As executives, we’ve all heard the sayings. “Time waits for no one.” “Time flies!” “There is never enough time.” “Where did the time go?” Top leaders are always searching for more time. Yet, the great paradox is this: we have all the time there is!
None of us ever sets out to waste time. Yet it often disappears in ways we never imagined or planned on. This is because if we don’t plan and intentionally fill our time the way we need to, something or someone else will fill it for us.
In one sense, we can’t “manage” time any more than we can “manage” wind. It’s going to pass whether we like it or not. But we can all harness our time, and that of others, to facilitate the most powerful, beneficial use of it, the same way wind can be harnessed by a windmill to produce powerful, beneficial energy.
Key to this is clearly establishing priorities and sticking to them when we decide how to spend our time. Just as people (should) budget their finances according to priorities, we need to allocate our precious time the same way.
Each executive has 1440 minutes per day. Once they’re used up, they’re gone forever. We never get them back. So, let’s look at the best ways to manage time and priorities as a busy executive.
5 Ways Executives Can Improve at Managing Time and Priorities
1. Maximize Current Time Management Systems
There are a lot of effective systems out there. There is also a lot of garbage. A handful of helpful ideas are listed below.
- Getting Things Done: Getting things out of your head and into action by listing them all in one place, reviewing them, and doing them. Like the Nike motto, “Just Do It!”
- Eat That Frog: Doing the hardest thing at the beginning of the day and getting it out of the way. Everything else will seem easier after that.
- FranklinCovey’s time management system: Clearly defining your goals and making sure you spend your time meeting them. In other words, doing whatever is “mission critical” before anything else. This requires a keen sense of priorities and a system for coding them. FranklinCovey has a useful model for this.
- The Pomodoro Technique: Setting a timer for 30 minutes (or any amount of time), and giving it your all (focused attention and energy) until time is up. When it’s up, take a break. Then go on to either another burst of focused effort or something else.
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Delegating whatever you can to someone else so your time is freed up to do what only you can do. This requires a good accountability system to make sure others do what you delegate to them.
The key is experimenting, finding what works best for you, and sticking with it. Often, this will be a plurality of systems that, when combined, will dynamically maximize your time and effort. Executives are constantly striving to achieve more efficient and effective time management. It is a never-ending battle, but one that must be continually fought. Caving in and giving up in this area is a defeat no senior leader can afford.
2. Design Streamlined Processes
The more efficiently you can accomplish a task, the better. Note—this does not necessarily mean “faster.” When speed becomes your only goal, it results in avoidable mistakes. Streamlining makes the process go as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.
How do you do this?
- Analyze and evaluate the current process—advantages, disadvantages, areas for improvement, etc. Get as much feedback as possible from anyone using it. What’s working well? What isn’t? Why?
- Prioritize each element of the process. Rank each in order of importance.
- Automate whatever possible and eliminate whatever can be removed without hurting quality and/or causing a breakdown in the process.
- Periodically revisit the process and adjust whatever needs adjusting. Involve as many people as needed.
3. Gain Advanced Skills in Prioritizing Tasks
As mentioned earlier, prioritization is key to making the most of your limited time. If you just do the next thing that comes to mind or that someone puts in front of you, you’ll be at the mercy of triggered thoughts and/or other people’s demands.
Granted, when the boss hands a subordinate an assignment marked “Urgent,” that often becomes the top priority for that subordinate. But as an executive, you ARE the boss! Therefore, it’s up to you to clarify and define priorities so the most important things get done first.
Consider the following three criteria when prioritizing tasks:
- Relevancy: Is this mission-critical? How much does it fit into reaching your goals?
- Consistency: Does this align with your values and the values of your organization?
- Doability: Is this something that you and/or your team can realistically do, given the resources and skillset available to you?
4. Leverage Best Practices of Email, Calendaring and Task/Contact Management
The better use you make of time management systems, the more time you’ll have for doing what really needs to get done. Thankfully, many software programs exist for making this easier. The key is identifying the tools that work best, mastering them, and using them consistently.
To ensure that messages don’t just pile up, get buried, and remain in random order, you need ways to:
- Sort them according to priority.
- Make sure the “must-respond-to” ones get answered first.
- Keep the vital ones in front of you.
Some programs and tools for accomplishing this include Shift, Unroll.me, MS Outlook, FollowUpThen, IFTTT, Gmail, Boomerang, and Sortd. Most of these are free, while some have paid upgrade versions.
The goal here is to make sure that the right appointments get put on your calendar. It also helps if margins are created between meetings in case you run late, for your sanity. Some effective tools for this include Calendly, Appointment Plus, Wrike, Booker, Deputy, Shiftboard, MS Outlook, and Visual Planning.
