I’ve written before about discretionary time—the time we can all carve out in our day to do what we think we should do. It may be fifteen minutes to check on a subordinate, or lunch with a peer to build a relationship, but we can all exercise some discretion in how we spend our time. Some organizations institutionalize the concept, as Google famously did when it encouraged employees to spend 20 percent of their time experimenting on their own projects.
Today I want to focus on the other time-management concept: “systematic neglect.” I learned about this concept in The Servant as Leader, by Robert K. Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf says part of a leader’s responsibility is to decide what not to do, what tasks to ignore. He says systematic neglect enables us to focus on the most important work. Specifically, he states:
The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important — and the important from the urgent — and attend to the more important, even though there may be penalties and censure for the neglect of something else.
All of us understand the concept at some level—there is only so much time in the day. We cannot do everything, and we certainly cannot do everything at the level of quality we would like.
Although that type of triage is intuitive, a light bulb dawned for me when I read Mr. Greenleaf’s statement. Because not only does he say we need to consciously choose to do the more important work rather than the less important, he also makes clear that we must be prepared to accept the consequences of our choices.
My light bulb realization was that other people wouldn’t always agree with me on what to neglect, no matter how reasonable my choice seemed to me. I might choose to neglect a project they think is critical. When other people disagree with you about what is most important—and they will—you must accept their “censure.” You may not change their mind, but you have to accept that they will not be happy with you.
The organization I was a part of at the time embraced the philosophy of “systematic neglect.” Thereafter, there were several times when I was dismayed at the choices some of my colleagues made. They had different priorities than I did. I probably upset them, too, with my choices of what to do and what to neglect. There were heated discussions—censures and penalties—as a result.
Still, when you are prepared to accept the consequences of choosing what to do (using the concept of discretionary time) and what not to do (using the concept of systematic neglect), then you have much greater control of your time. And that lets you set and shape your priorities to a far greater extent than you might think possible.
What have you done when your priorities have differed from those of your co-workers?