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Making Sense of Time

We’re in the middle of the annual and much-anticipated summer holiday season, where many councils reduce their number of meetings for a couple of months with an eye to beginning anew in the fall. In Alberta, councils elected in 2021 are coming close to completing their first year, while in places like BC, Manitoba, and Ontario, lots of elected officials have their focus on the pending municipal elections.


Whether you’re in your fourth year or just finished your first, I suspect that the issue of time management and priority setting has had a significant impact on you. Many observers lament that government moves at a glacial pace, while those on the inside of a local government may wish they had more time.


Time is a resource like any other – like money, political capital, or effort. As with all those other resources, there is a limited supply of time, and there is never enough of it. That makes prioritizing time a very important skill that needs to be picked up quickly and honed well over – well – over time, I guess.


I jokingly talk to councils about meetings taking all the allotted time plus 10%, or that everything will take longer than they expected in their plans. Compare this with what an elected official must actually do by the letter of the law. Often, the only thing that’s a requirement is for the council member to show up to meetings. All that other stuff – the attending community events, shaking hands, learning what’s going on in the community, is ‘voluntary’. It’s not really voluntary at all of course. If a council member doesn’t remain actively tuned to the goings-on in the community, they quickly fall behind in their knowledge of how to govern well based on the wider community’s needs and wants.


The best-elected officials are firm with how they allocate their time. They know they have to attend meetings, and they know they ought to attend community events. Prioritizing what to attend and when is vital to remaining a good representative and a sane human. This will likely mean saying no to some things through the course of the term. Perhaps council colleagues can attend some events on behalf of each other?


The part that I’ve not yet mentioned is about balance. Most elected officials have a life outside the municipal office. They usually have day jobs, families, social groups, and an aspiration to the occasional vacation. All of this has to be balanced with the public work.


I had a mayor tell me last year that she occasionally gets the cranky call during which the self-identified ‘taxpayer’ (why is it always a ‘taxpayer’ and not a citizen?) remarks that his taxes pay the mayor’s salary. She, in turn, remarked to the aforementioned taxpayer that she’d listen to him for 90 seconds, because that’s how much of her salary that the fellow paid. I loved that expression of balance. Well done.


Burnout and other forms of fatigue will plague the elected official who doesn’t quickly figure out balance and prioritization. Four years can be a terribly long time to try and attend every event, conference, and meeting, not to mention paying attention to the phone, social media, and email inbox. Pick and choose based on value to yourself and the community. Choose based on a matrix of timeliness and importance, and know that will change every year or so.

How do you approach priority setting and work-life balance? Let me know. As always, you can reach me at ian@strategicsteps.ca.


PS, you should probably buy a copy of my new book. The DNA of Great Leaders is available through Municipal World. In that book, the topic of priority setting emerges a few times.

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