It was then that I decided to write an article about time and how to “manage” it.
More than that I thought about how — if it were difficult for me, a classroom instructor and trainer to find time to write a short article — how much more difficult is it, and important, for executives at the top of the organisational chart to manage their time? After all, the time of senior managers is among the most valuable assets any organisation has, and how executives manage their time is critical to an organisation’s success.
I’ve always admired high achievers and wondered how do they do it, what’s their secret? Do they have a secret, or is it just the way they operate or something in their DNA? How do they find the time to build stellar careers while also being successful as parents, spouses and all the other roles life throws at them? Stories and biographies I’ve read about amazing people and high achievers point to many elements and traits they seem to share, and studies conducted to discover what those commonalities might be reveal that high achievers tend to demonstrate these characteristics:
- They love what they do — and don’t waste time with things they don’t love.
- They’re willing to work hard to perfect their skills and develop their talents over time.
- They are always learning new things and searching for ways to apply that new knowledge quickly.
- They consistently do what they have decided is the best use of their time.
- They prioritise and avoid distractions that will hinder or prevent progress.
If you analyse this list you’ll see how high achievers use time. A coincidence? Of course not. All high achievers use time to their maximum benefit, and health educator Brandon A. Trean sums up this relationship nicely in saying, “If you don’t master your time, it is of a much higher probability that you will become an unconscious slave to people who have mastered theirs.”
Time to Act
A 2011 McKinsey Global Survey of over 1,300 senior executives looked at how successful leaders master their time, and it showed that without a doubt prioritisation is one of the first skills executives bring to managing their limited time properly.
This means ensuring the use of their time aligns with their organisation’s strategic priorities.
We all want to be more productive, but sometimes we get caught working very hard without differentiating between what is important and what is urgent. Successful executives, on the other hand, intuitively understand the difference and are cognisant of how and where they spend their working time. For the rest of us, Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, focuses on the urgent versus the important, saying, “the key is not to prioritise what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” I find Covey’s Time Management Matrix, a tool he created to help manage and prioritise time, very useful.
Another useful tool is the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule. It’s named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who in the early 1900s created a mathematical formula describing the unequal distribution of wealth. Using this formula Pareto observed that roughly twenty per cent of people in Italy controlled or owned eighty per cent of the country’s wealth.
What is interesting is that this principle can be an effective business tool to help us manage our time more effectively.
Enter the 80/20 Rule which states that in any set of things — be it tasks, employees, customer interactions etc — a few (20 per cent) are vital and many (80 per cent) can be considered, to put not too fine a point on it, trivial. This rationale is well known to project managers who often say that 20 per cent of work consumes 80 per cent of time and resources. Or as Lee Iacocca aptly put it: “The ability to concentrate and to use your time well is everything if you want to succeed in business, or almost anywhere else for that matter.”
The best use of executive time is on strategic priorities, leaving day-to-day operations to others and freeing up more time to focus on the long term. This is how Pareto’s Principle can help us by reminding us to stay focused on the “20 per cent that matters”.
In other words, we could say that only 20 per cent of tasks that managers should focus on, or any of us for that matter, are the ones likely to produce 80 per cent of the results.
This is precisely why effective time optimisers begin by identifying, prioritising and focusing their time on those tasks and activities that are in the 20 per cent group, the ones that are really important and that will make a big difference — whether it is strategising, meeting with key clients or mentoring direct reports — and avoid spending any more time than necessary on something that may appear urgent but is actually in the trivial 80 per cent group of tasks or activities.
At this point I should also mention another characteristic of high achievers: they always find uninterrupted time to focus on important topics. Many do this several times each day, and it’s a valuable use of time to identify where they can make the most distinctive contributions to their organisations based on their unique vantage point, authority and experience.
Seven time-management tips
Here I’ll leave you with my personal seven tips to help you better understand how and where you’re spending your time, and where productive changes may need to be made for you to navigate through high-pressure, complex management responsibilities with minimum stress and maximum effectiveness.
- Save time in your daily schedule. By shaving minutes off several tasks throughout the day you can free up larger blocks of time later. Start by looking for activities that fill your day, then find ways they could be done more efficiently, or eliminated altogether. For example, you can use time that would otherwise be “wasted” waiting in line or for appointments that are running late to review material you need to read. Or consolidate errands or office walk-arounds so that you make only one trip, not several. And of course you can use the technology to support your day-to-day activities and increase your productivity. Microsoft Outlook can be great to help you manage your email and calendar, organise your mailbox and keep tasks on track. TP3’s Improving Productivity Using Outlook one-day course can really help you blend proven time-management practices with technology to set priorities, recognise obstacles and handle interruptions.
- Under-promise. Each time you plan your day, rationalise the number of commitments you make for yourself so that you have less pressure and more energy throughout the day.
- Under-schedule. Effective managers schedule only half or two-thirds of the time they actually have each day. For example, during a 50-hour work week, only schedule 30 of those hours so that you give yourself 20 “extra” hours that you can apply to unplanned contingencies and spontaneous events. This technique also allows for that all-important free time need to spend thinking, planning and other creative activities.
- Every manager should outsource those activities that tend to limit their efforts and sap their energy. Sounds easy, but often this is one the most difficult skills managers need to master because focusing on some level of operating detail or another is often precisely what they did in their earlier careers.
- Set time limits — and keep to them. Understanding how valuable (and limited) your time is, it’s important you quantify what you are going to accomplish within a time deadline or budget. For instance, when speaking on the phone tell the other person up front how much time you have for the conversation, and then do not go over that time limit. Another trick is to make phone calls right before lunch or at the end of the day so that the other person is motivated to end them more quickly. And always, always schedule appointments with strict start and end times.
- Learn to say no. Quite often, your time is more valuable than that of others who want to share it, and saying no to tasks — non-essential tasks of course, but sometimes even essential tasks too — helps you deal with people and “stuff” that can monopolise your time.
- Schedule daily appointments with yourself. Sort of like a “date night” between busy couples, the time you set aside for yourself allows you to concentrate on the projects that are most important and in most need of your energy and time.
My last piece of advice: learn from the experts. Covey’s management books and Iacocca’s leadership learnings are great, and so is a professional time management course. TP3’s one-day Time Management course is a perennial favourite of our clients because it helps busy managers return to their offices with an arsenal of techniques — the ones that are most effective for them and their specific work environment — to enjoy a significantly more balanced and productive work life.