Prioritizing Time on the Board

Gail Berger

Think about your past year of service as a board member. Is there a special project, a task or a goal related to your service that you wish you had achieved but did not? For example, did you hope to update the board handbook or do some legwork for the launch of a capital campaign in 2021?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you are not alone. A Gallup Organization survey of 2.5 million Americans found that 80% of respondents felt that they don’t have time to do all that they want to do each day. Thus, it would not be surprising to learn that you, like many board members, feel like you don’t have enough time to accomplish all your board objectives. In other words, you might feel “time poor,” which can take a toll on both your physical and mental well-being. Therefore, it is important to be able to shift from a feeling of being time poor to a sense of time affluence.

As a board member, your service to the community is a responsibility that you have often nobly taken on, in addition to a myriad of other familial and professional obligations. It is often hard to find the time to do everything you want to do. Since time is a finite resource, it is important to prioritize your work in the most efficient way and to schedule work to maximize productivity. Even more important than efficiency and productivity is effectiveness. As such, it is imperative that you use your limited time focused on the “right” work, and in particular as a board member to spend time on the work that will bring the most benefit to the organization, both short-term and long-term.

Deep Work vs. Shallow Work

What is the right work for a board member to do? As a board member, you should examine how you are spending your time on board-related activities both inside and outside of the boardroom. Specifically, are you doing deep (as opposed to shallow) work? Deep work, defined by Cal Newport as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit,” includes tasks that require strategic thinking, innovation and visioning. As a board member, an example of deep work might be generative conversations related to the school’s five-year strategic plan or an intensive review of financial statements. In contrast, shallow work is work that is not cognitively demanding, rote in nature and might be done in a state of distraction. For example, daily operational issues might be considered shallow work.

Board members must create conditions to engage in deep, meaningful strategic work, and there are many things that can get in the way, such as distractions, from email or notifications from apps. One of the biggest distractions that can get in the way of deep work is the fallacy of multitasking. As the Latin writer Publilius Syrus said, “To do two things at once is to do neither.” In fact, when you think you are multitasking, you are in fact “switch-tasking,” and every time you switch tasks you lose time reorienting to the new task you are doing. Therefore, instead of multitasking, it is recommended that you think about how you can schedule sustained, concentrated time, without distraction, during board meetings as well as outside of board meetings so you can intentionally focus on deep work.

In addition, it is recommended that agendas be crafted deliberately for board meetings to focus on “big decisions” that require deep thinking (e.g., strategic decisions related to curriculum or hiring) early in the meeting. Often, critical decisions are put at the end of the meeting agenda, but by then people suffer from “decision fatigue,” exhausted from the decisions that they have already made. Decision fatigue often leads boards to either not make any decision, to default to the decision that maintains the status quo, or to make hastier or riskier decisions.

Activity Audit

To be able to focus on deep work, an activity audit can be helpful to determine how you are spending you time. The Eisenhower Matrix is a useful tool to assess how time is being spent. The matrix examines tasks along two dimensions: urgency and importance. These two dimensions result in four quadrants. (See illustration, below.) Often too much time is spent on the urgent and unimportant, box #3, and not enough time is spent on the not urgent but important, box #2. Unfortunately, if adequate time is not spent on the not urgent yet important, critical board work and initiatives (especially related to the long-term needs of the organization) might be neglected.

An added word of caution: As mentioned previously, board members are often quite busy with a multitude of responsibilities inside and outside of the boardroom. As a result, they are even more prone to tunneling, behavior that leads to a hyperfocus on the most immediate (urgent) tasks (box #1). But these are often not the most important, strategic tasks. The key to successfully utilizing this tool is to properly parse the “urgent” from the “important” and to understand how you are choosing to use your time.

When to do Deep Work

Outside of the boardroom, managing work to complete it at an “optimal time” is important and can lead to higher productivity, better outcomes and greater satisfaction for board m embers. Optimal times to complete certain types of work are based on people’s chronotype, their propensity to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour period based on underlying circadian rhythms. People who are considered larks have their peak performance in the early morning and therefore should make critical decisions, perform deep work and complete analytical tasks in the morning. Insight tasks requiring creativity and innovative ideas are best performed by larks in the late afternoon or early evening. In contrast, it is recommended that night owls complete insight tasks in the morning, and make critical decisions, perform deep work and complete analytical tasks in the late afternoon or early evening. Third birds fall between larks and night owls. Therefore, for them tasks that require deeper thinking should be done in the early to midmorning, and insight tasks should be performed in the late afternoon or early evening.

A tool to help you determine your chronotype is the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (Auto-MEQ). Alternatively, you can determine your chronotype by thinking about your preferred behavior on a “free day” when you don’t need to go to sleep or wake up at a specific time:

1. What time would you choose to go to sleep?

2. What times would you choose to wake up?

3. What is the middle of those two times?

Your answer to question three is your midpoint of sleep. If your midpoint is between 12:01am and 3:59am you are a lark, if your midpoint is between 4am and 6:29am you are a third bird, and if your midpoint is between 6:30am and noon you are a night owl. For example, if you would choose to go to bed at 3 am and wake up at 10 am the midpoint would be 6:30am and you are a night owl. (See illustration, below.)

Final Thoughts

As a final tip, don’t forget to build breaks into your work time, both inside and outside of board meetings. Since time is scarce, people sometimes mistakenly fail to take the time for restorative breaks that are critical for cultivating resilience and enhancing creativity. Restorative breaks might include a short walk (outside is a bonus) or mindfulness practices. Even when there is not time for a prolonged break (10-15 minutes), a microbreak to get a drink of water or sketch or write in a journal can be very helpful. One microbreak process that is simple to remember is a 20-20-20 micro-break. Every 20 minutes you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

Examining how you are spending your time as a board member would be beneficial to ensure that you are focused on doing deep work and completing strategic work. To make the greatest impact, it is a worthwhile investment for you to assess their use of time. As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020