Now would be a great time to evaluate how you manage time. Routines have been disrupted in a big way, and that’s an opportunity to think hard about what was the status quo before, what you are learning now and how you will adjust when the COVID-19 crisis eventually subsides. As with any crisis, it is an opportunity to reevaluate, recalibrate and improve, and that includes how you maximize your utilization of time.
I share here what I learned about time management after a lot of trial and error in 40 years in management. Some of my observations are specific to my experiences in nearly a decade as a chief executive, which I think can be useful to any manager aspiring to executive level management.
The resources available to you (and the organization) to accomplish mission critical priorities are time, money, people, information and technology / equipment. Time is the one resource that, once expended, cannot be replenished. It is arguably the most important asset available to any manager or executive. Cherish it and use it wisely. If you don’t actively manage your time, someone else, or more likely everyone else, will.
The best time management advice I can give you is to take care of your physical and emotional health. Invest the time to develop and implement a systems approach to personal and family relationships, nutrition, exercise, rest and recreation that keeps you healthy. You are wasting time and are of little good to anyone if you are routinely stressed, anxious, run down, depressed or sick. Get an annual physical and take care of your teeth. Protect the Asset. The Asset is YOU. (Greg McKeown, “Essentialism”)
Take your vacations, enjoy your holidays and days off and never miss important family events. Leading a balanced life improves your effectiveness on the job, sets a good example and helps you lead others. You need these opportunities to keep your perspective and priorities straight and refresh yourself, and you will regret not doing so later in your career. What they say is true: no one ever said on their deathbed, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time working.” And no one at the office will ever love you the way your family does, so family first. Never, ever forget it.
You (and everyone in the organization) must be clear on priorities and be rigorous in adhering to them. “The enemy of the best is the good.” (Voltaire) That’s a fact. Your “Not to Do” list is as or more important than your “To Do” list. Develop an intuitive sense that sets off alarms in your head when you are being sucked into time intensive vortexes by really good things that will not help to achieve your top priorities.
Being everywhere at once is tantamount to being nowhere at all. Don’t let anyone spread you too thin time-wise or geographically, or you will lose effectiveness. Make sure there is time in your schedule to breathe, and get comfortable saying “no” without explanation when you’re being asked to spend time on non-essential activities. Politely say “No,” smiling, but without apology. It’s a great time management tool.
You must watch your calendar like a hawk. Better yet, if you are in a position to do so, have someone who is diligent and highly competent watch your calendar like a hawk for you. It is also just wonderful if you are able to have a good gatekeeper to prevent interruptions. There is probably no better time management asset for you than a great administrative assistant to manage the calendar, mind the gate, act or speak on your behalf when appropriate and help you track and stay on top of your many action priorities.
Dial time into your calendar just for you first and make it inviolable. You must have adequate “me” time to think, to be creative, to dream and to do whatever you need to do to get your head in the right space every day to deliver exceptional performance. No one is permitted to schedule over this calendar time for you unless you agree. Politely setting this very critical boundary early in your managerial career will be very helpful to your productivity and peace of mind.
For me (and many others) this time is early in the morning. I routinely woke about 4 hours before I arrived in the office. What did I do every day in all that time? Whatever I wanted or needed to that helped me be well prepared and in the right frame of mind for that day. I also tried hard to limit meeting time so that each day included sufficient work time. Lunch meetings in the office worked well, especially to connect with staff, but I pushed back on breakfast and dinner meetings, particularly out of the office. Those were my times and family times.
Assure you are allocating sufficient time in your calendar for effective planning: daily, weekly, monthly, and annually. You’re good, to be sure, but you cannot wing this. You also have a right to push back when people interrupt or meetings get scheduled that “jump” your calendar without sufficient warning or your consent. You should be able to depend on a reasonably fixed calendar for as long a period as your routine organizational activities will allow. Otherwise your workflow gets disrupted and your productivity declines.
Schedule sufficient time well in advance for ongoing education and learning and to continuously improve your skill sets. “Sharpen the saw,” (Stephen Covey) or it gets dull, at all levels of an organization. Be a life-long learner.
Identify your time wasters: the people, projects and situations that consume energy without commensurate results and avoid them whenever you reasonably can. Be very careful about engaging with them.
Unless you are on the rise or in a new situation that requires that you meet a lot of new people quickly, be very thoughtful about the many social events, networking soirees, offsite meals, charity galas, political fundraisers, award ceremonies, golf outings, industry conferences, seminars, play dates sponsored by suppliers like sporting events and “relationship building” activities that can short circuit your work day (and night) and may not truly support your performance priorities. If you think an event will support your mission critical priorities, do it. Otherwise, be judicious, as you will be inundated by such requests, especially as your move up in the organization. They can be time intensive and energy draining if you are not careful, so be thoughtful before saying yes. You’re not being anti-social; you’re staying focused on your priorities and getting the work done.
The same can be true for Board positions in other organizations. Just be very aware of the time commitment, because if you sit on a Board you do want to do it well. Make sure there is a balance between you sitting on a Board and your ability to execute your job. Yes, it is important to be civically involved, community minded, to “give back” and share your wisdom and expertise, but not to the extent that it takes your eye off the ball with your job responsibilities.
