We often hear from new leaders that things like Email, instant messaging, and even cell phones, are the bane of their existence.  It’s hard to list all the benefits these electronic tools have provided, and yet many curse them for making life so busy and these tools are frequently on the short list of reasons why leaders have no control over their time.  One of the biggest benefits of these tools is also the biggest issue:  they have enabled instant response.   This is a tremendous benefit, but it also leads to the problematic expectation that we will always get this type of response.

Dutiful employees often pride themselves on their ability to respond quickly to email, and often this means shifting gears frequently during the day to address new issues that come in.  However, when we always respond to new requests this way, we build the expectation that we’ll continue to do so and perpetuate our own reactive behavior pattern.  As leaders, we must learn to be proactive, anticipate needs before they arise, set an agenda for getting things done and then stick to that agenda to make progress.  So how can you change the behaviors and create new expectations?

Simply ignoring or not answering your email messages is clearly not the answer.   This type of abrupt shift will likely be met with considerable objection.  Behavior change takes time and requires a thoughtful approach.  The first step is usually to step back and analyze the issue.  We recommend journaling your time for a period of several weeks.   This is a simple process that involves keeping a spreadsheet that simply tracks how much time you spend on certain tasks each day.  Brainstorm a list of things you spend time on that may be forcing you to be more reactive.  The list is subjective:  you choose the tasks based on what you feel are your biggest challenges.  Let’s say one of your items is simply “responding to emails.”  If you jot down how much time this takes each day for a month you can quickly calculate the average amount of time you spend answering emails each week.  This is a good step in understanding the issue and sets you up to think about how to solve it.

A client who tried this journaling approach for a month soon saw that she spent over half of her time responding to emails.  Armed with that information, she started analyzing the types of emails she was responding to and realized that she frequently got information requests from co-workers in several other departments.  When these requests originally started coming in, she just looked up the information and sent out the answer.  As she told me, it wasn’t a hard task and it didn’t take much time so she never really thought about it that much.  However, over time, she became known as the person who could get certain types of information and more and more people started asking her.  She got to the point that she was spending over half of every work week just responding to these requests.  Time journaling helped her diagnose the problem.  In this case, her solution was pretty straightforward:  she realized that most people asking for the information had access to all the same systems and data that she did, they just didn’t know how to find what they were looking for.  Rather than perpetuating her quick response, she started calling her co-workers and offering to show them how to find the information themselves.  They readily accepted her offers and within a few weeks, she recaptured about 90% of this time on her calendar.

This is a pretty simple example, but the steps are almost always helpful for shifting from reactive behavior to proactive behavior:

  • Capture data that can help quantify the issue: In this case the journaling effort allowed her to quantify and diagnose the issue.
  • Use the data as the basis for identifying the behavioral cause of the issue: In the example, this was the recognition that quickly responding with an answer had become a burdensome task.
  • Proactively identify a new behavior pattern that you can substitute: Initially, calling people back took more time, but it quickly resulted in fewer requests.

In this case the change happened fairly quickly.  You may not always have such a quick turn around, but this type of thoughtful approach has consistently shown results.  It may take some investment and focus up front to avoid slipping back to previous behaviors, but if you stick with it, you should see changes in your time journal over the next several months.