The Drip, Drip, Drip of Time and How We Use It At Work

My husband and I look at the world somewhat differently and, because of that, there are many topics that we have almost unconsciously agreed not to talk about.  Yankees vs. Mets to give but one example.  We are both smart enough to know that you don’t change someone’s mind by arguing and we share so many core values that we’ve been happily married for a very long time with just a handful of topics off-limits.

When I stumble onto a new, off-limits topic I am always surprised.  Many, many years ago he was in a rare, down mood and asked me, “What is the meaning of life?” I quickly answered without thinking about it, “Life is short and then you die,” and was surprised when he snapped at me, “That is one of the most insensitive things you have ever said to me.”  I won’t bore you with our differing philosophical outlooks or with how we resolved that spat.  But I do believe that our time – and how we use it – reflects all of who we are and what’s important to us.  It’s the currency of our lives.

I am practical and know that we spend a good chunk of our time at work.  Most of us work out of necessity.  If we are lucky that work is meaningful and fulfilling or is a stepping-stone to become meaningful and fulfilling in the future.  Or that work allows us to have the means to support loved ones or a lifestyle that gives our limited time on this earth its meaning to us.  Work pays the rent and phone bill.  And, whether we sit in the corner office or a cubicle, much of how we spend our time at work is prescribed: we have meetings to attend and reports to write and clients to see.  But there are other, more subtle ways in which we use time that reflect our fundamental values. Let me offer some examples:

Value: I believe that I don’t have the right to waste other people’s time because time and how we spend it is important – to the business and to me personally.

Day to day implications:

·     Meetings start and end on time.

·     I am on time for everything.

·     When I am running a meeting I admonish people if they are late.

·     I provide tight agendas and we stick to them.

·     I rarely allow myself to get “stuck” in someone else’s meeting.  When that does happen, I ask to excuse myself and let anyone waiting for me know what is happening.

Value: I believe that work isn’t done in a vacuum and that we need others.  The best office environments are ones where we treat each other and our external connections with respect.

Day to day implications:

·     I try to acknowledge every email within 24 hours.

·     I try to acknowledge every phone call within 24 hours.

·     If I can’t provide an answer, I give a concrete time when someone can expect to hear from me.

·     I try to remember to change my “Out of Office” notifications on email and voicemail so people who are trying to reach me don’t feel like they are being ignored.

Value: I try not to measure someone’s worth by his or her title or position.

Day to day implications:

·     I return all calls and emails that are sent by individuals.  I will give all vendors a brief audience.

·     If a third party offers an introduction to someone, I will acknowledge that introduction.

·     If I am legally and ethically able to do so, I will write recommendations for anyone who requests one.

Ok, I admit I probably used examples that made me look good. There many examples where I don’t look so great. I dramatically limited the time I devoted to industry organizations or community involvement, I became an insane delegator and convinced myself that I was giving my staff development opportunities, my husband did the school trips and room parent activities so I never needed to do those sorts of things and I could go on and on but you get the point.  I was busy.  I was running a company.  I made conscious decisions about what business activities deserved my time.  But those decisions were made to not only reflect what would help my career but what kind of person I wanted to be.

The key word in that paragraph is “conscious.”  Many of us live our work lives believing that we don’t have enough time.  We scurry from meeting to meeting when we’re in the office and start our “real” work at 6 pm.  Those who have embraced the entrepreneurial culture scurry faster, because each meeting could mean real revenue coming in to QuickBooks.

When I stepped down from being CEO and set up my own business I was truly surprised which people returned my calls – and who didn’t.  I took it personally for a while.  When I finally got perspective I understood that it was merely an indication of how those individuals used their time to reflect their own values.  I heard a similar story just this week: a man who had been a founding partner in a business struck out on his own and those same people who had hung on his every word for ten years couldn’t make time for him now.

Life is short and then you die.  I say that to myself every morning.  I also have a sign on my bulletin board that lists the “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.”  It gives me courage to do what is important to me and what speaks to my values.  And my husband and I find lots of other things to talk about.



“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”     Annie Dillard



Join the discussion One Comment

  • Jay A. Mattlin says:

    A couple of additions to Value #1:

    * When meeting with a subordinate, a manager shouldn’t take calls from or accept interruptions from other people.
    * When meeting with a subordinate, a manager should make that meeting no longer than is necessary, coming to a resolution without undue diversion.

    Kathi observed these implications as well, which helped the organization run smoothly and earning the appreciation of those who reported to her.