Nate Eisman* recently started working for a large consulting firm after many years as an independent consultant. He called me a few days ago for some advice.
"I'm wasting a tremendous amount of time," he complained to me, "I'm in meetings all day. The only way I can get any real work done is by coming in super early and staying super late."
Nate had gone from an organization of one to an organization of several thousand and was drowning in the time suck of collaboration. He is not alone.
I recently surveyed the top 400 leaders of a 120,000 person company and found that close to 95% of them — that's 380 out of 400 — pointed to three things that wasted their time the most: unnecessary meetings, unimportant emails, and protracted PowerPoints.
Working with people takes time. And different people have different priorities. So someone may need your perspective on an issue that's important to him but not to you. Still, if he's a colleague, it's important to help. And often we want to help.
On the other hand, we've all felt Nate's pain. The question is: how can we spend time where we add the most value and let go of the rest?
We need a way to quickly and confidently identify and reduce our extraneous commitments, to know for sure whether we need to deal with something or avoid it, and to manage our own desire to be available always. I propose a little test that every commitment should pass before you agree to it. When someone comes to you with a request, ask yourself three questions:
1. Am I the right person?
2. Is this the right time?
3. Do I have enough information?
If the request fails the test — if the answer to any one of these questions is "no" — then don't do it. Pass it to someone else (the right person), schedule it for another time (the right time), or wait until you have the information you need (either you or someone else needs to get it).
In the last few weeks, in The Cardinal Rule of Rules and in The Mostly Unplugged Vacation I wrote about how to avoid being interrupted. But sometimes it's impossible or inappropriate to wall yourself off completely. For example, what if your boss is the person who interrupts you? Or what if you're on vacation and a critical client reaches out with a time sensitive and crucial question?
These three questions offer a clear, easy, and consistent way of knowing when to respond. So we resist the temptation to respond to everything.
If your boss asks you to do something and her request fails the test, it's not just okay - it's useful - to push back or redirect so the work is completed productively. It's not helpful to you, your boss, or your organization if you waste your time on the wrong work.
That's the irony. We try to be so available because we want to be helpful. And yet being overwhelmed with tasks — especially those we consider to be a waste of our time — is exactly what will make us unhelpful.
When we get a meeting request that doesn't pass the test, we should decline. When we're cc'd on an email that doesn't pass the test, we need to ask the sender to remove us from the list before we get caught up in the flurry of "reply all" responses. And a fifty-page presentation needs to pass the test before we read it (and even then, it's worth an email asking which are the critical pages to review).
A few weeks after sharing the three questions with Nate, I called him at his office at around 6pm to see how it was going. I guess it was going well because I never reached him. He had already gone home.
*Some details changed to protect privacy.