2-22: "I don't have time" is a lie
It helps avoid hard conversations
Any time any one says to you “I don’t have time” they are lying to you. In most cases though, they probably don’t even realize they are doing it.
They most likely aren’t trying to be malicious, or trying to dupe you. They truly believe that because what they are saying is short hand. What they really mean in most cases is,
“I don’t have enough time to address this, given the other things that I have to do or want to do, and this isn’t a high enough priority for me to fit into my schedule compared to those other things which I have prioritized higher.”
It’s a form of short hand that loses the nuance of what’s really happening. We all have the number of hours in a day, but we do have different pulls on how that time gets used. Usually, it’s because they want to be a good employee for their boss, their peers, or their employees they manage, or at least that’s the rationale. Sometimes, it because they don’t want to tell someone “No” or “not now”. Frankly, people also use it to avoid having what they perceive to be hard conversations.
I hear this quite a bit when coaching on making improvements. We talk about what they want to accomplish and how they want to get there, and then when we talk about implementing and doing something different, out comes the statement or some form of it.
So, how can this situation be approached? Here’s an method that might be helpful
First, get oriented and understand where the time is going.
It’s going to be really hard to address their time if we don’t know what it’s currently being spent on. There are lots of ways to do this, whether is something as basic as list of activities, taking that list to the next step and putting it into a WILO or Eisenhower matrix, and even to the point of doing some activity based accounting to attribute time to actions. If you’re using visual management, that should be a good place to generate that list.
Second, look at the activities and their value
So now we know where the time is going, is it worth it? Not all time spent is good time spent, and this is where I see a lot of struggle. Things like prioritization or the Eisenhower matrix give you some sense of this, so no matter how you get a view of the work, make sure you understand the value and prioritization of the work against other pieces of work.
This problem of struggle here seems to stem from a lack of clarity about prioritization. “Everything is important!” they’ll say, but what they don’t see is that when everything is a priority, nothing is. If they don’t have clarity on the priority across the work, they need to get it.
Third, evaluate the actions and determine where the time is for the activity
This is the other place that people struggle a lot, especially if they don’t know the prioritization. If they don’t know where things stand and their relative importance, they won’t be able to use their judgement to determine what they need to focus on.
What happens in most cases here is that we find out
the person is overcommitted on their work and taking on too much
the person doesn’t know the priority of the work and doesn’t have enough clarity or confidence
Teams should have this knowledge based on how they have talked about priority as a team and an organization. If they truly can’t resolve the prioritization question themselves because they have too many high priority things (over commitment), or they don’t know what to cut (lack of clarity) then they need to get help from their manager about what to prioritize. They should also look at how they get that clarity and commitment, and make some time to adjust those practices to get better outcomes.
That last part is probably the most important:
If you don’t have clarity and priority around the work, making decisions about where to invest time becomes difficult.
Most people will just put in more time to compensate. In the short term, that might work, but it isn’t a healthy system. The regulation constraints start to become personal health, relationship and family health, feeling about work, rather than a constraint in the way of working.
If you are coaching someone through this, you may have to remind them that telling someone “no” or “not now” is actually kinder than telling them work is going to be done on whatever they want and then not doing it, or doing it so slowly that they never see the result.
This is all management. This is a part of the work.