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A Simple Solution Any CEO Can Use to Protect Their Time

The struggle almost all CEOs face is their days and weeks are consumed by fire drills and pressing deadlines. They may never get to the things that truly move the needle such as strategic ventures, coaching, and professional development.

The C-Level Vistage members I coach know intellectually what activities take them to the next level, but when it comes down to execution, they struggle with constant interruptions from people walking through their door with the latest problem or a new sales opportunity. I’m sure it happens to you all the time too. That’s why I want to share a priority-driven time management approach that has rocked our world. In essence, it’s a reminder that in order to achieve greatness we need to focus on tasks that really matter.

I can’t take credit for this practical wisdom. Steve McClatchy, expert speaker and author of the book “Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead By Example,” presented the concept to my Vistage group. This methodology has really worked for me and for my members. You might be familiar with Stephen Covey’s urgent/important two-by-two matrix. McClatchy’s concept is an even simpler tool for making helpful decisions about your to-do list each week.

Here is my download of Mr. McClatchy’s approach to time management based on human motivation. The first step is categorizing your tasks as gain or preventing pain:

GAIN activities move us forward into bigger personal and professional goals. Examples include coaching your team, strategic planning, strategic alignment meetings, groundbreaking industry conferences, high-level networking, professional development, and staying healthy. The major focus of these activities is long-term planning, relationship building, and what will define you as a person and a leader. GAIN tasks cannot be delegated and they prevent burnout, ruts, and feeling out of balance.

PREVENT PAIN activities you do in order to avoid consequences because they eventually become urgent. These work and life responsibilities help us manage and maintain our existence. Examples include general work assignments, checking emails, taking out the trash, and paying bills. They are not GAIN tasks because they aren’t moving things forward. However, if you finish them, it will prevent a lot of suffering and people banging down your door.

The secret sauce is to plan your week ahead by first scheduling your GAIN tasks in your calendar (not your to-do list) to ensure they don’t get lost. Generally, a good balance is dedicating 2-4 hours per week to GAIN activities. GAIN tasks also fill you with the energy needed to execute the PREVENT PAIN activities in less time.

The reason GAIN tasks get pushed off is because they aren’t urgent. Most people end up prioritizing based on the most pressing deadlines so they let these important, but not urgent, activities slide. That is why you have to protect and defend this time. If you absolutely have to move a GAIN activity try to switch to a new time slot within the same week.

PREVENT PAIN activities have some real deadlines. Those, of course, go into your calendar or to-do list, but don’t allow them to supersede those 2-4 hours of valuable GAIN time. Ask yourself what can I delegate and what can I stop doing? Prioritize the things you can just say yes to. You delegate tasks that aren’t unique to you such as following up on repeated operational problems or sales management (if you have a sales manager). It sounds simple in some ways, but it’s one of the hardest challenges my Vistage members wrestle with and probably one of the biggest challenges for all CEOs.

Transitioning from urgency-based to importance-based time management has been a game-changer in my life. For me, a lot of the GAIN activities are ones that I don’t particularly enjoy such as marketing and networking. However, I know how important they are so most Monday mornings, I schedule GAIN time in my calendar as appointments throughout my week. I may not get instant results from a thank you note or the monthly e-newsletter I send to CEOs, but it’s very important to my relationship building and overall growth.

This simple shift of scheduling activities on your calendar that move your business and your life forward will deliver greater satisfaction in the long run. The GAIN vs. PREVENT PAIN method is much more empowering than watching your to-do list spin out of control. Who has time for that?

If you want to learn more about tools that work for my coaching clients, please reach out. I’m always looking to grow my professional network and would love to exchange ideas.


About the Author: I lead peer groups of high-performing CEOs and business owners for Vistage Worldwide. I also provide executive coaching and strategic planning meeting facilitation services through my company Advantech Business Builders, Inc. I can be reached


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