Connecting the dots: the art and science of managing your workday

Connecting the dots: the art and science of managing your workday

Connecting the dots: the art and science of managing your workday

Recently, an HR expert told me that to progress in my career I’d need to spend at least 50% of my time managing laterally. Laterally as in not “up” to my boss or “down” to the team I lead.

My immediate instinct was to discard this flat out: after all, how would someone even measure this? Designing an experiment so large as to statistically prove the 50% is extremely tough. There are hundreds of factors contributing to every career step, and determining what caused what is Mission Impossible.

While I questioned the insight, I was nevertheless intrigued by the bigger notion of a  best-practice playbook which could fast track my career. And conversely, could I be doing something “wrong” today which might cost me later? What is the link between how I am allocating my time daily and my long-term success?

As Stephen Wolfram has shown, tracking daily actions is truly fascinating. Most of us will never attain his level of granularity. But luckily some action tracking can be done after the fact. For the sake of clarity, “action” here refers to the different aspects of work such as:

  • Sending an email
  • Meeting with someone: in person or virtually
  • Producing content: by handling spreadsheets, creating presentations or writing code

We’ve experienced it hundreds of times: emails and meetings limit the time available for producing content, and vice-versa. In a great Harvard Business Review article, Michael Mankins and his Bain colleagues illustrate how too many meetings kill productivity,  and the same goes for emails. In this context, consider the following questions:

  1. How many emails do you send and receive?
  2. How many meetings do you attend?
  3. How much do you manage up, down and laterally?
  4. How much of your work is reactive? (answering someone else’s query)

The rest of this post presents an analysis of my own data. In writing this, my intention was three-fold:

  • To illustrate the type of insights one could get from the email and meeting data
  • To give a broader picture on the productivity-vs-communication tradeoff, through result discussion and references to external content 
  • To provide a comparison point for those in similar positions (managers of global teams)

For easier reading, the content is broken down into 4 parts — one for each of the 4 questions above.


Part 1: How many emails do you send and receive?

The Big Picture: The Radicati Group research on business email traffic indicates that the daily volume averages per user are 76 emails received and 33 emails sent. A whopping 109 emails per day!

Now here’s the ugly math, back-of-the-envelope style:

  • 109 emails, @ 1 minute / email = 109 minutes spent on email every day
  • This amounts to 23% of the working day
  • So… a quarter of our time is spent on emails… it seems high, but it is not far from reality: a McKinsey study  found that 28% of the time is spent on reading and writing emails; the study considered high-skill knowledge workers — including managers and professionals.

How do I stack against this benchmark? My stats are definitely lower:

  • Average per working day: 52 emails received, 21 emails sent
  • Average per week-end day: 5 emails received, 3 emails sent
  • Annual counts: 14,000 emails received, 6,000 emails sent.

What I learnedAt 73 emails per day, I do less email than the average business folk — one third less, to be exact. Still, email does take me 1.2 hours per day, or 15% of my time at work.

Note 1: In the above estimation, I took the average of 1 minute per email. This average includes read and write time, thinking time required by Sent emails, re-read and spell checking, time to switch from and back to other (non-email) tasks, and filing emails into folders.

Note 2: The above numbers do not include spam emails.

Note 3: Concerning the daily email pattern, the chart below shows the volume of emails I send out by time of day. To the extent that Sent emails are a measure of my work, I am most productive in the afternoon. This is common in Europe, where the afternoons are longer to maximize the overlap with colleagues from the US.


Part 2: How many meetings do you attend?

The Big Picture: As mentioned previously, a high meeting volume can drain one’s productivity. The reported amount of meetings varies greatly among the different studies, with some putting it as low as 25% of managers’ working time, and others as high as 80%. It is not uncommon for managers to spend a third to a half of their time in meetings.

So where do I stand on this?

My yearly total is 1100 hours in meetings, or an average of 4.7 hours a day. These 4.7 hours include both formal and informal meetings (e.g. lunch meetings, catch-up with colleagues etc.). The actual meeting volume is unevenly distributed across the working week, as shown below. On Fridays and Wednesdays I am trying to follow a “maker schedule”, with 4-hour blocks of meeting-free time allowing uninterrupted work.

What I learnedCombining the time taken by meetings and emails, I am left, on average, with about 3 hours per day to produce content; I am also using this time to assess “what is happening” and reflect on “where I should go”.

Note 1: The numbers above do not include “large” meetings, i.e. meetings with more than 20 participants. The average number of participants per meeting is 3, myself included. The average meeting duration is approximately 1 hour.

Note 2: A number of ad-hoc phone calls happen without prior scheduling, which suggests the total meeting time is probably larger than the above.


Part 3: How much do you manage up, down and laterally?

The Big Picture: Besides the intriguing 50% mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post, consider Jim Rohn’s famous statement: You are the average of the five people you spend most time with.Scary! If you are a manager, your top 5 will include your boss and your direct reports. It is a good sanity check to verify there is no surprise in the list of top 5 (or top 10) people you exchange with the most.

Now on to my own data:

To answer the question I considered both emails and meetings as a measure of the act of “managing”. Thus, I am looking at the communication aspect of management. For emails, I only included those Sent by me — as this is what I can fully control and be deliberate about. The results are summarized in the following chart:

What I learned:

  • I talk to my reports 4 times more than I talk with my boss. I feel this is good — I would have been worried had it been the other way around.
  • When to “lateral” management, I am likely below the 50% threshold professed by my HR acquaintance. In siding more with the meetings fraction (41%) than with that of Sent emails (60%), I considered the time required by both (meetings take longer) and also the fact that communication is less effective by email.

Note 1: An interesting stat: the number of people I meet over a full year is 340, 70 of whom met me for more than 2 hours; this is my corporate version of a Dunbar-number.


Part 4: How much of your work is reactive? (answering someone else’s query)

The Big Picture: Of all four questions considered in this post, this might be the most critical to the way we work.

  • First, being too reactive, as for example answering every email you receive, is problematic. So are situations where incoming volumes are high, and answering becomes a heavy burden; in extreme cases this leads to what is known as email bankruptcy.
  • Second, (and fortunately!) not all the email we receive is useful — in fact most is not. Deloitte research found that 85% of the emails we receive are unimportant. My intuition is that the fraction of important business emails is higher than 15% but far from 100%.

Back to my data. The shortest path to answering this question was to analyze my Sent emails. Each of these messages falls into one of three categories: NEW, REPLY, or FORWARD. The Reply and Forward categories are “reactive”; they arise in response to something I received previously in my Inbox.

What I learned about reactivity:

  • Proactive emails make up 25% of my total Sent messages. The rest is taken by responding to someone’s query (58%) and forwarding emails (17%).

Another angle to look at this is to consider email communication a give-and-take exchange of information. In this light, my Give to Take ratio is 75–25, aligned with my a priori perception. Side note: if you feel you are more of a “giver”, Adam Grant’s research provides good reading on the subject.

What I learned about “unimportant” emails:

As mentioned in the first part of this blog, I receive 52 emails daily and send out 21, on average. Of these 21 emails sent, three quarters are reactive (about 16).

  • Put differently, of the 52 emails received daily, 16 generate a reaction (reply or forward). That is,
  • I do “something” with 31% of the emails I receive. The remaining 69% are a combination of unimportant and information-only (no action required) messages.

Wrap-up: If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve big thanks for reading this post. Its main intent was to illustrate the type of insights which can be derived from the Inbox and Calendar data.

Original article can be read here.


Connecting the dots: the art and science of managing your workday