The Tyranny of the In-Tray

It is one of the paradoxes that I encounter when coaching executives that those who seem to want help with time management are invariably those who are best at it! It seems to be that if time management is something you care about you probably have already done more than most to ensure you are in control of what you get done by when.

I want to put to you a contrary view about time management. I meet so many driven people who think that their main purpose in life is to empty their in-box, their in-tray and polish off all those items on their to-do list. They work extraordinary hours to accomplish this goal. In doing so, they neglect family and loved ones and spend inordinate amounts of time at the office.

The delusion that such people suffer is that once the in-box is dealt with, once the to-do list is exhausted, they will be calm, relaxed, happy and able to spend their time with family or pursuing outcomes conducive to improving their sense of well-being.

This is, as I have suggested, a delusion.

For such people, the in-box is never empty. There will always be things that are needed to be attended to – phone calls, responses to e-mails, projects to be completed, enquiries to be responded to, appointments to be made, and so on.

They may not be aware consciously of the fact, but many such people feel a sense of affirmation of their worth by the fact that the in-box is continually being filled up.

For those slaves to their in-trays let me convey a revolutionary thought to you – in-trays are meant to have things in them! In-boxes will never be empty! To-do lists are never exhausted.

Here is another truth for you to ponder. A slave to the in-tray has lost their autonomy; they are always responding to the demands of the external world. The further you go in organisations the more useful measure of success is your influence. Sure there are imperatives put upon you by the organisation, but in order to be able to influence others you must get your own mind, thoughts, strategies, values and priorities sorted. That takes time and considerable contemplation. [Interestingly in the March edition of “Agenda”, the AIM’s magazine, there is an article suggesting that it is OK for people to say no 9to additional work demands)when it is appropriate.]

I was quite inspired in the early eighties when I read that lovely little book by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, “The One Minute Manager.” When his subordinates came to see the One Minute Manager he was usually sitting quietly and looking out the window! Many of those I reported to in the past would have been appalled by that image. Busyness! That’s what we must portray! And what fills the hours of the busy person – usually a whole lot of inconsequential things that add little value.

So let us ponder awhile on leadership. I would maintain that leadership is more about being than doing. Underlying the leader’s behaviour there is a fundamental belief structure. Awareness of this is absolutely essential if we are interested in long term outcomes. If a leader is to influence, then it is the leader’s example that is important.

In trying to change individuals and organisational cultures, the least effective method is by exhortation. We have to demonstrate personally, effective behaviour, the new way of doing things.

In the long term leaders demonstrate who they are, not by applying the latest management technique aimed at manipulating the behaviour of the workforce but by their own behaviours in the workplace. And if this demonstration is to have effect, it must be maintained over long periods of time and under various — often difficult — circumstances. This constancy will only be sustained if the leader has deep and abiding beliefs. What the leader does, how they conduct themselves, comes not from some assumed management technique, but from the essence of their being. Their influence is largely as a result of the manifestation of their deeply held beliefs. This is how they can persist over long periods of time to demonstrate to an organisation their integrity and model effective behaviour. To achieve this in any effective way requires great self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Here then is another paradox – to have the best impact on the organisation, leaders must work on themselves. This work is more important than the work they do on organisations because ultimately it determines how effective their work on organisations is.

Consequently, I would recommend that if you really want to make a difference you spend a little less time on your in-tray and a little more time in coming to understand yourself, develop your management philosophy, being clear on the values you want to promulgate in your workforce and learn how to put aside your ego. And if you have to sit for a while pondering these things (maybe looking out the window like the One Minute Manager) don’t feel guilty. This is more important work than attending to your in-tray.

In the end of course we all die. If we were to die whilst still employed, rest assured there would still be items in the in-tray, lots of stuff in the in-box and maybe still much to do on the to-do list. That would be of little moment.

[In a recent article in the Courier Mail that the good Dr Phil passed on to me, Kathleen Noonan quoted from Bronnie Ware’s book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” Ware, a former palliative care worker examined common themes that emerged from her work nursing people in the last stages of their lives. One of the most frequent regrets in the elderly is:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

She commented that this came from every male patient she ever nursed. She reported that they missed their children’s youth and partner’s companionship. It was also a common theme among women.

So leaving a few things undone in the in-tray is no great problem, and in the light of the above commentary may be even a positive.]

But if you were to die not knowing who you are, what you really believe in and comfortable with your contribution to the world, then that would be a tragedy! So my suggestion to managers and aspiring leaders is to eschew busyness and find some time for contemplation, for family and friends and the opportunity to create a well-rounded life. Spend a little more time on your being and a little less on your doing!

9 Replies to “The Tyranny of the In-Tray”

  1. Good morning Ted and readers,
    I really enjoyed this Ted. A couple of things come to mind:

    From early in your post…
    Clearing inboxes can give the insidious sense that what I have done is ‘important’. The majority of tasks born out of my in-tray are strictly operational. Some strategic activities arise there, but they are few and far between. Rather than reactively opening every oyster in the hope of a pearl, I’d like to think I can proactively add some sand to promising oysters, and free myself from the tyranny of the natural oyster bed. I hope that ‘my influence’ is adequately represented by adding sand in this metaphor.

    And from later in your post…
    Instead of responding, I am going to spend some time with my kids.


    1. As i mentioned to you on Friday Geoff, I thought this one would appeal to you! Enjoy your time with the kids!

  2. Thanks Ted,

    Especially appreciated that one.

    I also appreciate reading Kathleen Noonan, whenever the opportunity arises (though I buying the weekend papers ages ago to eliminate one thing that was not really adding much value).

    Coincidentally, am part-way through a book which advocates that “energy management” is a much better approach than “time management” – will include some thoughts on Behind the Scenes at some stage in future…



  3. Thank you all for your comments.

    yeah, Greg – I know you are really off going fishing or something!

  4. Ted,

    I hope you won’t mind me sharing this one with my colleagues.
    I remember one of my son’s school teachers providing some advice as he was leaving primary school to head to secondary: “Take the time to smell the roses”. I decided to take this advice myself at the start of last year and so head to the golf course of a Thursday afternoon whenever I can and I have to say that a bad day on the golf course beats a good day conquering the in-tray!
    I still am yet to find a way to satisfactorily deal with email however – it accumulates through hail, rain and shine (and holidays)!!



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