Time Management – Evolving

As your career and your leadership roles progress, how should your Time Management evolve to keep up?

I had a very interesting coaching session this afternoon, talking with one of my clients about his time management.

Time management isn’t one of those subjects that comes up so often in my coaching sessions these days, I think because I’m more often asked to work on the less tangible but more transformational issues that help people be the best possible version of themselves as a leader.

But I still feel it’s an important topic for people to look at.

I used to run a workshop called “Creating Time”, designed for professional people who wanted to make more of themselves and their efforts at work. My opening gambit was that it isn’t actually (yet!) possible to create time and that we must instead focus on those issues around attention-control, decision-making and task-management that are part of great time management.

Some of the discussion with my client this afternoon was around how his time management system might not have evolved as his work situation had changed. We found this a really useful area to explore. We reckoned that what happens as your career progresses and the organisation grows is that:

  • the complexity of the tasks you’re working on increases
  • the number of other people involved in the chain of getting individual activities done increases
  • as you become more of a leader and less of a doer, less of your activity is about tasks themselves and more is about your relationships with others
  • the timescales of the tasks themselves lengthens, as you’re likely to be leading on work such as organisational change projects or new product developments, and these need to be tracked over much longer periods
  • the number of people you answer to actually increases, as more and more stakeholders become affected by things you are responsible for.

All of this puts a great deal of demand on your time management skills and process – so they need to evolve to keep up. What worked for you as a junior manager might not be so useful as a senior leader.

These days, I’m a big believer that one person’s great Time Management System is another person’s admin nightmare. What works for me, might be really counter-productive for you.

I really like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach and I’ve been using it since 2015. But, it has a really steep learning curve and requires at least a couple of dedicated days (if not more) to implement. It also needs constant attention and discipline. And, of course GTD is a task-management system, not a time-management one.  Great time-management also requires those additional aspects of attention-control and decision-making I mentioned earlier.

On the whole, I think people should experiment with their own systems and adapt them to suit  their own circumstances and preferences.

But that said, are there any principles or general rules of thumb which people should look at if they want to evolve or upgrade their own approach to Time Management? Here are a few things that might be useful to consider:

1. Do you feel in control?
If not, then you need to change part of your system so that you can clearly see where you need to take control.

2. Is your brain clear, rested and able to create solutions and face tough decisions?
There are two aspects to this, I reckon. First (and I think this is from David Allen’s book) your brain shouldn’t be your main tool for remembering stuff. It’s the best thing you’ve got for finding solutions and making decisions. Use some other system for remembering stuff.
Second, if part of your schedule doesn’t include time for you to be healthy, happy and whole, you’ll be operating at way below maximum potential – and who wants to function like that!?

3. Do you have one place, one reference point, that captures ALL of your to-do’s?
I know some systems don’t advocate this, but it’s one point I strongly recommend. Those of us who are responsible, can-do people, who want to make a difference and be at our best, should not be spending any of our attention or our ‘worry-quota’ on wondering if there’s something we’ve forgotten.

4. Do you consciously know what you’ve decided NOT to do?
This is kind of a follow-on point from 3. Having some certainty that you know everything that needs doing, can enable you to focus on what leaders should be focussing on – deciding what gets done and what doesn’t.

5. Does your system help you decide in what Sequence to do things?
For some people, sequence comes quite naturally. Actually, for about 40% of the working population, it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when deciding priorities. People who are natural sequencers need a system that allows them to work with this transparently, but which also takes into account importance – because of course the first thing that could be done isn’t necessarily the first thing that should be done.
People whose natural preference is not to work in sequence (and that’s also about 40% of the working population) need systems that give them a bit more flexibility, so that they don’t feel the time management system itself has ended-up railroading all their decisions. I personally feel that this is where a lot of time management falls down, forcing people to work in ways which run counter to their natural strengths.

6. Does your system support your oversight of other people’s activities?
I know leaders in very senior positions who have responsibility for up to 20 other people – who themselves are leading teams too. These are big spans of control. When I’ve been in similar situations, I’ve actually really enjoyed the buzz of it, of being at the service of those people, making sure that they can do what they need to do. And I think it’s a powerful way to make a difference. And, you soon find that you need some kind of system which helps you see progress on some important tasks, but which also helps you coach, guide and support those people. The rise of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a way of doing this is part of an organisational response to these issues that goes back over 20 years.
Bottom-line – choose a system which supports your style of leadership, in your circumstances.

7. Do you have a way for deciding what task is most deserving of your attention right now?
And does that way of prioritising actually get the results that you want – if not, how might you need to change it?

8. Do you have ways of controlling your attention?
This is absolutely essential if you want to get the most out of your problem-solving and higher-cognitive functions. The distractions caused by email and other forms of interruptions will steal your day out from under your nose if you let them. Please find structures and ways of doing things that don’t have you working on some kind of knee-jerk autopilot, pulled all over the place by less important interruptions.

 

I’m sure we just scratched the surface of how your time management systems need to evolve as your career progresses, and of the general principles that need to support great time management. Let me know what else is important for you?


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