Optimizing Time: Lessons From Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker might be the most influential business management thinker of modern times.

Over the years, countless business leaders across different industries highlighted his work as a core component of their management and strategy approach. This article is the first in a multi part series that will dive into key lessons from one of Drucker’s most famous books, The Effective Executive, it focuses on how to optimize one’s time. Even though Drucker’s voice is specifically focused on business management, I think you will find these insights to also be applicable in everyday life.

Time Management

My college football coach, Bob Ford, had a saying, it went something like this: “you have the same amount of time as your opponent, the winner or loser will be decided based off of who uses that time better.” I am paraphrasing the language, but the core idea is important. We all have the same amount of hours in a day, this makes how we choose to use them incredibly important.

Time management is something Peter Drucker wrote about often and it may be the most important concept in The Effective Executive. Executives are busy. Often times they get trapped in a vortex of meetings and briefings only to react to whatever they believe to be the most pressing issue at a given time.

Constant reaction without considering a larger strategy or purpose is a productivity killer.

To better manage time, Drucker recommends three key strategies:

  1. Create unbroken blocks for individual think time, preferably during the most lucid time of day; these pockets of quietude might be only ninety minutes, but even the busiest executive must do them with regularity.
  2. Create chunks of deliberately unstructured time for people and the inevitable stuff that comes up.
  3. Engage in meetings that matter, making particular use of carefully constructed standing meetings that can be the heartbeat of dialogue, debate, and decision; and use some of your think time to prepare and follow up.

As you can see, the core idea across all three of these recommendations is control. When we commit to proactively managing our time it makes us more effective. Many modern business influencers have shaped  this idea or “blocking” or “chunking” activities to fit their own needs.

In the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport advocates for creating large blocks of time to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Newport believes the ability to perform this kind of work is a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Newport advocates for longer blocks of time than Drucker, but it is clear that both believe the importance of this uninterrupted think time.

Blogger and strategist Tim Ferriss uses  similar approach. In this post, Ferriss discusses the benefit of creating 2-3 hour blocks of time each day to focus on your most pressing work. In the past, Ferriss has also discussed blocking time for redundant tasks like email, expense reports, and meetings to improve his productivity. Using Drucker’s recommendation as a model, Ferriss creates individual think time and unstructured time throughout his day. The key is making a distinction between two.

Famed entrepreneur and founder Paul Graham advocates a similar approach to Drucker in his essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. Graham explains the schedule requirement for most managers is hourly. Their days are made up of  quickly shifting from meeting to meeting. Makers, on the other hand, need long blocks of time to focus on hard problems. Graham believes that both types of schedules can be effective, but problems arise when they are combined without any strategy. Notice the similarities to Drucker’s recommendations in the following excerpt from his post:

How do we manage to advise so many startups on the maker’s schedule? By using the classic device for simulating the manager’s schedule within the maker’s: office hours. Several times a week I set aside a chunk of time to meet founders we’ve funded. These chunks of time are at the end of my working day, and I wrote a signup program that ensures all the appointments within a given set of office hours are clustered at the end. Because they come at the end of my day these meetings are never an interruption. (Unless their working day ends at the same time as mine, the meeting presumably interrupts theirs, but since they made the appointment it must be worth it to them.) During busy periods, office hours sometimes get long enough that they compress the day, but they never interrupt it.

Setting aside time for as Drucker would say the “inevitable stuff that comes up” has allowed Graham to maintain a schedule that gives him time to think strategically and work on hard problems.

Meetings

For most knowledge workers, meetings take up a substantial amount of the day.

I have experimented with many strategies to reduce the meeting burden, but have found it to be a difficult cultural shift that most organizations struggle with. Meetings make it easy to tell ourselves a story of productivity. If our schedules are full, we must be getting things done right? Wrong. Peter Drucker understood the burden a poor meeting places on an organization. For this reason, he For he advises a two component system for more effective meetings:

  1. Preparation with a clear purpose in mind (i.e. “Why are we having this meeting?”)
  2. Disciplined follow-up (i.e. What are the actions, who is responsible for them, and when will they get done?)

Most meetings have agendas, but few are actually followed. In the same light, most meetings take actions, but follow up is usually late or does not happen at all. Drucker believes it is up to the executive to ensure both of happen.

In The Effective Executive, Drucker discusses the case of one of the most successful executives of the 19th Century, CEO of General Motors Corporation, Alfred Sloan. Sloan was a stickler for following meeting agendas and was always prepared to discuss agenda items in detail. After the meeting was completed, Sloan wrote quick memos including what was discussed, key decisions, next steps, responsibilities, and deadlines and distributed them to each attendee.

This is drastically different from what I have seen in the business world today.

Often times the most junior person in the meeting is tasked with driving the agenda and taking actions. In my experience, this reduces the importance of the agenda and follow up expectations. Sloan held the highest rank in all of General Motors. When he was prepared and actively engaged in the meeting agenda and personally drafted and distributed memos after meetings, it ensured the organization understood the importance and made meetings more effective.

Wrapping Up

As it is said, we all have the same hours in the day, how they are used is the difference between reaching success and failure. Peter Drucker believes the first component for being an effective executive is the ability to manage oneself and  a large component of that is managing time. Creating blocks of time in your day for deep work and unstructured time for the other stuff that comes up will make you more proactive in strategizing what needs to be done, but still provide the flexibility to manage the other stuff that comes up. A good way to ensure you have this time available is optimizing the meetings on your schedule. All meetings should have a clear agenda and clear follow up items. Overtime this discipline will transform your meetings, improve your productivity, and make you more effective.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.