Researchers Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen conducted a little experiment in which they asked 15 executives at different companies to think consciously about how they spend their time by deciding which tasks mattered most, which tasks could be dropped and which could be simply outsourced.
As they later wrote in the Harvard Business Review, these executives were able to dramatically reduce their involvement in low-value tasks: They cut desk work by an average of six hours a week and meeting time by an average of two hours a week. For example, when Lotta Laitinen, a manager at a Scandinavian insurance company, jettisoned meetings and administrative tasks in favor of spending more time supporting her team, it led to a five percent increase in sales by her unit over a three-week period.
These results fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which tells us that high performers are constantly busy juggling high-priority projects and meetings. In some organizations, it has turned into a contest to see who can be busiest and, by extension, provide the most value to the team. Unfortunately, this race to be more productive in all facets of our lives (especially work) is harming our health, job satisfaction and – surprise – performance.
At successful start-ups, employees and leaders have focus by necessity. Meetings are concise and decisions forthcoming, because fewer employees wearing more hats are easier to corral. Effective prioritization happens organically as people make time for critical items.
As companies grow, however, so do competing stakeholder interests and management demands on employee time. In turn, operational complexity and political theater naturally increase, as does the time spent in meetings and responding to emails. In fact, a study conducted by the Executive Time Use Project found that executives spend 60 percent of their time in meetings, 25 percent on phone calls and events, and just 15 percent alone.
In many organizations where being busy is a virtue, people get very busy with meetings, work tasks, reports and more. They quickly lose focus and fill in their work week with tasks that are not related to organizational goals. When the organization has a surge of demand for output and everybody is “busy,” the organization is not capable of reacting. Key deadlines slip, costs go up due to overtime, and the organization fails to meet its objectives. Executives find it hard to concentrate sufficiently on guiding the strategic direction of the business.
So how do some people still manage to be highly effective and relaxed in large companies? They build white space, or seemingly free time, into their schedule. They are simply not “busy” 100 percent of their time. They are the ones who always have time for important conversations with their teams, co-workers and bosses. They are the ones with a laser focus on what is important to themselves and their organizations.
White space – or slack, as it is known in Agile methodology – allows a team or organization to manage unknown variables by scheduling in time to address them. Introducing white space into the day is a viable approach to improve the productivity and satisfaction of employees, and it’s an approach that is gaining traction at a variety of organizations.
People who build white space into their schedules are able to devote time, and mental freedom, toward unexpected issues that inevitably arise during the workweek. In slow times, they use white space to catch up with paperwork, get ready for busy times, and maintain valuable relationships. During busier times, the white time built into their schedule allows them to get more “productive work” done to help the organization meet its goals, helping accomplish them more quickly.
And, like any other meeting on the calendar, they plan for it. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner says he schedules between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day, broken down into 30- to 90-minute blocks. Former Disney Executive Vice President Lee Cockerell takes a similar approach: He told Fast Company that at least some of his success was due to his workday routines, which include getting to the office at 6:15 a.m. – but accepting no meetings before 8 a.m.
The benefits of white space aren’t limited to the executive; they extend to the entire organization. 3M and Google are famous for their 20 percent model, in which engineers spend the equivalent of one day each week on a project of their choice. Australian enterprise software company Atlassian takes a slightly different approach with its quarterly FedEx Day, a 24-hour innovation blitz of hacking, prototyping and presenting.
Businesses that build in sensible amounts of white space enjoy four specific competitive advantages, Tom DeMarco wrote in his book “Slack”: better responsiveness to meet changing market demands, enhanced flexibility, greater retention of key people and an enhanced capacity to invest in itself.
White space “is the time when reinvention happens,” DeMarco said. “It is time when you are not 100-percent busy doing the operational business of your firm.”
To reap the rewards of the freedom that white space affords, consider these tips to free up your time for innovation and reflection:
- Think in terms of focus and learning, instead of intensity of activity. When someone asks how you are, answer it in terms of what you are focused on, how it’s going, and what you are learning.
- Guard your schedule to avoid meetings that aren’t tactically or strategically important to you or the organization.
- Schedule meetings for how long they’ll take – not the calendar program’s default length. If you need 45 minutes, for example, don’t schedule the meeting for an hour. Avoid meetings that aren’t well thought out, and plan time immediately before and after meetings to prepare and follow up.
- Remove unnecessary items from your to-do list and communicate as necessary.
- Carve out time every week or every day to think about big goals and the best way to accomplish them.
- Get started with a skeleton plan. Don’t waste time getting a perfect plan, because it doesn’t exist. Chunk out the big ideas and get started on tasks that will illuminate what needs to be done. The real plan will fill itself in as work starts toward the goal.
- Multi-task. This doesn’t mean checking email and writing a document while fielding a conference call. Rather, it might consist of going for a walk with a colleague, brainstorming over lunch, or doing deep thinking during a mid-afternoon workout.
- Schedule the day and the week into blocks of intensive work and less intensive work time. During intensive work time, do analytical work that requires your full attention. During less intensive work time, check email, talk with colleagues, organize files, and perform other similar, less important tasks. This time is just as important as the intensive time.
Building in slack allows for leaders to spend more time on quality outputs by building in an internal process of continuous learning in their day-to-day work. White space allows you to work on what is most important in the moment, allowing time to learn and deliver at the same time.