Tony Blair recently told the Stanford Graduate School of Business that one of the most important things he learned during his time in office was the need to set a schedule that's aligned with one's real priorities. He related a memorable story about his first meeting with President Bill Clinton in 1996. Clinton said that he wanted to talk to him about a critical issue. Blair expected some extraordinary piece of geopolitical insight, but instead, as he relates it,
Clinton said to me, "I'm going to talk to you about something really important: scheduling. You will find that one of the hardest things when you get into government is finding the time to think strategically. . . . The system will take you over, and you'll be in meetings from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, and you'll think you're immentsely busy, but actually the tactics and strategy have all gotten mixed together."
I've opined on this issue before, but it's got more clout when you hear it from Tony Blair. In fact, he goes on to say that he did an analysis for one president on how he used his time, and found that less than 5% of his time was spent on his priorities.
Blair's not naive. He knows that crises erupt, and that it's the leader's job to deal with it. But he points out that those crises are seldom what's really important in securing the long-term success and reputation of the government:
If you're not careful, something happens -- there's some crisis, and you spend time dealing with it. You lose your strategic grip on what's going to determine whether you're a successful government or not. Now these crises are real; you've got to deal with them. But actually, when you then judge a government -- you know, when I think of the things that I lost sleep on, some of the crises that suddenly came -- foot and mouth disease, we had a fuel strike -- nowadays, nobody even remembers these things.
These lessons are as true for you and your executive team as they are for a prime minister and his government. Think about the crises that you've dealt with -- an angry customer (or customers), a problem with product profit margins, negotiations with a logistics company, whatever. Sure, they're all important to your organization. But we're not talking the BP oil spill, the Challenger explosion, or the TEPCO Fukushima nuclear meltdown. We're talking about crises that, if they consume your day, will inevitably lead to sub-optimal performance and long-term decline.
When "the system takes over" and your time is consumed by daily tactical issues, you don't have the space for the essential act of thinking. Blair says that
you've got to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time. One of the things I always ask is, 'Where's your thinking time?'"
John Donahoe, CEO of Ebay, adheres to the same precept. He says
I take days away. . . . I find that very hard to do in the office or in a familiar environment. I find that if I don’t schedule a little bit of structured time away, where there’s no interruption, that it’s very hard to get the kind of thinking time and reflection time that I think is so important.
Here's the challenge for you: build some of this thinking time into your week or month. Make it part of your standard work. It's easy to be lulled into the safety of immediate action, particularly when a crisis hits. But thinking time is critical to ensuring that the actions you take are actually of value, and are spent on the activities that posterity will actually judge you for.
Donahoe knows that. Blair knows that. You should know it too.