Harvard Business Online

Manage Your Time Like Jim Collins


Posted on HBR Editors' Blog: December 3, 2009 2:23 PM

Jim Collins is all about discipline. The man who described Level 5 Leadership not only understands the inner fortitude of the best-performing companies and leaders; he's famously disciplined and enormously productive, as you can tell from his website (jimcollins.com). A runner and mountain-climber, he is the picture of fitness.

How does he manage his time? "I use a stopwatch," he says.

Does that mean that like any excessively busy, highly successful business researcher, author and consultant, he runs from meeting to meeting, tethered to his Blackberry calendar, measuring out his worklife in minutes and seconds? When I sat down with Jim at the annual CIPD conference and asked him, among other things, about his working style, I was surprised to find that rather than filling up his time, he intentionally empties it.

When he says he uses a stopwatch, he means that he tracks his time to make sure he gets the most from his waking hours. He divides his life into blocks—50% creative time, 30% teaching time, and 20% other stuff ("random things that just need to get done").

Jim took out a piece of paper and drew a picture of four blocks stacked atop each other. Pointing at the top block, he said, "I block out the morning from 8 am to noon to think, read and write. " He unplugs everything electronic, including his Internet connection. Although he has a reputation for reclusiveness, when asked about this, he replies: "I'm not reclusive. But I need to be in the cave to work."

After lunch, he spends his afternoon in the office with his researchers, or with clients. (His work looks different to an onlooker, who expects work time to be filled with meetings, phone calls and emails. Au contraire, he doesn't want to "confuse activity with productivity.") In the late afternoon he goes for a long run or rock climb, again to clear his mind. Then comes dinner, possibly more writing, and bed.

One of his favorite quotes comes from the famously disciplined French novelist Gustave Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." For Collins, high-quality work requires long stretches of high-quality thinking. "White space," as he calls it, is the prerequisite for fresh, creative thought. It's the time that he spends with nothing scheduled, so that he can empty his mind, like the proverbial teacup, and refill it with new thought.

He aims to spend 100 days next year in the white space. "As a great teacher, Rochelle Myers, taught me, you can't make your own life a work of art if you're not working with a clean canvas," he says. (Another smart bit of Collins philosophy: "Speak less. Say more.")

Clearly, Collins lives different life than the rest of us because, as a best-selling author, he can afford to. (But even when he couldn't afford to—before he became famous—he spent his time thinking and working on his first book, Built to Last, turning down consulting offers from large companies that wanted him to travel to them. And he credits that "time in the cave" spent thinking for his success.)

So he challenges the rest of us to "afford" white space time. He questions whether that frenetic pace is actually getting companies anywhere (indeed, frenetic companies are usually those in decline, as he points out in his recent book, How the Mighty Fall). At the end of his keynote speech, he exhorted the gathered HR managers to create their own white spaces—even if for only a half hour a day. I could practically hear everyone thinking, "Great idea. Love it. But I haven't got time!"

Do you try to make time for white space? What tactics do you use for managing your time?

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