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To get your time back, invest it.

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Dedicating time and energy to improvement is our clients’ biggest challenge. Here’s how to push through and get real work done… and get your lunch hour back.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:


“We’re overwhelmed. Applications are piling up faster than we can process them. Our backlog is over six months. We’re short-staffed, and my manager just let me know she’s leaving next month. It’s all we can do to keep our head above water. I have to cut our meeting short; I’m prepping for a meeting with the Board on our long application times.”


Agencies working with PPI always come in with some version of this story. Of course they do! Leaders don’t need help when everything is ship-shape; they need help when the ship is taking on water and starting to sink.


What do I tell these people, who are desperately strapped for staff time and resources?

I tell them they need to find their best staff and pull them away from the day-to-day work. (This is usually when their eyes roll back in their head, if they haven’t kicked me out of the office already.)


No one has enough time


Here’s the thing: Public agencies never have enough money or staff. I have never encountered a client who had all the resources they thought they needed. But throwing more staff at a problem is rarely an option: It always seems like budget cuts are looming around the corner, and there’s a constant pressure to do more with less.


We pride ourselves at PPI on helping clients find innovations that are low- or no-cost, that they can accomplish with their existing staff, that don’t need a new piece of technology or a new workforce. Improvement can happen without any of that. I’ve seen many agencies get themselves out from underneath backlogs and wait times without buying something new.


But – I won’t sugar-coat this – it does take an up-front investment of time and energy. That investment comes precisely when you are feeling the farthest behind. The more behind you are, the more time you need to invest.

Innovation takes an investment of time and energy exactly when you feel farthest behind.

This is a hard choice to make: to decide, when the ship is taking on water, to stop bailing and instead go fix the hull. Honestly, lots of leaders stop right here.


But if you want to stop feeling behind, if you want to sail through the storm, you need to shift your mindset about your time. We need to think of our time like we think of our money – as a resource to be invested.


Your time is an investment

To talk about managing time, let’s talk about managing money:


If you spend more money than you have, you go into debt. The expenses still have to be paid… by your future self, who has to deal with all the normal expenses plus the interest on a pile of credit card debt.


How do you get out of that debt? Here’s two options:

  1. Keep doing what you’re doing now, and hope you win the lottery.

  2. Make changes in your life to spend less than you bring in and use the excess to pay the debt down.

(Even if you do win the lottery, you’ll eventually wind up back in debt again, if you still spend more than you earn!)


What happens when there’s more work to do than can be done? You go into time debt. You (or your staff) are pushing work to your future selves in the form of backlog – that looks like long application processing times, piles of incomplete work orders, positions waiting to be filled, emails going unanswered, projects unaddressed. And just like credit card debt, that time debt generates time interest: complaints from the public about wait times, increased emails or phone calls to "just check on the status," extra meetings, managing a queue. You do all the deferred work and then some. How do you get out of that time debt? Here’s two options:

  1. You can keep doing what you’re doing, and hope it’ll get better somehow because someone will finally give you more budget or staff.

  2. You can make changes in how you work so that you can handle the volume of work that comes in.

What kind of changes? Again, think like an investor: You put money into something now with the expectation that it’ll pay you dividends over time. Seek return on investment.


In the office, that means investing time and energy now into things that will save you time and energy in the future.


Invest time and energy now into things that will save time and energy in the future.

That might mean:

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The more time and energy you spend in productive activities like this, the more you get back. It becomes the opposite of the snowballing debt – it becomes a snowball of productivity that pays you dividends over time. This is how you get your lunch hour back.


Strategy in the midst of crisis

We often coach clients to start a huddle: a regular 15-minute stand-up meeting with their entire staff team that focuses them on the organization’s strategic goals and creates a framework for completing “Just Do It” ideas. Traditionally, a huddle happens daily; we usually push for weekly.


The response we get is nearly always the same: “We don’t have the time.”


We learned the huddle from the Emergency Department at San Francisco General Hospital. They huddle twice a day.


I used to think they huddled in spite of the constant crises all around them. But that’s wrong. I think they huddle precisely because of the crises.


ER docs and nurses can’t live in a constant state of crisis. They know they can’t provide the best patient care in a state of panic – they have to constantly step back from the chaos to understand whether they’re meeting their goals and how they can do better.


If the hospital can find time for its ER nurse to step away, I’m pretty sure you can find time for your analyst, your clerk, your carpenter to step away, too.


Sailing the calm sea

What if your work life were more like this:

  • Your staff solved most of their own problems, because they’ve been trained to do so

  • Your inbox was clear, because there’s no backlog of work

  • Work flowing into your office (applications, work orders, solicitations) got done almost as soon as it arrived, because you’re not constantly falling behind

  • The public didn’t complain, because you’re addressing their complaints proactively

What would that mean for you as a manager? For your staff morale? For your relationships with electeds and the public?


That’s what it feels like to sail on the calm sea. And it’s possible. But you can’t wait to win the lottery. You have to do the hard work of sailing out of the storm first.


Want help getting out of time debt but don't know where to start? We're here to help!


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