How to Identify and Thwart Time Thieves (and Not Become One)

Picture in your mind a likely familiar crime scene: the calendar. Every hour of every day during a typical business week, others (with likely good intentions) are trying to steal our time. “Time thieves” often hide right under our nose, comfortably situated between us and our work.  The good news is they leave clues at every crime scene.  If we’re going to improve efficiency, drive performance and practice better self-care we must expose the crimes that time thieves commit and make a serious effort to thwart them.  We must also recognize and acknowledge that sometimes we are the time thieves and our behavior may need to change as well.

What are some of the common ways others can steal our time? 

  • Inviting us to meetings that have no agenda, no meaningful purpose, don’t really require our participation or are poorly run with no clarity of task ownership or accountability. A recent post by on 2021 meeting statistics revealed that 71% of business meetings were deemed unproductive and upper management spent over 50% of their time each week in meetings.
  • Scheduling an hour-long meeting when a 10-minute call or email exchange would have served the same purpose.
  • Failing to pause, for just a minute, and thoughtfully consider that every invitation extended to a colleague is an appropriation of their precious time. Is the meeting or call really worth asking for 30 minutes to an hour of their day?
  • Emailing, calling or texting us after hours and on weekends with non-emergency requests or information sharing which steals our personal time and is a failure to respect boundaries.

How do we identify and thwart our time thieves?

  • Conduct a calendar audit. Print a copy of your calendar from a recent two-week period (and make this an intentional practice at least once a Quarter). Make note of the meetings we attended where our presence was not really needed, the meetings that were poorly run with no agenda or the meetings that could have been handled with a call or email. Make note of who invited us to these meetings. Who are the biggest repeat offenders?
  • Coaching with respectful candor.  Respectfully and candidly address our concerns with these repeat offenders. Ask probing questions about why they want us to attend their meetings. Discuss alternatives or suggest other members of the team. Offer suggestions for other ways to achieve their goals without scheduling a meeting. Respectfully share helpful ways they might make their meetings more effective. While trying to be helpful, be transparent about our desire to be more efficient with our time in order to focus on important work we are required to deliver.
  • Learn to say “NO”. Taking the bullet above one step further, we must learn to say “NO” if we are to protect our time. We need to stop automatically saying yes to every calendar invitation, but the idea of saying no often fills us with dread. How will people react if we say no? The key is to say no to the time/meeting request, but still be helpful. Here are helpful best practices to effectively saying no:
  1. Keep it simple, be honest and keep emotion to a minimumIf we have a conflict, we should not give a rambling and ambiguous reason for our no and do not apologize or show excessive emotion. When we stumble over our response and show too much emotion, we are conveying that we are open to negotiation which makes the discussion even more difficult. Also, trust that people can handle the real reason why we cannot attend. Try this: “Mike, I am not available to meet this afternoon as I have committed to attend my daughter’s soccer game. Can we catch up tomorrow to discuss how the conversation with the team went?” Simple, honest, short and unemotional.
  2. Offer alternatives. I often say no, but am always willing to offer alternatives if I think I need to attend the meeting or call. Try this: “Susan, 2:45 pm tomorrow doesn’t work for me, but I am available at 4:00 pm Tuesday and 8:15 am Wednesday. Which of those might work for you?” I was clear in my no, but quickly offered alternatives out of a desire to be helpful. In my experience, my audience almost always selects one of the alternative options.
  3. Ask probing questions. One of the keys to saying no is to be curious and probe the reason for the request.  What are the real needs of the other person?  “What are you trying to accomplish in the meeting/call?” “What do you need from me in the meeting/call?” “Do I have a clear role?” “Is there an agenda for the meeting?” Once you have gathered enough insight from your questions, you can then offer alternatives. “Bill, I think Gail’s team addressed that last week in their meeting. I would connect with her before moving forward.” “Thanks for explaining the purpose of the meeting. I actually think Kayla from my team is a better fit as she is closer to the project. Please ask her to attend instead.” “Craig, I understand there is no agenda for this meeting and it sounds like a brainstorming session. I have a conflict, but would be happy to do a quick call later this week to debrief and perhaps I can attend a meeting with the group when you are further along.”
  4. Set after-hours boundaries. If we have colleagues or even bosses who email, call or text us after normal business hours, we have four options:
  • Say nothing and continue letting them steal our personal time.
  • Turn off email notifications and silence our phones after hours so we will not be tempted to respond until normal business hours. Respectfully communicate we are doing this to colleagues who have routinely reached out during these times.
  • Go to the biggest offenders and a few key stakeholders.  Respectfully ask them to respect our personal time. Let this select few have the home number to call if there is a true emergency.
  • Let’s be sure to model the right behavior and respect other’s personal time.

What are some of the ways we waste time, which is essentially stealing time from ourselves?

  • Extreme multi-tasking.  We are not actually being more efficient when we juggle 10 things at once. We are likely doing 10 things marginally well or even poorly which will require follow up, do-overs and ultimately waste more time. Focus on doing fewer things at once and strive to give our full attention to (and complete) what is in front of us.
  • We don’t protect our calendars. We need to be more intentional about scheduling everything important on our calendars (professional and personal), including time needed to actually do our jobs and not let others steal it. A common complaint I hear from my network is the lack of time to get all of their work done during the day which usually results in them doing it after hours.
  • We don’t block out distractions. I recently read that every time we are distracted by responding to an email/text, answering calls or looking at social media while in the middle of other important work, it takes a whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get re-focused on what we were doing. What a time waster! We have to show more self-discipline and give ourselves distraction free time each day for important work. Only check/respond to emails and phone messages at set times during the working day. I recommend we consider early morning, just after lunch, and late afternoon. We live in a world where an instant reply is expected, but is it really necessary? Turning off email notifications and silencing the phone are great places to start addressing the issue.
  • We struggle with prioritization. In today’s hectic world, we tend to treat everything as urgent, instead of focusing on our key priorities. My Leadership Foundry co-founder Brandon Smith has written extensively about the dangers of treating everything as urgent and the importance of prioritization.  He reminds us that it requires intentionality, self-discipline and a focused use of resources and patience as being the keys to prioritizing well.
  • We don’t manage our energy well. If most of us begin the day with a full battery, depending on our personality types and work styles, we may lose energy from that battery throughout the day. When we fail to practice adequate self-care and replenish the battery or work around low-energy periods, we can be less efficient in our use of time. How do we schedule and integrate activities into our daily calendars that give us energy? Can we fit in exercise during the day? Schedule alone time if we are introverts? Schedule more face time with the team if we are extroverts? Schedule all of our administrative tasks at the end of the day when our energy is likely at a low point?
  • We don’t delegate. We waste time when we consistently fail to delegate. As leaders, delegation is an excellent way to develop team members and help them grow. If we are stuck in the weeds and focused on minutiae, we are potentially wasting valuable hours that could be invested in developing those around us, strategy, brainstorming and other forward looking leadership activities.

Time thieves are everywhere and in most cases they may not be aware they are stealing our time away. The best practices and insights from this post will help us identify and coach them to stop. We have to set appropriate boundaries, clearly communicate our expectations and be more intentional if we want to turn the calendar from a crime scene into an effective and efficient example of time well spent. We also need to be mindful of the six ways we waste our own time listed above and do our best to shed or avoid those bad habits.

Let’s be honest.  You and I may, at times, be the time thieves I wrote about in this post. Not sure? After reading these insights, reflect on last week at work. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if we wasted the time of our colleagues in any of the ways I mentioned. Ask our colleagues for candid feedback if we have committed the crime of time theft. It’s not too late to change these bad habits as well.

Good luck!

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