Most of the leaders that I work with, at one point or another, ask me about time management. Usually the question arises because they’re stressed and overwhelmed. Often they are balancing high-pressure leadership roles with the commitments of having a family with small children. Their partner often also works. It’s just a lot to juggle.
In many cases, my clients already employ a variety of measures to increase their efficiency and productivity, yet they feel guilty because they don’t seem to be able to do it all, and they can’t figure out how to fit everything in…Sound familiar?
There are usually additional ways to improve their situations. The tips below focus on a simple truth: managing your time well in the long term often requires an investment of time up front.
Take time to think strategically about your time
My most universal advice is that people take one hour a week and ten minutes a day to plan their week and plan their day. And when I say “plan” what I mean is: step back, shut off your email, and think about your time. Think about your priorities. Think about the most important, impactful activities that will take you towards your goals. Some things are just not as important as others.
The biggest challenge here is to create a habit of weekly and daily planning/thinking time. This can be especially hard for people who are highly execution-oriented (many of my clients).
Here are a few tips on creating this sort of habit:
- Choose a one hour block of time and put it on your calendar as a “meeting”.
- Create a ritual around this time. What time of day do you do your best thinking? Where will you be? What tools will you use (A notebook? Special software?)
- Have an alternative time in your schedule you can set aside for planning if your primary time doesn’t work out. In other words, when the CEO assigns a presentation for you at the last minute or a key customer needs your time, where will you move your planning time to? If that also fails, where will you move it next? Having a backup plan makes it more likely you’ll actually do your planning.
- Use the hour to reference your larger goals and to ensure the most critical activities get into your weekly plan. If hiring is a key priority that is getting pushed out, for example, use that hour to block out time to work on hiring during the week.
- “Drop, Delegate, or Do” can be a helpful filter as you look through potential activities. Ask yourself what on your list you are not going to do. What can you delegate? What must you truly do yourself?
- Establish a simple reward after you finish your weekly planning. Research shows that the satisfaction of completing the desired task is usually not a sufficient reward to be motivating, especially early in habit formation. The reward can be something very small: a cappuccino, a square of good chocolate, ten minutes sitting in the sun listening to music, or whatever feels like a reward to you.
- Don’t expect perfection from yourself. If your goal is one hour per week, and in the first month you hit it 50% of the time, celebrate! That’s huge progress. Most people feel they have failed under those conditions. But in fact, you’ve made a big move towards your goal of taking charge of your time.
I recommend creating a habit of weekly planning before adding daily planning time, but the approach to daily planning is the same.
Sometimes when I suggest prioritizing activities what I hear in response is, “Well, it’s all equally important. It all has to get done.” This particularly comes up with early-stage entrepreneurs, people who are building out a new department from scratch, or others who are overwhelmed by the daunting task of starting something from nothing with very limited resources.
I understand that feeling, and that people see things that way. At the same time, I think it’s rarely true that everything is genuinely of equal importance. In fact, the feeling that everything is extremely critical is a mindset that can create a barrier to improving the situation.
If you are feeling this way, what’s often needed is some high-order strategic planning. If you are in a situation where you have no idea how to prioritize, it may be that your goals and strategies are not sufficiently clear and focused.
It may take a lot of time to step back and get your departmental plan or your business plan more narrowly focused, to get more clear metrics, to know precisely what you intend to accomplish by when. But once you have that plan, it can serve as a rudder to help you prioritize for many months afterwards.
See to your own physical, emotional, and mental well-being
There’s a whole school of thought that says you shouldn’t focus on managing your time. You should focus on managing your energy. (See this seminal Harvard Business Review Article).
In brief, there’s a whole collection of things that help us be more physically and mentally healthy. Doing these things in some kind of balance with each other is probably more important than machine-like efficiency in how we’re utilizing our time and executing on tasks.
If it feels overwhelming to try to “add” taking care of yourself to an already overwhelming work load, start small, and start with choices that don’t really take a lot of extra time. For some suggestions, see my previous blog on stress management.
For even more on the topic of time management and productivity, my favorite resource is a collection of Harvard Business Review articles.