The One Universal Rule of Time Management

Most leaders wish they had more time.  In this post, I share the one piece of “universal” advice I most frequently give executives to help them better manage their time and boost their productivity.  Are you ready?

Spend a few minutes each day planning your day, and spend an hour each week planning your week.

The idea is simple: step away from the rush of activities and think strategically about your top priorities.  With your most important priorities / outcomes clearly in mind, translate them into your actual activities and choices.  Instead of letting your day (or week) happen to you, you are more in the driver’s seat and better able to choose the highest and best uses for your time and energy.  As Stephen Covey said:  Be Proactive.

Here are a few suggestions for implementing this:

Shut off communications while you plan.  I realize many people have their calendar linked with some of their communications (like email), so it may not be practical to turn off everything when you plan.  But try to shut off whatever you can.  Give yourself time to really focus your full attention on the question of what’s most important and how to best use your time. Neuroscience tells us that prioritization is one of the more cognitively taxing activities for the brain, so if you try to multitask (eg., reply to emails) while you’re prioritizing, you’re sabotaging the outcome. Instead, set yourself up for success by giving your planning the full benefit of uninterrupted brain time—at least as close to that as you can manage.

Block out planning time on your calendar.  Some people plan first thing in the morning, before they get into their day’s activities. Others find that planning at the end of their workday sets them up to hit the ground running the next morning.  There’s nothing magical here, it’s just what works for you.  Since research shows that prioritization is a brain-hungry activity, choose a time when you typically feel fresh.  If 10 minutes during lunch makes the most sense, then do that. And try to pick a time that’s less likely to get pushed aside by something else.

The same applies to weekly planning. Many people do this on Friday afternoon, others over the weekend, and some early on Monday. Pick a time, put it on your calendar as a recurring activity, and try to stick to it.  One benefit of planning the next week on Friday is that you may be able to reduce work over the weekend.

Use weekly planning to build your biggest priorities into your week.  Use weekly planning time to remind yourself of your most important goals or objectives, and think about the best ways to translate those into your week.  If you have a document that lays out your “bigger” plans–quarterly or annual goals for example–then glance at this when you plan.  From there, block out time for crucially important tasks, and reduce lower priority activities.  While it’s important to choose productivity tools or a system that you like (eg., Franklin Covey), the discipline of daily and weekly planning is even more important.

Use daily planning to keep focus and regroup.  Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.”  No matter how well-planned your week, the reality is going to be different.  Kids get sick, unexpected opportunities appear, priorities shift.  That’s why daily planning is so important.  Daily planning lets you regroup and figure out the best way to spend today (or tomorrow), given the realities of what’s actually happening.  Use daily planning to step back and decide how to use the one day before you.  Daily planning can include making a prioritized list of what must get done.  It can include looking at your calendar and deciding what to keep, and what to delete.  If you created a weekly list or plan, refer to it when you plan your day.  That will help you link back to your priorities.  This is where the rubber meets the road–where big picture planning ties to this week, and then to today.

If you fall off the time management wagon, get back on.  Planning is a habit and for most people it takes a lot of effort to create a habit.  I have started and stopped and restarted a planning discipline for myself probably dozens of times.  I believe the same is true for many leaders.  The key is to come back to it.  You may never have the perfect system and you may never use your system perfectly.  But by spending focused time stepping back and looking from a higher vantage point, you greatly increase the likelihood that you will use your time in better ways.  You’ll cancel yourself out of meetings you really don’t need to attend.  You’ll realize that you could delegate that presentation to your up-and-coming direct report.  You’ll block more time for what really matters.  It takes effort–but the results can be huge.

For some great ideas on productivity and time management, I highly recommend this book from Harvard Business Review: