It’s never too late for time management

Leadership jobs should come with a warning label: “Beware of meaningless tasks masquerading as fundamental job duties.”

As a case in point, meet Sam. By looking at him, you wouldn’t guess that he is being managed by his job. He’s bright, aggressive and results-oriented, with a track record of success. As a reward for his accomplishments, he’s recently been given a role that is 10 times bigger in scale compared to his previous responsibilities.

He arrives at the office at 7:00 a.m. and leaves at 8:00 p.m. His desk is a mess, his e-mails aren’t answered in a timely fashion, and his calendar is booked solid. His wife and children miss him, and his boss wants a strategy.

Sam’s a busy guy. Unfortunately, he’s too busy doing the wrong things to think much about the right things. Many of you are in the same untenable position as Sam — working too many hours and lacking the time to find a better way. Psychologists say that some people are chronic time abusers because of deep-seated needs for control, approval or a fear of being evaluated. For others, the underlying psychological motive confounding good time management is tied to an uncertainty of trusting — and acting on — one’s own judgments.

While we all have our own personal neuroses, it’s my experience that most people don’t actively manage the content of their jobs; they have been lulled into the illusion of busyness by the steady drumbeat of e-mails, meetings, reports, presentations and telephone calls that constitute corporate life.

To gain control over your professional (and personal) life, you have to gain control over your calendar. You must eliminate the meaningless distractions and focus your efforts where they count. Much like gaining control over your finances, managing your time requires understanding where your time is going, outlining your priorities, defining a time budget and plan, changing behaviour and monitoring the results.

Where does the time go? Analyze your calendar over the past four to eight weeks and figure out where you spent your time. Sam, for instance, was spending 10 hours per week on managing two large projects, 10 hours discussing minor projects, and another 10 hours responding to e-mails and open-door “drop-by” visits.

Know thyself. Identify how you want to allocate your time by answering the following questions: When and how much do I want to work? What do I want to achieve in my job? What activities are essential to my success? What activities do I disdain? These questions may sound pretty basic, but answering them requires a good understanding of your job, a long-term plan to drive your tactical objectives, and the self-awareness to know which responsibilities you should keep and which you should delegate.

Do the math. Define a time budget by translating your goals into daily and weekly time budgets. Compare your budget to your calendar analysis to determine the “gap” you need to close. For example, Sam needs to reduce his overall work week by seven-and-a-half hours, while finding an additional four hours to meet with peers and eight hours for planning.

Make it so. Outline a plan to close the gap between the current and target time allocations. Sam was able to close his almost 20-hour gap by:

– Reducing his involvement on the major initiatives through appropriate delegation;

– Consolidating minor project discussions into the existing weekly one-on-one meetings with his direct reports;

– Reducing drop-by visits by introducing brown bag lunches, thereby ensuring he was available to people on his schedule — not theirs;

– Delegating the majority of e-mail to his assistant and coaching his staff to modify their e-mail usage.

Start a support group. Implement and monitor the calendar changes by getting others involved with your plan. Your assistant and direct reports are essential participants, because your plan will require that they take on tasks you can no longer afford to perform. Ensure that they understand their responsibilities, your expectations and the best way to help you.

Many people have difficulty managing through this process on their own, so they find a trusted adviser to help them understand the implications of calendar analysis, challenge their thinking on high- and low-value activities, and hold them accountable for behaviour changes. Sam and others who have been through this process have slowed the drumbeats, learned new skills and created their own management rhythm.

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