Task and Project Management
Here, the purpose is to get the most done in the least amount of time in the best way possible—whether by a team or individually. Effective tools for team project management include monday.com, Proggio, Easy Projects, and RingCentral. For individuals, consider Asana, Smartsheet, and Trello.
The main goal here is follow-up—making sure to not lose track of contacts, whether new or long-term. An effective tool will help you touch base with each contact at optimum intervals of time. Such tools include Salesforce, Copper, InfoFlo, Flowlu, Freshsales, and HubSpot CRM.
5. Balance Personal and Professional Demands
Otherwise known as “work-life balance,” this often poses the greatest challenge for executives, mainly due to the volume and intensity of the professional demands placed on them. Executives don’t reach that position by slacking off. At the same time, if they allow work to consume all their time, energy, thinking, and relational resources, they won’t have a life left worth working for.
So, how can you balance your personal and professional demands without sacrificing the quality and health of either? Here are some ideas:
- Realize first that a physically healthy PERSON is a top-performing professional. Avoid, when possible, giving up necessary sleep, exercise, proper diet, etc. for the sake of “doing more.” Uncared-for bodies become ill, sometimes to the point of serious diseases, leading to a loss of productivity far worse than what would have been necessary for proper rest and prevention.
- As with physical health, psychological health must be maintained to retain top performance and productivity. Taking time off for personal development, mental relaxation, hobbies etc. is NOT a waste of time. It’s time well spent for staying sharp, innovative and productive, even for the busiest of executives.
- Realize that relationships matter—they’re not just something “extra” for enjoyment after all the “necessary” things are done. People are social beings. Without meaningful relationships and the support those relationships bring, people shrivel up mentally, emotionally, and even physically. But with good relationships comes a better ability to handle stress and relate to others. This leads to more productivity, better teamwork, and ultimately, better business, as one becomes more likable and easier to work with.
With all this in mind, set priorities and boundaries, schedule your time accordingly, and do the best work possible while living a life rich with meaning beyond work.
Why Competency in Managing Time and Priorities Matters
The better you can manage your time and priorities, the more of the best things you’ll get done. Not just anything. Not time-wasters or time-fillers. Not even just good things, but the best things—both for the short and long term.
Developing This Strength
To develop this strength, you need to first consider how you’re currently spending your time and energy. Look at your planners and calendars. Are they over-filled? What kinds of activities and appointments are they filled with?
Then, ask yourself, as a leader, “What have I accomplished in all these meetings and activities?” “Could I have accomplished more and gotten better results doing something else?” “What do I need to cut out or change, and how, to become more productive and make better use of my time?”
Finally, you need to determine what your strengths and needs for improvement are in each of the five areas above. To facilitate improvement, you can:
- Read helpful articles, and books such as First Things First by Steven Covey, Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt, and Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy.
- Research how to prioritize, achieve a healthy work-life balance, plan better, and work more productively and efficiently.
- Get a coach and work with them on skills and attitudes related to managing time and priorities. A coach will help keep you accountable as you progress in this area.
I offer three complimentary executive coaching sessions to every bona fide senior executive. If you would like to take me up on that offer, just click the button below to schedule our first call.
About This Competency
Managing Time and Priorities is one of SOLID’s 50 competencies critical to executive success. It falls under the category of Execution, one of 5 categories within the competency model, which is explained and downloadable at the end of this article. Overall, executives are responsible for, and must be competent in:
E7. MANAGING TIME AND PRIORITIES: Maximizing current time management systems; designing streamlined processes; gaining advanced skills in task prioritization; leveraging best practices of email, calendaring, task and contact management; balancing personal and professional demands.
About Our Competency Model
The SOLID Competency Model is based on two decades of research. It is founded on the premise that all executive competencies can be categorized into these five groupings: Core Character, Execution, Relationship, Management and Leadership. Executives must master all five categories to achieve excellence in their roles. This model is useful for gauging and quantifying your skillset, understanding what it takes to be an effective executive, and providing a framework for improving performance. For more information, download “SOLID Executive Competencies: What It Takes to Be an Executive.”
Looking constructively at yourself isn’t easy, but doing so provides the catalyst for transformational change. Having a balanced, objective look at your skillset and a willingness to be self-critical for the sake of continuous improvement are major markers of a top executive. Take the next step and download “Eliminate Executive Blind Spots” to explore your strengths and weaknesses and remove any blind spots you may have.
About the Author
Daniel J. Mueller is President & CEO of SOLIDleaders, LLC, an Austin, Texas–based executive coaching firm. If you look closely at the picture, you can see how he feels about the “Just Do It” approach by looking at the swoop on his hat!
Daniel is passionate about helping leaders reach their full potential. After more than 30 years as an executive coach, he continues to provide one-on-one coaching to CEOs and other senior executives. You can schedule a complimentary coaching session with Daniel here or learn more about him in his bio.