What Having Hernia Surgery Taught Me About Time Management

This article first appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy

I’ve always considered myself a good father. So last Christmas, when my eight year old son asked for a skateboard, I didn’t just get him a board; I also got myself one so we could skate together. We take weekly lessons at a local skate park; we skate half-pipes, pools and street parks. And while I’m very impressed with my son’s natural skating skill, what’s really wowed me is my own ability to endure the frequent bumps and bruises (something about which my son knows nothing). Well, my mid-forties body finally realized what I was doing and a few weeks ago it decided that enough-was-enough. Thus the hernia.

Hernia surgery isn’t terrible; it’s outpatient and laparoscopic. But it’s serious enough to require general anesthesia during and Percocet after. It took me off my usual game and forced me to evaluate how I spend my time.

For years I’ve effectively taught leaders that there are four kinds of activities that consume our work time: Green Light work, Yellow Light work, Orange Light work and Red Light work.

  • Green Light work is good. It’s the stuff you were hired to do. It’s essential to your job and your work goals, and without it, you might as well not even be there.
  • Yellow Light work is work that’s important to your role, and it must be done, but it may be delegated if time doesn’t allow you to do it. Other people may not initially be qualified to do Yellow Light work, but with guidance, training, or extra help from you, this becomes possible.
  • Orange Light work is work that must be done, it’s integral to the organization, but it’s not what you were hired to do. And so, no matter how much you enjoy doing it, it’s a waste of company resources when you do Orange Light work.
  • Finally, there’s Red Light work. Red is bad. This is work that’s just a waste of time for anyone and everyone. Whether it’s an outdated system or something redundant, Red Light work doesn’t make sense and it should be abandoned altogether.

Now, this is all simple enough to understand and it really does work. But it took having hernia surgery for me to get really serious about implementing this fully. Here’s how I did it (and what I learned):


First, a few days before the surgery, I planned my post surgery workweek. I mapped out everything I would need to accomplish during the week and then broke it into categories (Green, Yellow, Orange and Red). I discovered that only about 40% of what I thought I needed to get done could really be considered Green Light work. Which means in an average 60 hour work week, I was only using 24 of those hours doing Green Light work.

I’ll be honest; it took me a couple of tries to get this right because I kept telling myself that everything I do is mission-critical. So I turned the exercise around and I asked myself ‘If I died during the hernia operation, what tasks would my employees struggle to get done without me?’ (It’s a little morbid, but effective). I figured that if people couldn’t do it without me, it must really be Green Light work.

My case isn’t unique. I know from my research that for the typical manager or leader, Green Light work only consumes about 30% of their time. But it was pretty painful to realize that I had personally let this much Yellow and Orange Light work cloud my days. Still reeling from the realization, I resolved to complete as much of that Green Light work as I could prior to my surgery. And here’s where it got even more painful. First, because I was under the time pressure of looming surgery, I got that 24 hours of work done in about 15 hours. (What the heck do I normally do with that extra 9 hours?) And second, did I seriously just distill my professional existence to a paltry 15 hours per week?

The actual surgery temporarily interrupted my existential questioning, but I was back on it upon being discharged from the hospital. Determined to prove that as CEO of my company I was required for much more than 15 hours of Green Light work per week, I propped myself up on the couch, popped a Percocet and got to work. My Green Light work for the week was done, so I started in on Yellow and Orange, the reports, analyses, forecasts, etc. And even though I was pretty high on pain meds, I did a reasonable job. Which caused me to reflect: if I can do these tasks this well while on Percocet, isn’t it possible that one of my non-drugged employees could accomplish that task even better? And if I can accomplish a task in an impaired state, isn’t that pretty much the definition of a task that I should delegate?

In skating lingo “bailing” is the act of jumping off the board to avoid a crash. It took a hernia operation for me to learn I needed to bail on my Yellow Light and Orange Light work. And, instead of fretting about how quickly I can complete my Green Light work, I need to spend that new freed-up time finding more Green Light work to do. For a leader, there’s no better way to spend our time than doing Green Light work. Oh, and this year, when my son asks for another crazy activity for Christmas, I’ll accept that my Green Light work is to be a world-class cheerleader from the safety of the bleachers.

Mark Murphy is NY Times bestselling author, wrote the books Hundred Percenters and Hiring for Attitude, Founder of Leadership IQ, a sought-after leadership training speaker, and creator of the leadership styles assessment.

Posted by Mark Murphy on 01 July, 2016 Forbes, Time Management | 0 comments
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