Books, Management Thinking, Productivity

Time According to Drucker’s Watch

qtq80-KJjZNvI just finished reading The Essential Drucker. If you don’t know who Peter Drucker was, you probably should, because he was a leading thinker on organizations and management. He also coined the term knowledge worker more than fifty years ago. He wrote about how the advent of the knowledge worker would change the nature of executive and managerial work, along with the structure of organizations. Drucker – Wikipedia

I find all of his writing instructive. The Effective Executive (for example) is a 50-year-old treatise on the job of an executive in the modern corporation and one of the handful of nonfiction books that I reread occasionally.

Essential includes a chapter titled “Know Your Time,” which describes practices for time management. While decades old, it is particularly useful. In this post, I’ll summarize the main points.


Time is a unique resource. It is completely perishable. In the “accomplishment” process, there is no substitute for time as an input. It takes an instant to have the “aha” solution to a problem, but it takes time to get to the point of understanding the problem well enough to have the “aha”.

We are terrible judges of how we have used time in the past. Invariably, we need a time log, an audit, to tell us how we have spent our time over the last few weeks or months.

The time demands

Much of what we spend time on is unproductive, even if it is work. Our organizations require communication, which is rarely done efficiently. We must build relationships with each other, which cannot be done in an urgent manner.

However, knowledge work requires large chunks of time. Creating a presentation from scratch needs a fairly large chunk to get started, then editing can be done in smaller time increments. Strategic thinking and problem solving need large chunks. Getting work done through other people, the primary task of an executive, requires chunks. Any deep work, by definition, needs sizable chunks.

Time diagnosis

While we have been recording time for manual work since the start of the 20th century, we do not normally record time for knowledge work. But time is more important for the knowledge worker than it is for the manual worker. It is simply easier to record for manual workers.

So, effective knowledge workers track their time. The details of the method are not important, but the act of recording time is the first essential step in analyzing how we use it. Time tracking needs to be done for fairly long periods, weeks or a month, in order to account for daily and weekly variation. And our time drifts toward trivia, so tracking needs to be done routinely, at least a couple of times per year. Once we have recorded our time use, we analyze it for three areas of time use:

  1. Identify and eliminate things that don’t need to be done at all. There are probably more of these things than your memory will let you see. Some thought is usually required as our default is to be lazy and simply declare that things “have to be done”. It is fairly easy to test the assumption – stop doing it for a while and see if anyone notices.
  2. Identify and assign things that could be done by others. This is not exactly delegation, but a complete giving over of authority to another person. Again, we have to be tough on ourselves here as the lazy way out is to default to “I have to do it”. Perhaps the task needs to be tweaked or better automated before we completely hand it off.
  3. Identify and eliminate things that we do that waste others’ time. The only way to do this is to ask the honest question of our peers and direct reports. As leaders, when we ask for reports and status meetings, we must be ruthless with ourselves about the need for them. Again, our default is the enemy here. People likely need less oversight than we think and will ask for it if we don’t offer.

Pruning the time wasters

Having dealt with the things we have individual authority over, we now turn to those things that are organizational in nature. Organizational misalignment and poor structure waste everyone’s time, but primarily the time of leadership. Now we analyze our time record for four areas of concern:

  1. Identify the “routine crises”. These represent a lack of system or a lack of foresight. After the second occurrence of a crisis, we should assume that it will become routine if we don’t do something systemic to prevent it. Budget cycles, seasonal sales, release cycles, and recurring external events, such as employee turnover may trigger these broken processes that need to be fixed. Well-designed work and organizations should normally lack drama.
  2. Over-staffing wastes time. In an overstaffed organization people collide with each other too often. This results in jurisdictional disputes, politics, and other signs that people are in each others’ way. Knowledge workers need to be able to do their work with a minimum of explaining to others and asking permission. If the leadership of the organization spends more than a small fraction, say 10%, of their time on these kinds of issues, overstaffing may be the cause.
  3. Poor organization shows up in excess meetings. Meetings are caused by a need to exchange information. In a perfect world, everyone would know what they need to know to get their job done. However, we live in an imperfect world. Nevertheless, good meeting discipline requires severely limiting the number of meetings. I would add that some meetings may be caused by having hired staff that are unequal to their task and consistently require the help or advice of others to get anything done.
  4. Poor distribution of information wastes time. Routine calls for information and “bystanding” in meetings to see if there’s “something I need to know” can be eliminated by setting up proper distribution channels and creating meeting discipline.

Solutions to these seven kinds of problems may be obvious once they are noticed. Or they may require a long, disciplined effort. But the result of this work is useful for the entire organization, especially in terms of time recovered.

