Who wouldn’t want more time? More time to get work done, to spend with family or to get to the gym. Having good time management skills and being able to accurately estimate time and complete tasks is a critical skill for any leader.
In Part 2 of 10 Ways to Become Better at Time Management, you’ll learn the habits and approaches to time management that serve leaders the most. If you missed it, in Part 1 of the series, we explored the first 5 of 10 tips to become better at managing your time.
6. Create a system and habits you trust
A brain can only hold so much information at a time. Each open task or piece of information we try to remember is an open loop that takes energy for our brain to remember. In the moment it's easy to think you’ll remember something and minutes later it is gone. Just because you are wicked smart doesn’t mean you need to remember everything. It does mean that you use your best energy for strategically thinking through problems and creating new solutions, not in memory management.
To do this it’s a best practice to let your laptop, day planner and other devices be your second brain. Identifying programs and habits to organize information so it’s ready to use when you need it. Each person will need to experiment to find what works best for them. And what you need can change based on what’s currently going on in your life. Honestly, my habits change every 3 to 6 months as I learn more about what works for me and depending on how busy I am. Be curious and try something new. Take what works and leave the rest.
Personally, I currently use the programs OmniFocus and Evernote to organize my life. I’ve built practices based on my experience with Getting Things Done by David Allen, principles from Agile Development, and lessons I’ve learned from ForteLabs. I know others who use simple to do lists in planners, Trello, Asana, and many other approaches. What’s most important is a system you will use and trust.
At the minimum, I recommend every Friday writing down all the things you need to do for the next week. Don’t wait and do this on Monday morning. Monday will magically disappear, leaving the real to start until Tuesday. Second, I recommend closing each day by planning for the next. That way you come to work ready to go. Third, schedule 90-minute blocks in your calendar that you protect to make progress on your top priorities. If possible have a 90-minute block each day.
7. Have a will not do list
In order to get the right things done at the right time, the smartest leaders have a will not do list. After spending time prioritizing our work the day, what about the flip side, what will you not do today?
Recently, I had my morning planned out. After my morning routine I wanted a change of pace so I decided I’d head to the coffee shop and write until the library opened, then I’d drop off my library books, walk home and be ready for my first call. As time goes, it got away from me. I still had time but it was quickly running out. As I was walking out the door, I saw the dishes that needed to be put away, the laundry still on the drying rack and research materials that needed to be put away. I caught myself saying it would only take 5 minutes. Reality check. That 5 minutes was really 30 minutes. I reminded myself of my priorities for the day, said yes to my priorities and decided to leave.
The moral of the story, a will not do list is just as helpful to set boundaries on your time. Once you have your top 3 priorities for the day cross everything off your list. Everything else is your will not do list. The only time I can do anything on that list is when I’ve finished my top 3 for the day. I find this technique helpful when planning goals for a month or quarter. It helps keep me focused on what’s important and learn to say no.
I know you want to be helpful. I know you want to be liked. However, the most successful leaders achieve their goals and empower others by setting boundaries on their time and energy by saying no.
At first, saying no is uncomfortable and it isn’t easy. It’s scary to say no when you haven’t before. When you first say no you may come across as defensive or weak. So pick an easy no to practice. Pick a friend at work and ask them to ask you for things with the intent of you practicing saying no. Here’s the thing. By saying yes, when you want/need to say no, you say no to yourself. It’s time to say yes to yourself! Your time and energy are valuable. Only you get to determine how your life will be spent. In addition to saying yes to yourself, you never know what opportunity it opens up for other’s growth and contribution. Something boring and easy for you, done out of habit could be interesting and new for someone else. So let’s give no a try. Here are some questions to help you decide when to say no:
- Does the opportunity align with your purpose, values & priorities? If not, say no.
- Are you the right person? Are you the (only) right person? If not, say no.
- Is this the right work for you? Will this work (build your strengths/skills, meaningfully expand your network, or allow you to contribute in the way you want)? If not, say no.
- Is it the right time? If not, say no.
- Do you have enough information about what is required? If not, say no.
- Do you know what need they are trying to get met? If not, say no.
- And if you have to say yes, what’s the smallest yes you can give?
When you decide to say no take time to listen to the request and express appreciation for being considered. If helpful ask someone if you can get back to them. When saying no be straight forward and polite. Unless your manager or team, watch the tendency to over-explain your no. If saying no is a challenge for you, be ready to say no by having a go-to sentence in your pocket. One of the favorites my client’s use is, "My priority is [insert task] until [insert date]. Afterward, I’m happy to discuss taking this on."
9. Focus on one thing at a time
Our work days are filled with interruptions and it can make being productive a challenge. At other times we try to do multiple things at once thinking we’ll get more done. In multitasking, we are actually splitting our attention and it can take longer to get everything done. The problem with multi-tasking is it can take us up to 23 minutes to get back into the flow after our work is interrupted. There is a cost to context switching. As much as possible try to focus on one thing at a time. Turn off the notifications, close down your email program and put your phone out of site and for 20 minutes choose one task to focus on. Especially tasks that require focus and concentration. Like me, there are tasks you probably don’t enjoy doing and it’s tempting to multi-task. I like to describe this as the Mary Poppins spoon full of sugar approach to work. We think by adding something distracting, like a spoonful of sugar, we can help the dreaded work get done quicker. The problem is by multi-tasking we increase our cognitive load. Our brain perceives this as added stress and we can become less effective at what we are paying attention to. Next time you want to multi-task try being curious about two things: how much time the task really takes and how relaxed you feel when you are done. You might surprise yourself.
10. Turn it all off and go have some fun
When we are constantly on the go with every minute of our days focused on tasks and productivity our nervous systems get hijacked and we get exhausted. It’s important to take pauses in-between big tasks and give ourselves a break. If you are ever at a gym watch the weight lifters. They do a set of weights, hang out or pace for a bit, and do another set. That pause between sets is crucial for their heart rate to decrease and for their muscles to recover, They are gaining energy for their next set. We need the same in our day, weeks and lives. We need rest to refuel and be our best for the next task ahead.
I’ve given you my best information, tools, and tactics to better manage your time and energy. I want to end by bringing it to what’s most important. Women have big hearts and we often want to help everyone, sometimes at the cost of our needs. All the time management tips in the world won’t help if you don’t take time to care for yourself. It's too easy to become exhausted and burnt out when we're trying to do it all. Fess up, we all want to be the best person we can for our team, families, and friends. What about ourselves? If we want to show up as our best selves, we need to make our own self-care a top priority.
My second request, give yourselves permission to not be perfect, to be a bit sloppy and not get it all right. Life happens. Car tires go flat, snow days happen, and kids get sick. Give yourself a break to do the best you can with what you’ve got. When something goes wrong, tell yourself, oh well, all is well and it’ll get better.