What Do CEOs Do With Their Time?

When you start studying questions of how people spend their time, you quickly realize there’s a big problem. Most of what we “know” about life comes from quick response surveys. These are easy to conduct (“How many hours do you work per week?”) but suffer from two flaws: people are clueless and they lie.

The clueless part: Most of us have no idea how many hours per day or per week we devote to different activities. In theory this shouldn’t be a big problem with large samples; the “wisdom of crowds” concept suggests that enough randomness would even out over time, and we’d converge on a number that’s close to a real average. But the problem is that the wisdom of crowds only works in the absence of systematic bias. When it comes to time use, “systematic bias” is another word for lying. We lie about how many hours we work, sleep, spend with our kids, devote to chores, etc. Time feels longer when you’re doing unpleasant stuff (sitting in the dentist chair) vs. pleasant stuff (enjoying dinner with friends). So we recall it differently.

The best way to get around this is to ask people to keep a time diary, showing exactly what they did at any given time. This forces people to face the reality that a day has 24 hours, and a week has 168, and all our activities must fit within these limits.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many time diary studies out there. They’re laborious (as anyone who’s kept a time log can tell you!) If you’re a researcher with a limited budget, it’s much easier to rely on quick response surveys. But then, we get bad data.

So I’m thrilled that researchers at the Harvard Business School, the London School of Economics and European University are doing a large study of how CEOs spend their time. Much management literature is based on how one CEO thinks he’s spending his time and then blabs about in his ghostwritten autobiography. This isn’t necessarily helpful since 1) his experience may be normal or abnormal, who knows and 2) he’s probably no better at time estimation than the rest of us. He may claim the key to success is working 80 hours a week, but what if he isn’t actually working 80 hours a week? He’s still successful. So what do we make of that?

It’s unclear. But here’s a different question: what if you could track hundreds of CEOs? What if you could look at them for different sized companies, differently governed companies, in different countries? What would you find? Clearly, your average busy CEO of a large company isn’t going to want to keep a time diary, but it turns out that CEO time is seldom a private matter. Most have a dedicated assistant who knows exactly how he’s spending his time. You can ask the assistant, and ask for records, and get a pretty good sense of the picture.

So that’s what the CEO Time Use Project is doing. I interviewed Prof. Raffaella Sadun this morning for an upcoming Fortune.com piece, which I’ll write more about in the future. You can see some results from Italian CEOs here. One interesting finding? Look at table 2A in the appendix for the distribution of number of hours worked per week. It’s a normal distribution around… 40 hours per week. It doesn’t go over 60. The average was around 47. Now, this doesn’t take into account work hours that the assistant was not aware of, such as if the CEO answered emails at night from home, or did some reading on the weekend. But the assistant knows if there’s a phone call booked, a dinner booked, etc. Maybe this is just an Italian thing. Or maybe CEOs don’t actually work 80 hours a week either. We shall see as more data comes out!

7 thoughts on “What Do CEOs Do With Their Time?

  1. I would love to see your analysis of this. I would like to work 45 hours or less. And I am CEO of a small business — and I’ve had other entrepreneur’s tell me they work 80 hours and I question it.

    So a great thing to read and learn would be what do these folks do with their 40-50 hours a week that allows great things to happen (or maybe not so great things and they are just overpaid! ) but assuming great things… they have an assistant or several, they do x, y z

    I am struggling with this and would like to know and I think it would be great info!

  2. this is exciting to me, too. I remember reading 168 Hours and looking at the attorney’s time log and thinking, ‘whoa, I have been selling myself short’. The idea that powerful/prestigious jobs are all consuming has really been a great excuse for underachievement on my part. I first encountered the idea that I might be wrong about this in a book called ‘secrets of six figure women’– your book backed up this book’s fundamental premise and provided more convincing empirical data. I really look forward to being inspired by the CEO examples. thanks!

    1. @Liz and Cara – it is exciting to think about, that the 80 hour (or something crazy like 140 hours that I think the Pepsi CEO tried to claim recently) workweek is as much a fiction for CEOs as others. Yes, there’s a lot of delegation. A focus on making sure all your time is used well — that meetings only happen that should happen, that sort of thing. Also, they’re not alone a lot, which probably makes it less likely they’re hanging around looking at Facebook!

  3. Laura,
    I am really looking forward to seeing the results of this study. Like Cara, I’m an entrepreneur/CEO and struggle with this issue. I can honestly say that having kids has been the best time-management tool for me! When I was single/newly married and just getting started as an entrepreneur, I routinely worked 80-100 hour weeks. But once kids entered into the equation, I’ve found all sorts of ways to be more efficient (turns out I wasn’t really “working” 80-100 hours after all).

    1. @ Sarah – agreed. At one point my husband referred to my 60 hour weeks and his 80 hour weeks. We’ve both kept time logs now, and it’s more like 45 and 65.

  4. Over the years I’ve watched so many administrators work a 70 hour work week but when it comes to the end its ussually a 24 hour work week. They spend so much time in entertaining other ceos.

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