Last month my teen-age daughter was in a nervous frenzy over her first-ever midterms. It would only have provoked her if I’d said I wanted someone to test me. I read a solid three to four hours a day for work--magazines, blogs, new books. I at least glance at every headline in the New York Times: admittedly OCD behavior. I’ve been trying to shake it for nearly 30 years, since the days when I studied journalism and weekly news quizzes accounted for 20 percent of my grade.

Those quizzes were a pain, but at least they provided measurable ROI on all those hours spent staring at pages. What I’d welcome now is a more complex, customized test that assesses how much material I’ve retained, how much I’ve synthesized with other stuff I know, and how much I’ve transformed into something of value for Inc. readers and--by extension--for my employer, Inc. Theoretically all that reading makes me a choicer cut on the human-capital meat market. Still, I find the intangibility of my assets fairly freak-some.

Knowledge workers have trouble weighing the value of their own time. What they produce is background and context and insight and foresight: consequently an almost endless amount of work can go into any one of their deliverables. And since failure is currently considered not only an option but also a virtual mandate--if you don’t fail at least a little you must be too conservative--they can assume that false starts and missteps should be part of the process, drawing it out further.

Knowledge workers need help managing their time, but they don’t get it from leaders, who battle their own temporal demons. For an article in the new issue of McKinsey Quarterly, Aaron De Smet and Frankki Bevins surveyed 1,500 executives and found that just 9 percent were satisfied with how they spend their time. The most satisfied were also the most balanced--they divvied their hours relatively evenly among making operational decisions, setting strategy, and managing employees, stakeholders, and unexpected issues. They also mixed it up in terms of whom they worked with and how they communicated.

The other 91 percent were less thoughtful, or at least less disciplined about where their valuable hours are best spent. “The comparison I make is to capital,” De Smet told me when I called to talk about the study. “Leaders put in so much time and analysis and thought and discussion when deciding where to invest their money, which is a finite resource. Time is also a finite resource. But when deciding where to invest time they just use their guts. My question is, is that good enough?”

One solution is for companies to stop treating time management as a personal-productivity issue and instead treat it as an organizational one. Extending the capital metaphor, De Smet suggests creating a “time budget” that quantifies the number of hours required from leaders and other critical players to “finance” a particular initiative. De Smet also suggests expanding job descriptions to include recommended time expenditures for specific duties. “When people get to a new job they don’t know where to start,” he said. “E-mails come in. They start getting invites. And the pattern of how they spend their time ends up being dictated to a very large extent by external forces that are almost random.”

I like the idea of these time directives because they address the problem of sunk costs. I’m thinking of situations where people working on projects put in so much time they feel they need a result, even if that result will likely be sub-optimal and achieving it will take another 60 hours of labor. A budget lets them tell themselves and their bosses that the opportunity costs of their continued involvement are too great. The project should be abandoned or rethought or passed off to someone whose time is worth less.

Sure, we all waste time reading random stuff online and yukking it up with colleagues. But we waste more time working on things past the point where they return a satisfactory investment on our labor. Jim Collins famously recommends adopting a stop-doing list. A corollary to that is a stop-doing-after-this-point list. Or as De Smet put it, “Focus and finish. Or focus and kill it.”

Published on: Feb 11, 2013