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Rethinking "time management"

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

A quick search on Amazon produces over 100,000 results under “time management books”. I have to confess to having read quite a few of them. While there are always some useful, practical snippets to take away, I think the time is up for our obsession with “productivity.”

The problem with traditional time management is that it usually takes a task-focused approach, and that really isn’t how most of us work anymore - particularly in leadership roles. It’s likely that the most important elements of your work are relationship building, problem solving and decision making. These are difficult things to write on a list and tick off.

With that in mind, here are my top tips to help modern leaders get the most out of their time.

Know your priorities

I’ve written a separate blog on this. In summary, follow Stephen Covey’s advice to “put first things first.”

Manage your energy, not your time

Different tasks require different levels and types of energy from us. Introverts and extroverts will draw their energy from different places. Building an understanding of your own energy and how you can use it is the key to making the most of your day.

You might find it useful to map your attention or energy levels throughout the day for a period of a week or so, to see where it ebbs and flows. This can help you identify the good times of day to block out to focus (see the next point) and times when you might benefit from a break to replenish your energy levels.

For example, if you work best in the mornings, block off an hour or two before you do anything else to focus on core projects or strategic thinking. If you need to have a difficult conversation, try to schedule this for a time when you’re feeling resilient. You might find you have your best ideas of the day after 6pm, so you need a way to capture them and come back.

We can’t always control the shape of our day, but wherever possible it will help to try and organise your schedule in line with your natural preferences.

Create space to focus

It’s very easy to spend your work day switching quickly from one thing to another to another – from emails to social media, to a meeting, to ten minutes on that board paper, to more emails. It makes us feel busy, but at the end of a day like that you'll probably wonder what you’ve actually achieved.

We feel more satisfied at work when we feel we have made progress on something significant, and that doesn't tend to include our inbox. So for our wellbeing as well as our careers, we need to be able to focus on the big stuff.

Cal Newport argues that success in the modern workplace is dependent upon the ability to complete “deep work”: working in a focused, undistracted and uninterrupted way on stuff that requires us to really think. Emails and meetings are, in contrast, “shallow work.” He says that it’s essential that we make time for this deep work by creating protected space where it is our sole focus.

It’s been estimated that each of us experiences an average of 96 email interruptions in an eight hour day. Each “ping” stimulates cortisol, our stress hormone, and every extra bit of stress makes it harder for us to concentrate on what we’re doing. When we're interrupted it can take up to 23 minutes to refocus on what we were doing. That’s a lot of wasted minutes in a day if you’re constantly jumping from thing to thing. Our working memory is also affected - we recall less information if we’re trying to process too much concurrently.

So, if you want to really make some progress on something that requires proper thought and attention, turn off your email and put your phone on flight mode. If you can, block out periods of three to four hours to work on big projects, as this appears to be an optimum time for focused work.

Know the value of giving your time

There's a growing recognition on the value of carving out this focused time. But as leaders we also need to think about how we use our time effectively to build relationships and support our teams. This time is just as important and well-spent.

A five minute check in with a colleague may technically be an interruption, but the value it brings to the working relationship, or to your team, or to their productivity or wellbeing, is probably worth it. Sometimes that relationship will be key to unlocking a future problem or decision. Or it might mean you don’t need to spend time on a lengthy recruitment process in a few months.

So, if you're blocking off time to focus, make sure you're also allocating enough time to making connections. As a leader you have two roles - to support your team and to collaborate with other leaders. Both will require dedicated energy and attention.

The key thing is quality rather than quantity. You don't need to check in with everyone everyday, but when you are having a one to one with a peer or a direct report, it's important that they feel that they have your full attention and you're not clock-watching. This is where listening comes in.

Recharge regularly

To avoid burnout, you need to give yourself space to recharge. In our always-on work culture, and when we’re already working in our personal spaces, boundaries become even more important. To maintain your energy levels, you need to follow all the usual wellbeing advice – take breaks, eat well, move regularly, sleep. If you’re struggling with any of these, seek support.

Think about “how” as much as you think about “what”

I believe passionately that how we work is as important as what we do. It will have more impact on our long term success, on our relationships and on our wellbeing.

So when you are evaluating what you’ve done, make sure that you recognise and appreciate the impact of how you show up and how you treat those around you. As a leader, it will be this that defines your success.

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