Here’s How CEOs Spend Their Typical Workday

They work harder than you probably think.

Here’s How CEOs Spend Their Typical Workday

They work harder than you probably think.

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Given that most of us aren’t CEOs, there’s always been a fascination with how the most high-powered people on the planet spend their average day. Now, thanks to a study published on Monday by Harvard Business Review, we finally know.

In 2006, Harvard professors Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria, tracked how 27 CEOs (25 of whom were men and 2 of whom were women) actually make use of their time. The study was impressively detailed, collecting data in 15-minute increments, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over a period of three months. With over 60,000 hours collected in total, the researchers were able to make specific observations on how these individuals maintain a healthy work-life balance, how many hours they spend at the office, and how they make the best use of their limited time.

So if you want to become a CEO one day, or even if you simply want to manage your time as effectively as a real powerhouse, read their biggest takeaways below. And for more secrets to success, check out Why Working On Higher Office Floors Affects Your Decision-making.

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1
They Work More Than the Average Worker

On average, the CEOs worked about 9.7 hours per weekday, which, at around 48.5 hours per workweek, is only slightly higher than the national average of 44 hours per week. The caveat, however is that CEOs don’t just “clock in and clock out” like a normal employee. They put in an average of  3.9 hours on weekends, as well as an average of  2.4 hours on vacation days.

Happy family smiling

2
They Maintain a Good Work-Life Balance

It sounds like a lot of hours, but because they are spread out, the CEOs only worked an average of 62.5 hours a week, which actually leaves a lot of time for leisure activities and family fun. In fact, the study found that the work-life balance of the higher-ups observed was fairy decent, as they spent about 31 percent of their time working, 10 percent of their time commuting, and 25 percent on personal activities.

“We paid special attention to the 25 percent of time—or roughly six hours a day—when CEOs were awake and not working,” the review reads. “Typically, they spent about half those hours with their families, and most had learned to become very disciplined about this. Most also found at least some hours (2.1 a day, on average) for downtime, which included everything from watching television and reading for pleasure, to hobbies like photography.” If you’re looking for help finding balance, don’t miss these 50 Secrets of a Perfect Work-Life Balance. 

sleeping man

3
They Almost Get the Optimal Amount of Sleep

At an average of 6.9 hours a night, the CEOs were only an hour shy of the recommended amount of sleep you should be getting every night. They also schedule in about 45 minutes a day for exercise. It’s not too bad given their time constraints, but it’s worth noting that getting the suggested 8 hours of sleep every night has been proven to boost your energy levels for the following day and even enhance your aerobic performance at the gym.

And another recent study found that people who exercise regularly make a lot more money than those who don’t. Sleep and exercise are also two of the five most crucial habits for a long life, so it’s worth making time for them, especially since one greatly benefits the other.

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4
They Schedule Their Days

Thanks to movies like Wall Street, you might be tempted to think that an average CEOs day is full of action-packed interruptions that make them pick up the phone and tell their personal assistant, “Call Felix and tell him I need to meet him right now!”

The truth is, as always, slightly more banal. Around seventy-five percent of the CEO’s day was planned, with only 25 percent spent on stuff that suddenly comes up and needs to be handled. For some great tips on expecting the unexpected, check out 8 CEO-Proven Resilience Builders.

Woman CEO Sexist at Work

5
Most of Their Work Involves Dealing With People

A good CEO is, at heart, the manager of his entire company, which is why some of the best ones are known for having a good relationship with their employees. Indeed, the study found that 25 percent of their day goes to functional activities like business unit reviews, 16 percent goes to organization and culture, and 21 percent is focused on strategy.

Despite the stereotypes, only a small fraction of their day is devoted to professional development, mergers and acquisitions, operating plans, and crisis management. A large portion of their day—25 percent—is spent on people and relationships. A common theme in the review, however, is the necessity of balance.

“A CEO who doesn’t spend enough time with colleagues will seem insular and out of touch, whereas one who spends too much time in direct decision making will risk being seen as a micromanager and erode employees’ initiative,” the paper reads.

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6
They Go to a Lot of Meetings

This is one stereotype that holds up. Seventy-two percent of the work time of the CEOs was spent in meetings, many of which were longer than they needed to be.

“‘Standard’ meeting times should be revisited with an eye toward shortening them,” the review says. “Doing this can significantly enhance a CEO’s efficiency. In our debriefs, CEOs confessed that one-hour meetings could often be cut to 30 or even 15 minutes. Another good way to streamline things is to reset meeting norms: Every meeting should have a clear agenda, and to minimize repetition, attendees should come prepared.” Additionally, one CEO had a piece of advice for when employees ask for some one-on-one time: “Whatever they ask for, cut it in half.”

CEO standing in office looking through glass window talking on phone.

7
They Prefer Communicating Face-to-Face

Even though their time is precious and technology makes it much easier to contact people without having to schedule meetings, the CEOs said that 61 percent of their communication was face-to-face, 24 percent was electronic, and 15 percent was by phone or email.

“Face-to-face interaction is the best way for CEOs to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced. It also allows CEOs to best support and coach the people they work closely with,” the paper noted.

In the age of tech addiction, that’s an especially good one to keep in mind!

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8
They Make Use of Time Alone

“Given that time in the office is easily eaten up, alone time outside the office is particularly beneficial,” the paper notes. “Long-distance travel out of contact with the office often provides critical thinking time, and many CEOs swear by it. To capitalize on it, CEOs should avoid traveling with an entourage.” For more on effective time management, read CEO Strauss Zelnick’s secret to doubling your productivity every single day.

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9
They Work Outside of the Office

According to the data, the CEOs only spent about 47% of their work time at the office, which means they spent over half of their time working on site or at home. That’s a good thing, since there’s an increasing amount of research that shows working outside of the office (especially from home) has tons of financial and psychological benefits.

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10
They Care About Time More Than Money

You might think that CEOs are obsessed with money, but, in actuality, “more than anyone else in the organization, [CEOs] confront an acute scarcity of one resource. That resource is time,” the paper noted. In fact, it’s precisely the feeling of knowing how much responsibility you have and feeling like you don’t have enough time to deal with all of it that leads to the stress and anxiety that leads so many executives to take their own lives (which you can read about, in depth, in The CEO Suicides: The Rise of Financial Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

So if you can view time as your most precious resource, and use it effectively, you’ll be in the lead to live the healthiest, happiest, and most productive life possible.

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