Guest Column

Making Time to Think

by CHRIS HITCH

One recent Monday I started the week with the best of intentions. The alarm buzzed. I awoke, ate breakfast, grabbed my coffee and got ready for the day.

Before leaving for work, I consulted my calendar to preview my daily agenda. I had four meetings scheduled, the first starting at 9 a.m. The meetings ran back to back, and three of them dealt with challenges in leadership development.

I then checked my master task list to review the top three things I had to complete. I drove to work, thinking of what I wanted to review for each of the four meetings. These were important meetings that focused on key objectives. I wanted to show substantial progress at the end of each meeting.

Once in the office, I turned on the computer, grabbed a cup of coffee and started processing my e-mail. By 9 a.m. I was consumed by fighting fires. I had completely ignored the review of my notes for the first meeting. It ran long, and we didn’t make much progress. I rushed to the 10:15 meeting, having failed to prepare for this meeting as well. My lack of preparation showed. The meeting, while not a complete waste, was certainly not productive. I felt like a character in the movie “Groundhog Day” who was living the movie’s tagline, “He’s having the worst day of his life … over and over again.”

By day’s end, I was frustrated and exhausted. As I drove home, my mind raced through the day’s events. I’d been hijacked by my own hand. And I knew better.

A couple of days later, I sat in another meeting and flipped back in my notebook to find some notes from a Fortune 500 senior executive’s speech I attended. The corporate executive discussed organizational expectations of senior leaders. One of her key points was this: Once you move into an executive role, you are expected to be able to dig deeply into issues that will affect the organization, both in the short term and the long term.

I highlighted the following passage: “You MUST make time in your calendar to think. That is what the organization expects of you. If you simply dash from event to event, you are doing yourself and your organization a disservice.”

Perpetual Motion
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling I am guilty of moving constantly from one meeting to the next, scheduling meetings back to back and failing to do my homework to dig into the issue. As I reviewed my calendar for the following week, I found myself in the meeting dash that the CEO described. Monday and Tuesday, back-to-back meetings all day, both days; Wednesday, clear but with 20-plus tasks that required completion that day; Thursday, two off-site meetings; and Friday, an early-morning meeting followed by unscheduled time to catch up and get set for the following week. How do I get it all done?

On Wednesday night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Finally, I got up and took down a notebook to look at notes I had made on priority management. It’s ironic I’ve collected and used all of these techniques before, but if I don’t discipline myself, I get distracted by “the tyranny of the now” (a phrase I attribute to a retired Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy, Harry Quast). I find I must periodically review these fundamentals to keep my focus.

This is my list of basics:
•  Make a personal pre-meeting appointment. Make an appointment with myself to prep before going into each “big issue” meeting next week. I’m holding that appointment as important as an appointment with another person. 

•  Filter and focus. It’s the 80/20 rule. What will give me the biggest bang for my “time” buck?

•  Build think time. I have a 30-minute daily commute. I’m reminding myself to use the commute time to think through a knotty problem or listen to a podcast on a topic of interest. Decreasing the white noise and clutter that swirls around inside my head is an effective way to get some clarity, focus and attention.

Better Clarity
I’m disciplining myself to use my list of basics to help focus on my work, which centers on helping numerous state and federal organizations develop and implement their leadership pipeline. During conferences and regional meetings, I frequently hear school superintendents and associate superintendents of human resources discuss their organizations’ talent-management and succession-planning challenges. The demographics are striking.

More and more school- and district-level leaders are eligible for retirement. Their technical, interpersonal and strategic skills will play a crucial role in whether a school district achieves its goals. If your district faces this challenge, you might consider these questions during your think time: 

•  What are the crucial few positions that will have the biggest impact on whether the school district achieves its goals?

•  What are the skills people in these positions need to succeed in achieving these goals? 

•  How does your current leadership and your bench of aspiring school leaders match up with the needed skills?

Tomorrow morning the alarm will buzz, and my day will be crazy. Unlike “Groundhog Day,” however, I’ll have a little more clarity and focus on the day ahead by setting pre-appointment meetings, filtering and focusing, and using my think time. It’s going to be a good day.

Chris Hitch is program director of executive development at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. He is the co-author of Executive Skills for Busy School Leaders (Eye on Education). E-mail: chris_hitch@unc.edu