It’s been said that effective management is a balance of analysis, synthesis and action. Make sure the allocation of your time is balanced in those three areas, and with an emphasis on ACTION. Richard Sloma in his book “No Nonsense Management” reminds us to “never waste time with low impact activities.”
A huge time waster is when you, people that may report to you or even the entire organization itself loses “emotional equilibrium.” Maintaining emotional equilibrium in the face of challenging circumstances conserves an amazing amount of time and energy. Energized, focused and calm is a highly productive state of mind, individually and collectively.
Do you have all the right tools to do your job well? Not having the right resources (time, people, money, information, technology / equipment) for the tasks and projects at hand can be a huge time waster. Would better tools conserve time? Are the tools that you have now time wasters?
There are many great time management / calendaring tools and systems out there, and you should use something that works for you, which may be a hybrid. I was never able to tap into a single system that was perfect for me and used a combination of electronic and paper systems to organize my priorities and time. Avoid any system that requires too much maintenance. The KISS principle applies here. It’s unwise to waste time slavishly using a complicated or burdensome time management system. Obviously, a smart phone is a great portable tool to manage your time and priorities in one place.
Having evaluated and used a variety of time management systems, they boil down to a simple process:
1) Know what you’re about and what you need and want.
2) Know what your department and / or organization are about and what they need and want.
3) Articulate clearly the essential priorities, goals and objectives for 1) and 2) in writing.
4) Develop written action plans to achieve 3).
5) Use time management tools to allocate your time to achieve 4)
Start and end the day on time as much as possible. I was not great at this, but hopefully a 10-hour day of actual work on most days should be enough for you to get excellent results. If it’s not routinely, you may need to look at the scope of your job, your tools or the effectiveness of people, if you have direct reports. That said, everyone is different as to what works best for them and their family. Just make sure you are making time for all your life priorities, not just work. If you’re not, you and likely others will pay a price, and possibly a dear one.
Be careful about travel time. If you can be productive while traveling that is the best way. Business class and direct flights can be worth the additional money, because you can work and be well rested when you arrive at your destination. Have others drive, or get a driver and you can get important stuff done. Have the meetings at your shop. We’re all figuring out now how efficient Zoom meetings can be to eliminate unproductive travel time. All those expensive meetings in far away places may not actually be necessary.
And having productive meetings is essential. Ineffective meetings are huge time sucks. Have and use standardized meeting guidelines designed for your organizational situation and adhere to them. Limit your personal meeting time to what you are entirely comfortable with daily and weekly.
If you are a manager / supervisor, competent staff and intelligent delegation are critical. Build in your area of responsibility around the smart, self-directed people who readily understand what you want and can do what you need done without you having to hover. They are worth their weight in gold. Effective delegation is a huge time management asset for you. Learn how to do it well and make sure you have the competent, skilled and dedicated people around you that can manage being delegated to. Beware of “Upward Flying Monkeys” and staff that want you to do their jobs for them. If they can’t break this habit, you are likely better off replacing them with more mature people that readily take responsibility and get important things done to your specifications.
Screen your phone calls. Never answer a call unless you are expecting it or it is from someone you really want to talk to. Anything else can wait for you to return the call, if they leave a message.
Are existing polices, procedures, work practices and systems (or lack of them) wasting your time? If so, see if you get them fixed.
What about office environmental conditions: noise, indoor air quality, lighting, temperature, office space and locations of people? Are office conditions creating stress, hindering productivity and / or requiring attention / time? Are you finding now that you and others are more productive working at home? Do you even need all the brick and mortar facilities you had before COVID-19 changed your office landscape?
What else are you learning about how you manage your time remotely vs. being in the office? What is it saying about your personal office and its location? Make sure your office location doesn’t create time wasters for you. Yes, it may be important to be at the heart of the action and available, but not so important if where you are gets in the way of getting done what you need to get done or you become a magnet for each crisis of the day. The flip can be true, if you are inaccessible to the point that news (especially bad news) doesn’t get to you fast.
Social media and the Internet are powerful tools to be sure, especially now when they have become the lifeline to the organization and clients. They can also be big time sinks. Be wise about how they are used to facilitate your objectives.
Don’t waste time trying to be all things to all people or the manager or executive others may think you should be. You only have the time to be the manager or executive that your organization must have at this point in time to drive excellent results in your area of responsibility. That’s plenty enough for you to do, so figure out what that is and keep your eye on the prize: results that benefit the organization.
Chief Executive time must be principally focused on Mission, Vision, Values, Strategic Plan, Annual Operating Plan, Board Priorities, Shareholder Value and Organizational Alignment, Communication and Execution. If you are asked to allocate your time outside this model, or the model your Board establishes for you, just say “No.”
Evaluating how you use your time in light of present challenges and staying mindful of effective time utilization going forward takes diligent daily practice but it pays significant dividends in productivity, managing and reducing personal and organizational stress and sets a great example for other people in the organization. It took me a long time to feel as if I was on top of it, so I hope I’ve given you some ideas to save you that time!
(Original art by Joan E. Hargate)