Four ways even good managers waste time

If you’re a manager who feels you are spending so much of your time managing, yet inevitably end up firefighting, something like this may sound familiar:

Listen, I spend tons of time communicating with my direct reports. Not to mention my boss, their boss, and counterparts in other workgroups and other departments. Look at Project Q. I was holding regular team meetings. I touched base with everybody every day. I have an open-door policy. If anything comes up, we let each other know, as needed. Plus, we’re emailing each other all day long. Everything was going just fine! Then, as usual, things started falling apart.

Can you spot the issues here?

At first glance, it seems like this manager was doing everything within their power to keep Project Q on track. After all, the best they can do is facilitate conversation and rely on everybody else to step up and do their part. Right?

Well, sort of.

While having routine meetings, maintaining a schedule of one-on-one conversations, and staying on top of email are indeed important, it’s the details that matter. Most managers spend most of their management time on four pernicious time drains.


#1. Attending Too Many Mediocre Group Meetings

Group meetings, team meetings, cross-functional teams, special projects, committees. Meetings are the biggest time suck for managers. You probably know that from experience.

Most of us work in highly interdependent workplaces where we all must rely on each other on complex projects with lots of moving pieces. With more and more people working interdependently, there are more and more meetings.

But so many meetings are simply not good enough to accomplish what they set out to. Too many people attend too many meetings in which they neither add value nor take anything valuable away. Even just four people in a room for an hour—that’s four hours of productive capacity in that room. So, the meetings better be good.

Another big mistake managers make is believing meetings are a good venue for holding individual team members accountable. It’s too easy to hide in a team meeting. It’s even easier to point fingers and divert attention.

At its best, a meeting is great for:

  • Communicating information that everybody needs to know, at the same time.
  • Solving problems that cannot be solved by one or two people alone.
  • Shared experience, to build cohesion, commitment, and motivation.

The first step to any good quality meeting is to identify the purpose for that meeting and create a clear, specific agenda for all attendees, in advance. Include as many details in the agenda as necessary to clarify the goal of the meeting and each person’s role.


#2. Wading Through a Never-Ending Tidal Wave of Email

Electronic communication is at everybody’s fingertips all the time. Your inbox pulls you in and demands you reply. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t often result in the most effective communication.

So much of email is unnecessary, duplicative, and/or sloppy. But we can’t simply ignore it, because often there is important information hidden amongst the unimportant. And we want to assume that, because we sent a message, the recipient has read and understood it. Even worse than a message never sent is a message sent but never received.

At its best, email is great for:

  • Providing drafts, samples, and final products
  • Documenting verbal communication
  • Maintaining asynchronous conversations in between scheduled conversations

The one step you can take immediately to improve the quality of electronic communication will also have the biggest impact: Giving those emails the time they deserve. That means pausing and reflecting before formulating a response, no matter how urgent or important the message may be. Read your message before sending, and then read it again. It doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes, but it should take more than a few seconds.


#3. Touching Base, Checking In, and Shooting the Breeze

“How are you?” “How’s everything going?” “Is everything on track?” “Are there any problems I should know about?”

These are the questions managers most commonly ask their direct reports, yet they tell you so little about what’s really going on. They are gestures, mostly. You might as well say, “Tell me you are fine.” “Tell me everything is going fine.” “Tell me everything is on track.” “Tell me there are no problems I should know about.”

The worst thing about management by “touching base” is that it makes you feel like you are staying on top of things, but it takes a lot more than rhetorical questions to really stay on top.

The next time you find yourself about to ask a “How’s everything going?” type of question, try one of these instead:

  • What did you do?
  • How did you do it?
  • What steps did you take?
  • What step are you on right now?
  • Let me see what you’ve got so far.
  • What are you going to do next?
  • How are you going to do it?
  • What steps are you going to follow?
  • How long will each step take?


#4. Interrupting and Being Interrupted

Something pops into your head, you interrupt them. Something pops into their head, they interrupt you. “Hey, do you have a minute?”

When you are interrupted, you are not at your best. Most likely you were in the middle of something. You must break your attention. You may succeed in refocusing on the question at hand, but you are not prepared. And, let’s be honest, what you really want is to get back to whatever it is you were doing before you were interrupted. Your responses to your direct reports (and anyone else) when you are interrupted are never going to be as thorough and accurate as they would be if you had time to prepare.

The reality is that interruptions will happen at least some of the time, no matter how rigorous you become about holding scheduled conversations instead. The next time this happens, use the interruption as an opportunity to do three things:

  1. Gather enough intel to understand the question, request, or problem at hand.
  2. Redirect the conversation toward scheduling a follow-up conversation to discuss in more detail, whether that follow-up is a ten-minute or an hour-long meeting.
  3. Establish and agree upon what each party must do to prepare in advance of that later scheduled meeting.


Make better use of your management time

Improving the quality of your leadership, no matter your role, is one of the best career investments you can make:

Share this post: