The Corner Office

Newsroom Leaders Could Recharge by Unplugging

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You should be reading this about the same time as you are seeing your first quarter results. They always seem to fall short of the expectations you had when making the budget. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by everything you want to do in getting your year back on track—especially if you’re short on time to complete everything on your to-do list. And while that’s an understandable reaction in this industry, it isn’t necessarily true. As Warren Buffett pointed out to Bill Gates, you may have more time than you realize; it just needs to be efficiently utilized.

In one famous interaction, Buffett shared his personal calendar with Gates, revealing that it was almost entirely blank, with perhaps a few entries in the span of months. Gates was understandably confused and asked Buffett why his schedule was so barren. And to quote Mr. Buffett, “(Time is) the only thing you can’t buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time.”

To which one of the richest men in the world replied, “You know, I had every minute packed and I thought that was the only way you could do things.” But to this day, Gates cites this as one of Buffett’s lessons to him: Give yourself time to think.

In the news industry, it’s uncomfortably easy to find yourself taking on increasingly thin work with less and less return on your time investment. If I may, I’d propose taking a page out of Warren Buffett’s (undeniably successful) playbook. Instead of overloading your already fatigued calendar, try isolating yourself for a few hours and seeing what solutions you come up with. Often, all you need is privacy, a whiteboard, and a long afternoon.

This is, of course, not to suggest that there is no place for the busy in the contemporary news industry. Undoubtedly, Bill Gates has done quite well for himself with his own time management ethos. But still, I’d postulate that there are, for all of us, moments when taking a step back is infinitely more effective than attempting to resolve every issue at once. By seeking out these moments of chaos and disarray, you will be better equipped to identify when you need to step away from your work, even for just a few precious moments.

While quaint, a system I use is the old yellow legal pad method. Keep one designated just for Big thoughts and have it in a drawer or a place handy but not in your way. Jot down anything that floats into your head as a place to park it and let the thought go.

When you fill a page (or a screen), it is time to find your time. Rewrite your notes, consolidate them, add to them and finally try to rank them on a grid of time invested versus financial return. Find at least one item that makes a real impact and do it.

And while you may lack Warren Buffett’s almost unique ability to pick exactly what you do with each hour, that does not make this style unattainable. A few times a year, perhaps once a month if you’re particularly ambitious, schedule this designated time with no calls, no meetings, not even an email in need of response. Research has increasingly shown that this is a remarkably effective method to produce real, actionable solutions.

As professionals in this industry, we are each of us awash with crucial tasks, meetings, and webinars. And while there is perhaps no immediate solution, there is certainly a tool to make the workload less overwhelming. I cannot offer you a foolproof solution to a busy schedule, but if Warren Buffett is to be believed (and his record heartily suggests that he is), then allocating time for personal thought and reflection may make all the difference for both your calendar and your peace of mind.

As I was finishing this column, news broke that Buffett sold all his newspaper holdings to Lee Enterprises. It wasn’t a shock; he had hired Lee to manage them more than a year ago, but it was still disappointing. He had long owned the Buffalo News personally and acquired a sizable group through Berkshire Hathaway in 2012 and later years. He cited “lack of faith in their future” as the reason, but heartily endorsed Lee’s management approach and their ongoing ability to navigate the industry’s change. I’m confident he spent a couple days thinking about all of that before pulling the trigger.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He is also an associate with Grimes, McGovern & Associates, specializing in news media M&A. He can be reached at doug@silverwind.biz.

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