Diaries are meant to be an aid to help us all manage our time allocations but in most cases are rarely used in a way that actually helps people to really achieve this.

Man using electronic diary

The problem is that most people use diaries mainly as a means of giving other people access to tying up the available time. For example, when I was working at SAP, by the time I had diarised the requirements of things like board meetings, executive meetings, regional reviews, country visits, budgeting sessions, sales meetings, direct report weekly one-on-ones, mentoring sessions, customer conferences and speaking engagements about 70% of my available time was already allocated by the time the year started. The 30% that was left was quickly eroded by ad-hoc meetings, emergencies and a myriad of other reasons why people just had to see me.

Close up view of a diary open

If one of the critical success factors of competent managers is to spend time planning and building the future, then there was not a lot of time available to do this. Most studies have shown that very few executives spend more than about 10% of their time planning, and actually spend most of their time in meetings, “fire fighting” and handling emails and correspondence.

Businessman juggling clocks

So how is an executive meant to be able to find the time to plan and the time to actually complete the “A-level” items on his priority list (see First Secret of Time Management posted September 23, 2010)?

I have found that one key way to help achieve this is to make appointments with yourself, in the same way that you would make appointments for other people, and to treat these with the same level of priority and importance. You have to make sure that your assistant understands why this is important. I used to always tell my PAs that they had to give these times the same level of priority for non-disturbance as if I was with one of my direct reports doing a formal performance review, which meant that unless the building was burning down I did not want to be disturbed. My PA was not to say that “I was on my own”, as that is an immediate invitation for a knock on the door, only that “I couldn’t be disturbed” and to then either schedule an appointment or to take a message for me to call back when I was free.

These “private-times” need only be as little as an hour each, but it is important that you do not allow interruptions as these can destroy any creative train of thought, and planning requires both thought and creativity. If you don’t have a PA or are in an open-plan cubicle, book a meeting room or go and sit in the park, and turn off your portable. I have found that it is better to schedule these daily private-times early in the morning when your mind is fresh and there is also less chance of interruption. If you leave it to later in the day there is a good chance that circumstances will overtake you, and you will end up having to surrender them to address some “emergency”, but I also understand that this is not always possible. I always set these daily ones at 8.00-9,00 am each day, before most people came into the office, before the normal day’s frenzy had begun, and before most scheduled meetings. Travel permitting, I would try and schedule an hour per day, an extra 3 hour session per week, and also a day per month out of the office, giving me about 10 hours of uninterrupted, jealously-guarded, personal time per week. Not a great amount to take out of a 50+ hour working week, but precious and productive if used properly. You should also try and schedule these before you start looking at emails, as these have a way of taking over your attention and activities, and are also just another distraction from your focus on those tasks that are critical for your own role, its responsibilities and your own success.

I know of people who receive, and handle, over 200 emails per day, leaving very little time to actually do very much else, and who probably go home at night content in the thought that they have achieved a lot in their day.
The challenge is to be able to differentiate between the important and the urgent. The urgent will always be there, but if you don’t make time for the important, it just won’t get done.

It is important to remember that “When you are up to your arse in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp”.



  1. bhuvan naik says:

    Hi Les,

    so true….i have for many years been giving self appointments in my calendar every morning default….but start that time with reading mails and yes, get distracted….just to clear inbox to be ready for the day….i just feel someone is waiting for my response :). i guess i need to recalibrate that habit for some planning work….thank you for this newness i learnt today….but i still grapple with blackberry addiction…read a mail and a sense of urgency to clear it…any thoughts on destroying that discipline?

    Best Regards

    • leshayman says:

      I always work on the belief that if it is something really urgent that people will call me.
      Email assumes that it is not instantaneous so should not be given instant response times.
      I have “phone calls only” enabled on my blackberry so I do not have the need to look at every email ping as it comes through, and limit the number of times that I check my blackberry for new emails.
      The best way to handle email is in a batch and not one by one, because if you know that you have a number of emails to handle you are more succinct. If you do them one at a time you tend to give them more time than really needed and thus lose even more time available for other things.

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  3. Rob Holloway says:

    Hi Les

    When did you stop calling them RED ZONES? Remember sharing a red zone to watch The Dirty Dozen?


  4. Ramki says:

    Very true, Les.
    I used to allot 3hrs everyday morning – 1Hr for me, 0:30-1 Hr for emails and 1-1:30Hr for calls with colleagues in other countries. Even block a meeting room for this one.
    Found this very useful as most of the rest of the day is spent for others’ meetings.

    However, now-a-days, I hv reduced this to 1Hr spending this time for me& emails both (mostly spent on emails). I will revisit this.
    Thanks !

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