Consolidating discretionary time

The key to consolidation is to move things around to create the needed chunks of time. The problem is that this is a perpetual need. Non-discretionary time expands; new meetings are called; new crises pop up. Therefore, effective knowledge workers need to be consistently vigilant over their schedules.

Finally, it is difficult to know when knowledge work tasks, done during the chunks of discretionary time, are finished. We all have perfectionist tendencies and overdo. If we create 10 hours of discretionary time per week, but use it poorly, we are really no better off. Think in terms of deadlines for discretionary projects. Time box efforts and stick to the time allotted. Understand what is the minimum effective product and move on when it has been achieved.

I would add that attention management is a requisite skill in time management. If we can’t stay focused on tasks we set ourselves during discretionary time, we are not using it well. After, perhaps, decades of fragmented attention use, our ability to focus intently for periods of time may be weak. Don’t forget to defend your attention when entering into periods of discretionary time.

Time is more scarce than any other commodity. So it should be used more carefully than any other. The first step is a time audit.

Question: Have you ever audited your time? If so, let us know one key insight you gleaned. If not, perhaps now would be a good time to start. If you do, come back and share your insights.

Leave a comment
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Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016
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October 1, 2016
GTD, Management Thinking, Self Improvement

6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)

qtq80-WsNgkaSmart, capable people often struggle with one crucial aspect of knowledge work: planning. In my experience, clients resist planning for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most common.

Planning causes mental pain, at least at first. Planning is taxing work. If you haven’t done it recently or it’s not a habit, it will literally cause pain when you do it. My university students helped me define this pain; it is the feeling of frustration. “It’s too hard.” “I’m just not good at this.” So, we give up too easily, avoiding the frustration of learning how to plan and developing the habit of planning.

Planning takes time. On average, your weekly planning will take 45 minutes or so. That’s for a routine week. If your upcoming week is challenging, planning may take twice that long. Daily planning will take 10-15 minutes. As with many activities, it feels easier to just jump in and start work. Doing so makes us feel that we are, at least, making progress. So we skip planning and just get started.

Planning is deep work. Some people think that planning is merely running over their to-do list. But real planning is the difficult exercise of estimating how long tasks will take and a thoughtful look at our tasks versus our constraints. It forces us to clearly define our commitments and deliverables. Most of us prefer to avoid this deep work, so we substitute a shallow, watered down version. We leave our commitments murky and don’t clarify through planning.

Planning forces us to say “No”. We don’t like to say no to others. Good planning shows conflicting commitments and when our capacity is full. Thus, planning forces us to make choices that likely result in difficult conversations. This brings us face to face with our priorities, which may not be clear. It is much easier, in the short run, to play hero and worry about the consequences later, so we don’t plan.

Planning shows hard truths. When you plan, you realize your limitations and understand your constraints. This is much more challenging than just believing everything will work out. Over time, planning also shows you how long it actually takes to get your tasks accomplished. This can challenge your mental image of how good you are at some of your tasks. These challenges are uncomfortable; we avoid planning so we don’t have to face them.

Planning is inexact. Even the most experienced planners and project managers cannot predict the future. Things happen. Key resources take a sick day. A supplier’s truck breaks down. In addition, we are predictably bad estimators, typically underestimating both the time it takes to do something and how much discretionary time we will have in a given day or week. Our plans don’t work out, so we abandon planning.

So, we resist planning because it is painful, time-consuming deep work, that doesn’t work perfectly and forces us to confront an uncomfortable reality. But I would like to show two essential parameters that planning produces: The first is time boxes that show us how much time we can allocate to any given task. The second is milestones, which show where we should be on a multi-step project. Clarity on these two parameters is our responsibility in managing our schedule and tasks.

Time boxes force us to deliver even when the level of quality is unclear. We can be perfectionists and let deadlines slip chasing perfection. Remember that the quality of knowledge work is notoriously difficult to define. Challenge yourself to work hard for the duration, but, when the time is up, ship the result. It is probably at least good enough. Time boxes help give us the courage to “just ship it” on the deadline.

But, even if it is not good enough, you probably don’t know how to fix it. My experience as a writer shows this challenge. I invariably think part X is bad while part Y is good. However, my reviewers and editors think the opposite. So, rather than continuing to perfect part X, I should have been working on part Y. The same holds true for much of our work: presentations, reports, and communication. The parts we think need additional work are actually OK, but we overlook parts that need shoring up. So, instead of exceeding our time boxes and blowing our schedule by chasing our view of perfection, we should set shorter time boxes and use the additional time to get feedback on what needs attention.

In addition, using time boxes gives good historical data on how long a task actually takes. Working on a deliverable in short spurts is inefficient and makes it difficult to tell how much work we actually did. We need to know how long the task took last time in order to guess better how long it will take this time. Disciplined work during time boxes shows us that.

