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  • A Harvard Business School study looks at the time-management practices of 27 CEOs.
  • Results suggest that CEOs who have a personal agenda for the next few months are the most effective.
  • However, other experts say it's important to be flexible enough to deal with whatever issues arise.

A Harvard Business School study of how CEOs manage their time has yielded some fascinatingfindings.

Michael Porter, a University Professor at Harvard, based at Harvard Business School, and Nitin Norhia, dean of Harvard Business School, began collecting data in 2006 and have just published an outline of their results in the Harvard Business Review.

Porter and Norhia asked a total of 27 CEOs, whose companies had an average annual revenue of $13.1 billion (R178 billion) during the study period, to keep track of their time in 15-minute increments for three consecutive months.

I recently spoke with Porter and he told me that one of the defining characteristics of the most effective CEOs, when it comes to time management, is that they're agenda-driven.

"A CEO needs to have their own personal agenda that they determine is where they want to spend their personal time" for the next three to six months, Porter said. "They can't just react to all the requests" that come in.

Interestingly, however, the authors write in HBR that the CEOs in their study spent, on average, about 36% of their time "in a reactive mode, handling unfolding issues, both internal and external". (These issues are different from crises, in that they're more routine and generally less impactful.)

The authors write that "it's essential for CEOs to figure out appropriate responses to these unfolding situations." If they don't, they could spend 100% of their time deliberating how to address scenarios such as a member of the CEO's team leaving a meeting looking upset.

Porter emphasised that the findings from his study apply to leaders in general — not just CEOs. And indeed, most managers can relate to the feeling of trying to concentrate on one project, only to be interrupted by a different employee with a different problem every five minutes.

Planning for 'reactive work' may be the best option for busy managers

So what's a manager to do? How is it possible to schedule a day- or month-long period, if you never know what fires you'll need to put out?

Writing for Forbes, Rebecca Newton, a professor of management at the London School of Economics, advises leaders to "plan realistic reactive time." For example, if you know that you spend around 40% of your day reacting to employees' needs and other changing circumstances, then only schedule 60% of your day.

It sounds simple, but Newton acknowledges that "it's tempting and seems sensible to plan 100% of our day."

Meanwhile, Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of "Deep Work," writes on his blog that you should plan every minute of your workday - and planning for "reactive work" counts.

Newport also recommends that readers "give open-ended reactive blocks secondary purposes: e.g., "process client requests; if I have downtime during this block, work on project X."

Bottom line: Intentional flexibility is key, for CEOs and for managers at any level. If nothing else, leaders will save themselves the frustration involved in seeing their carefully crafted minute-by-minute agenda blown to pieces.

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