategy? That’s more of your team’s time.
Sending a “quick” email on Saturday morning? There goes someone’s weekend.
Every decision, whether it’s about a process, strategy, workflow, or priority, is really about the value of time. But this isn’t always easy to see.
The very definition of a manager is someone who is responsible for more work than they can handle on their own. And like an action movie montage, you often only see the highlights of how your team spends their time in status updates or meetings.
What you don’t see is the struggle, stress, and extra time it takes to meet the expectations you’ve set out.
Time is the most valuable resource you and your team have. But how do you make sure your decisions are giving your team more time and not taking it away?
The time value pyramid
As you move up the corporate ladder, your time becomes more “valuable” (or at least seen as such). The easiest place to see this is in how a manager and a maker set their daily schedule.
As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, wrote in a famous essay, your role and title determine how you should schedule your day.
- For managers: Time is all about decisions and meetings. Your day is broken up into one-hour (or less) intervals so you can touch as many parts of your business as possible.
- For makers: Time is all about acting on these decisions. Your day is ideally set up for long stretches of focused time—usually a half-day at a time to make progress on meaningful work.
These aren’t just two different ways to schedule your day, however. They’re a direct representation of how the value of time changes with your role.
Make Time author, John Zeratsky (who we recently interviewed) likens this change in the value of time to an upside-down pyramid where “the time of many rests on the decisions of a few.”
Each decision might only take a small amount of your time but has an outsized impact on everyone else’s.
For example, John talks about a time when he worked at Google and had to present a design to then-VP Marissa Mayer for feedback:
“Most people in the room were product managers, designers, or team leads. Each one would take Marissa’s decision back to their team; they’d talk about what to do, make a plan, and get to work.
“I thought about those people—the ones who weren’t in the room—and pictured them as another layer of bricks in the pyramid of time. We couldn’t see them from our seats around the conference table, but I knew that their time also depended on the decisions in the room. It was heavy.”
Understanding the impact of your decisions on your team’s time is one thing. But how do you go about making sure you’re not setting unrealistic expectations that could lead to added stress, feeling overwhelmed, and even burnout syndrome?
How to give your team more time: The 3 Es of team time management
The more you think about the impact of your decisions, the more you see their cascading effect on your team’s time. Especially for your teammates who do “maker” work like designers and developers, an hour of uninterrupted focus is more valuable than a day spent bouncing between meetings, calls, and emails.
So how do you make decisions that keep you informed while giving your team time to do their most important work? According to Zeratsky and co-author Jake Knapp, there are three key areas to optimize.
When we analyzed more than 185 million hours of working time, we discovered that most knowledge workers average just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive time a day.
On the surface, that doesn’t seem like much. But it starts to make sense when you consider the environment most people work in.
- We’re inundated with communication and feel compelled to check our inboxes and chats every 6 minutes (or less!)
- We get overwhelmed by too many tasks and expectations and average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching.
- We hit collaborative overload and spend 80% of our day in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails.
Looking at the workday this way, it’s clear that one of the quickest ways to give your team more time is to change where and how they work. If you want to improve your work environment and culture to be more respectful of the value of time, try a few of these tips:
Treat every new tool as time debt
Every new productivity or communication tool promises to save you time and money. But in reality, they’re more likely to add some level of confusion and frustration.
The true cost of any new tool or process has to include the time it takes to learn to use it and integrate it in a meaningful way with your workflows.
Schedule your time as a team
Time-blocking is a powerful method for making sure your team has time for meaningful work. But instead of each individual setting a wildly different schedule, try to block out time together.
Even if everyone has a single 90-minute block each morning for uninterrupted focused work, that’s a huge improvement from the default.
Change your team’s defaults
Speaking of defaults, in our always-on, hyper-connected world, the default is usually that we’re always available.
However, this fragments your focus and makes tasks take longer than they should. Instead, switch to a different default: Bursts. Set aside specific moments each day for communication bursts, meetings, and catch-ups. These should be the same for everyone and anyone is allowed to decline meetings outside of them.
The unspoken issue behind most workplace time issues is expectations. This includes expectations around tasks as well as availability and response time.
Unfortunately, while it’s easy to get a read on workload expectations, it’s harder to understand the expectations your team places on themselves. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t look for signs.
In many cases, the culture you create changes the way people place expectations on themselves. For example, if you’re constantly frustrated and unorganized, your team will feel compelled to constantly check-in or avoid being honest with their feedback.
This behavior slows everything down to a crawl. Instead, a few small changes can lessen the expectations your team feels:
Create a communication policy
Between chat, emails, SMS, phone calls, meetings, and others, there are more places to have a work conversation than you can handle. Instead of letting conversations exist everywhere, pick a channel you’ll all work on and a policy for how you’ll use it.
Set clear expectations so people know when they need to be available and when they can happily ignore a message.
Don’t ask for unscheduled updates; ask for summaries
Few things destroy focus and flow like getting a message asking for a “quick update.” Even with the best intentions, that request can quickly snowball into team-wide panic as they scramble to gather data and write a response—even if things are going fine.
Instead, ask for summaries. As Zeratsky explains:
“The best part about summaries is that your team can anticipate them. When they know you’re expecting a summary at the end of the week, or the end of the design phase, or after launch, they can plan their work around the data and lessons they know you’ll want to see.”
Work on “idea restraint”
As a manager, you want to give your team the tools they need to do their best work. And that often means sharing your ideas and thoughts. However, offhand comments and suggestions can make your team feel like they’re doing the wrong thing or question the approach you all agreed upon.
As Basecamp founders Jason Fried and DHH explain in It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work:
“It takes great restraint as the leader not to keep lobbing ideas at everyone else. Every such idea is a pebble that’s going to cause ripples when it hits the surface.”
Finally, your team will respond more to your actions than your words. All these policies and tips mean nothing if you don’t show that you respect the value of time yourself.
One of the simplest solutions we’ve implemented at RescueTime is simply not sending emails or Slack messages on evenings and weekends.
When we interviewed 700+ professionals about their email habits, we found that 80% of people check work emails before and/or after work every day. Even worse, 61% reply to messages outside of work hours almost every day.The more you check and send emails outside of work, the more your team will too. Click To Tweet
The same goes for multitasking. As the Workplace Analytics team at Microsoft explains:
“The transition from individual contributor to manager expands the influence of a person’s work habits. The more senior they become, the more this influence is amplified. Unfortunately, managers typically have very limited visibility into what their own behaviors may be signaling to their team and how the team might be reacting.”
Specifically, if you multitask in meetings (i.e. check emails and Slack) then it signals that “It’s OK to not pay attention.” Instead, act how you want your team to act. Show you respect their team and they’ll respect it themselves.
Give your team more time and they’ll give you better work
When we have more time to focus and dig into real problems, we end up being more creative, productive, and motivated.
And just like poor decisions can put your team on a death spiral towards burnout, good decisions that respect the value of time guide them towards a place of comfort, control, and creativity.
Instead of making decisions solely based on goals or targets, consider your team’s time. It will have bigger returns than you can imagine.