Milestones are advance warning signs that a project may not turn out well. Milestones give us time to renegotiate our commitments while our stakeholders still have time to adjust. In my experience as a project manager, people are usually reasonable when they know of a problem in advance. They are less reasonable when they find out today that we don’t have something they expected to get yesterday. Some of our work is speculative; we guess, in advance, how long a task will take. Sometimes those guesses are wrong. Maybe our stakeholders can do without a piece of the work. Maybe we misunderstood their deadline. Maybe they’re happier with a blue one on time than a green one that is late. But, we only find out by having the conversation. Milestones help us do that earlier.

Planning is challenging and can be painful. But, good planning produces time boxes and milestones. These parameters help us face reality, rather than living in an imaginary, but happy, world of false bravado and superheros who can overcome any constraint. They parameters help us keep our time under control and give us the best chance to make our stakeholders happy. Planning is imperfect, but, when it comes to executing our work, an imperfect view of reality beats a 20/20 view of a fantasy every time. So, overcome the pain and challenges and plan your work.

Question: What is your biggest pain point when keeping on track with your daily and weekly planning sessions? How much does it interfere with creating the habit?

Leave a comment
Related posts
Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?
October 1, 2016
Management Thinking

Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?

Like it or not, your work world, and the work world of the next generation, is changing.  And I’ll bet you were not trained for it.

Current work and future work are founded in knowledge work.  As Peter Drucker taught us in the 1960s, knowledge work is different from the routine work of 60 or 75 years ago.

  • It engages our brains more than our bodies.
  • It involves working in teams in interdependent ways.
  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to manage knowledge work in traditional ways.

I want to explore this third aspect of knowledge work further because it has subtle implications on how we need to approach work and personal work management.  I’ll start by explaining three of the assumptions of traditional management.  I’ll focus on one of them and it’s implications on our self-management training and practices.

Traditional management was designed to manage routine work.  Routine work is observable, thus traditional management relies on observation.  Factories were designed to make routine work tasks as independent as possible, so teamwork was not required.  Managers who designed the factory knew best how to perform routine work within it.

All three of these assumptions have important implications on how we need to approach work in the 21st century, but I’ll focus on the third in this post – the boss knows best.

Traditional management is built on the assumption that the higher you rise in the organization, the better you understand how to solve organizational or customer problems.  As you rise through the traditional organization, you learn more broadly about the firm and it’s operations. On the other hand, the lower your position in the hierarchy, the more you get told what to do and how to do it.  From the perspective of the worker, this aspect of traditional management can be both annoying and comforting.

The annoying part is constantly being told what to do and lacking freedom. Being under the control of another person is a challenge for anyone.   Every worker has, at one time or another, accused the boss of “micromanaging.”  This is a typical response when the worker disagrees with how the manager wants the job done.  However, in traditional management, the boss actually had a claim to better knowledge and the employee was more successful when doing work the way the boss wanted it done.

The more subtle, comforting part of this tacit arrangement is that the worker does not have to take much responsibility for the results of actions they were told to do, decisions made by the manager, and schedules set by the manager.  After all, the best excuse for a problem is “you told me to” – just ask my kids.  In the former economy, many workers simply didn’t have to take much responsibility for outcomes.  This is, in some ways, a comforting thing for the worker.

Now that we have moved into a knowledge work economy, and organizations are pushing authority down the hierarchy, the annoyance of being under the control of the boss is decreasing.  Workers have increasing freedom on what to do, how to get it done, and when to do it.  To the degree that workers are aware of this change, they usually celebrate their increasing freedom.

But the comforting part, having little responsibility, is also changing.  Increasingly, workers are being given responsibility for the outcomes of their actions and choices.  To the degree that workers are aware if this change, they are less thrilled about their increasing responsibility.

This change in freedom and responsibility in the workplace represents a challenge to our self-management processes and habits.  Firms are increasingly expecting employees to be able to manage themselves.  However, most of our current workforce has not been trained in self-management.  Think back on how well you were trained in this area…

  • Were you taught how to prioritize between two good activities?
  • Were you taught how to plan a project?
  • Were you taught how to manage the information that would help you make a choice later?
  • Were you taught to take action on your own, based on information you generated?

Or did you develop your self-management knowledge on your own, through experience?  If so, have you thought carefully about how well your practices work? Have you experimented with your practices? Are you actively trying to improve them?

I think self-management is an area in which we can dramatically improve our productivity, if we challenge some long-held assumptions and seriously assess our practices. The current work environment is calling us to do so.

Question: As a knowledge worker, how do you manage these new challenges?  Whether you were trained to do so or developed your own methods, tell us how and where in the comments.

Leave a comment
Related posts
Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016