Being busy does not mean we are successful, happy or even good at what we do. It can mean we are invigorated by our work and enjoy filling every free minute doing or thinking about it. But often, we are busy because of someone else's poor planning, emergency or inefficiency.

Successful leaders find a way to minimize the impact of these distractions and take control of their time.

What would you say you do here?

Without the benefit of a skilled executive assistant providing gatekeeper services to guard their door or calendar, many leaders must find ways to directly handle pop-ins, emergencies and other time-sucking distractions. The best way to handle such distractions and move from reactive to proactive is to start with a 15-minute, three-step reality check.

  1. Print last week's calendar and adjust it for accuracy. What meetings happened or did not, and how long did they last?
  2. Note the start and end time of each day. Be sure to include notes for any time a commute or other time physically out of the office was used for work.
  3. Tally up the total hours worked, then break that total into one of these three categories: meeting, getting work done, other.

Most of my clients are shocked to discover that they spend more time on "other" than meetings and getting work done combined. Conversely, they are often relieved to see they are working as many hours as they feel like they are working — though only because it justifies how tired they are, not how productive they have been.

The space between

To gain more control over our calendar, we can take a lesson from the principles of Ikebana, the beautiful and highly controlled Japanese art of flower arranging. In Ikebana, empty space is an essential component of each arrangement.

Like these skilled flower arrangers, veteran executive assistants also understand the important role of space in creating a beautiful, controlled calendar. Those of us without a gatekeeper will have to use the knowledge we gained from our reality check to take matters into our own hands.

To open up space in our day requires accounting for and appropriately arranging the different components. As such, it helps to lay out those components in front of us. For example, it takes time to get to and from meetings; and to prepare for the meeting and to process what happened in it. And informal discussions, emergencies, thinking or doing deep work also take time.

Each of these components of our day should be accounted for on the calendar. Once they are, they must be arranged to ensure there is space between each event.

Next steps

Though nonexempt employees must track every minute of every week, most of us have not had to do that in a while. Yet noting where we spend our time is the best way to regain control of it.

Doing so regularly will help create and maintain the space we need to successfully lead our teams.