This is how successful CEOs spend their time

It’s certainly not glamorous: They spend over 70% of their time in meetings.

This is how successful CEOs spend their time
[Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

Time is everyone’s most valuable resource. You can find ways to get more money and more manpower, but it’s impossible to add hours to a day or reclaim them once they’ve been spent. While we all have the same hours in a day, CEOs often have the most demands on theirs, and how they use their time is one of the most important decisions they can make, says Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School.


“CEOs are accountable for all the work of their organizations,” he says. “Their life is endless meetings and a barrage of email. In a workshop we do with newly appointed CEOs, many say they are overwhelmed by managing the job. They say, ‘I used to have a big job, but in the job of CEO, the demands on my time seem to have grown 100 fold. Everybody wants a piece of my time.’ If CEOs don’t create a strong agenda, they can easily feel like the world is driving them instead of being in control.”

Nohria and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter tracked the daily activities of CEOs at 27 billion-dollar companies for 13 weeks to discover their time-management practices, and the results were published in Harvard Business Review. They found that the average CEO works 9.7 hours per weekday, 3.9 hours per weekend day, and 2.4 hours per vacation day. Forty-seven percent of a CEO’s work is done at the company headquarters, while the rest is conducted while visiting other company locations, meeting external constituencies, commuting, traveling, and at home.

How those hours were allocated was crucial to their own effectiveness as well as the performance of their companies. These are the areas that have the most impact.


On average, CEOs spend 43% of their time on activities that furthered their agendas, while 36% was spent in a reactive mode, handling issues as they unfold.

“A CEO’s life is being driven by set of priorities or by strategic imperatives of company,” says Nohria. “We learned CEO time is event drive as much as it is agenda driven. CEOs have to be so structured with their time.”


CEOs spend 28% of their work time alone, but 59% of that is fragmented into blocks of an hour or less. To have time to prepare or do strategic work, CEOs need to claim larger blocks of time away from the office.

“It’s striking how many said that long flights were their best friends,” says Nohria. “To capitalize on it, CEOs should avoid traveling with an entourage.”

Related: 5 CEOs share their best productivity tips


CEOs attend an average of 37 meetings each week, consuming 72% of their total work time. CEOs need to regularly review which are truly needed and which can be delegated.

The length of a meeting is also a consideration. While most were an hour due to organizational or personal habit, the CEOs in the study admitted that many could be cut to 30 or even 15 minutes.



Email consumes 24% of a CEO’s time, and taking control of electronic communication requires discipline and boundaries. CEOs must set proper expectations and norms for what emails they will receive and when they will respond, says Nohria. They also have to be careful about sending email, as it can create a downward spiral of unnecessary communication.

“It’s so important to control email, otherwise it’s easy for a CEO to be dragged into a level of detail and granularity on matters that frankly they should not be involved,” he says. “Too much email undermines delegation.”

“Have to Do” Activities

CEOs spend about 11% of their time on routine activities, such as going to board meetings, attending investor days, and showing up for retirement parties. They have to be strategic about which are important to their culture, says Nohria.

“Where is their presence essential, and when can someone else show up?” he asks. “CEOs must go through their list to find those things that truly belong and those that don’t. Almost everyone can cut 25%, freeing up time to do other things they may not be doing.”

Related: What CEOs are doing to increase gender diversity in leadership


Off time

Successful CEOs are often disciplined about their time away from work, Nohria found. They spent an average of 45 minutes a day on regular exercise and slept an average of 6.9 hours each night. They typically spent about three hours a day with their families, and most spent an average of 2.1 hours on pastimes, such as watching television, reading, or hobbies.

“In this job, it’s easy to get consumed,” says Nohria. “When the work weighs on you, the risk is that the CEO will become shrill or tired or cantankerous. Finding time to stay connected to family and to do the things you need to do to restore yourself so you remain fresh is a huge benefit.”

What you can learn from the results

Seeing how other CEOs spend their time helps leaders benchmark their own time management habits. “If you’re way off on any of these things, it forces you to realize why,” says Nohria. “Is it because it’s specific to my business? ‘I spend more time outside of the office because our business is global,’ for example. Or are you out and about because you enjoy the adulation? Reviewing your time forces you to ask yourself, ‘Am I using time in a way that is strategic and makes sense, or do I have habits I need to revisit?'”