Manage your strategic thinking time

‘My brain just feels fried’ Sarah said to me about a month after I started coaching her. Sarah was the Head of Division for an international marketing firm. As a senior manager, she was struggling to find an optimal balance in her time to deliver on key tasks with the need to think strategically. 

Almost every leader wants to find more time to think deeply about strategic issues. Yet even after careful identification and prioritisation of what you need to do, maximising how you use your time can still be challenging. It’s a common challenge at all levels of leadership. And for Sarah, the challenge was very real. She was under pressure to deliver a strategic plan for her division, but had immediate stakeholder demands that she and her team needed to deliver. She was struggling to allocate the time she needed to do deep thinking and when she did it left her mentally drained. 

Like almost all leaders, Sarah is not new to the challenge of balancing the strategic with the operational. She found both elements rewarding, but too much of one and not enough of the other left her frustrated and exhausted – and feeling like she was failing. Her plan for dedicated ‘strategic thinking days’ had proved almost impossible. On days when she had managed to clear her diary, it wasn’t uncommon for something ‘urgent’ to arise and she never made as much progress as she’d expected or hoped. 

Identifying how you can manage and balance your time effectively is critical for you to become a better leader who delivers both strategic and operational results. So what can you do? 1) Tune into your peak effectiveness times 2) Identify what is in your scope of control and review often 3) Plan to experiment (not perfection) and for contingencies

  1. Tune into your peak effectiveness times. We all have times when we are more effective at thinking deeply and when we’re better geared to motor through our to do list. Take a moment to pause and look back at times when you were in the flow of strategic thought. When was it exactly? What time of day was it? Where were you? What were you doing earlier that day and right before? To get clear on where your time is going you can also try recording it. Although it can be painstaking to do this, the insights doing this over the course of a few weeks or month can be invaluable. Use what you learn to help you identify and block out time for strategic thinking at optimal moments where you know disruptions will be minimal. Through experimentation and reflection, Sarah found that breaking her strategic thinking into blocks, with two blocks per day works well for her. Having a dedicated ‘strategic thinking day’ was ineffective but she needed balance and a break from too much thinking time. It is likely to be different for each of us.
  2. Identify what is within your scope of control and what you can influence. Sarah told me she often felt like her diary was managing her, rather than she managing it. The impact of this meant that her time didn’t feel like hers and she often felt pressure during ‘strategic thinking time’ – and it became counterproductive. Instead she started more actively managing her agenda. She started reviewing her calendar at the end of the week and looked back at what had gone to plan and why, as well as what hadn’t. She then took a critical look forward at the two weeks ahead to see how closely it met the principles she’d set herself. She identified where she had the scope to adjust or delegate meetings or request to change existing commitments to give herself the time she needed.
  3. Contingency plan. Aiming for perfection is impossible. But we often plan for best case scenarios which leaves us feeling frustrated when things don’t work out. To avoid that, contingency plan upfront. What might get in the way of you using the time in the way you’ve planned? What will make it difficult? Identify potential sources of internal and external interference and get specific about what you’ll say yes to and what you’ll say no to. Think about how you’ll manage when things don’t go how you’d envisaged. Getting specific up front and planning for reality will help you build your habit in a sustainable way.

Months on, Sarah tells me that she has noticed a real difference. By reviewing each week regularly she has been able to fine tune how she works and feels more in control of how she spends her time. Whilst it’s an ongoing process of learning and experimenting, the number of days where she logs off and feels fried have by far reduced. Her strategic plan is in the bag and she’s happy with how the it’s now progressing. How we manage our time is unique to us, and often isn’t within our complete control. Figuring out what works for you and what you can do is worth the effort. 

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