I have found in my twenty-eight years of professional experience that poor time management skills are one of the biggest pitfalls for leaders. I am going to intentionally repeat myself: poor time management skills are one of the biggest pitfalls for leaders. I took organization training over twenty years ago, and I understood at that time the power of managing my day and beyond. More importantly, I realized I couldn’t survive in the business world until I could manage the swirling days, weeks, and months around me. By actively staying organized, I found I could dedicate the appropriate time to urgent and important items, spend more time developing people, and yes, put out those dreadful fires that often come our way.
When you are running at capacity, the fire drill exercise will sacrifice something else that may need to be dropped. However, if you have full control and knowledge of your own capacity, you can not only do it right, but you have a chance to do it all, and more. Included in this section are highlights from an evolving organization course I have taught over the years for new and experienced managers. I have a positive reputation for being highly organized at work. Some call it being anal retentive or compulsive. However, very few people can remember me ever missing a key deadline.
First and foremost, people are the highest priority. Regardless of your job responsibilities or what is on your calendar for the day, people who work for you take the top billing. As a manager, how do you get all of the administrative work done if you are constantly bombarded with questions from your direct reports? Good managers can anticipate questions and concerns through staff meetings and team meetings. It is extremely important to lay out clear expectations and preparations, including what might be the best time to connect with you, what is on your plate for the day, and who to contact if you are not available. Being ahead of the game is also important. You can do this by anticipating common questions and put answers in your reports’ hands before the questions are even asked. Everyone wins.
Managers should also understand the most effective ways to present information to a particular audience. Knowing who you are presenting to and how well they will absorb the information is critical. How does your group like to be taught? For example, a manager might find success in asking open-ended questions to ensure clarity. Tossing facts and figures at a group of people and expecting them to remember can be difficult. There should be interaction and engagement from everyone. The group of people learning should feel comfortable, and the leader should invest the appropriate amount of time when it is all over. Sometimes in the past, I rushed information to people by talking at them, and was always surprised when I got a question later about the same subject. I have found it extremely helpful for time-management purposes to invest the time up front so that everyone learns and digests the information from the start. Group settings are extremely helpful in avoiding duplicate messages. If you are not a leader, you should ensure that this gets practiced by discussing this with your manager.
Leaders need to build time into their calendars for the unexpected. How can you do this if you don’t know what’s coming relating to those “I need it now” requests? If you are scheduled for an eight hour day, and your calendar is booked for that entire eight hours, it is guaranteed that you will not get everything done. The unexpected will happen during that time—I promise. I like to block off time in my day with follow-up items that occupy space on my calendar to cover loose ends. The blocks of time also allow flexibility if meetings go over or someone needs me for something important. These blocks of time are great for reflecting on past meetings, preparing for upcoming meetings, or conducting in-depth work.
You should also schedule time to get away from your desk. This builds in another block of time for the unexpected, and allows extra time for the flexibility to take a break and stay fresh. Below are some additional tips for the unexpected:
- Schedule time for emails, return messages, etc. This minimizes your need to multitask and builds more open time. If you build an hour a day for this and it only takes thirty minutes, take advantage of the bonus time for other tasks.
- Build in time for daily operations and be sensitive to potential impacts within your business. For example, in a call center, Mondays are often high call volume days. Managers are needed on the floor. Build that time on the floor into your calendar for non-meeting activities. Do not schedule your staff meetings during peak times, since the chances for interruption are high and a less productive meeting will occur.
- Use miscellaneous blocks of time on your calendar for routine events that may not require a specific time. For example, you know you need two hours tomorrow to provide feedback to people on your team, or do a daily task like quality monitoring. You may schedule it for 10:00 A.M.-12:00 noon. The actual time is not as important as reserving the block of time of two hours. You can build in the flexibility to move this block of time through the same day as you need to as long as you remain committed to making it happen. Be careful of pushing it too late into the day, when you risk not completing it and are required to move it to another day. When you start carrying appointments over to other days, you run the risk of creating a bottleneck situation. For example, pushing the two hours to another day puts you four hours in the hole the following day.
- Use recurring meetings to hold future times and dates. This habit gives people a heads up to reserve times and dates and should increase attendance to key meetings. It is respectful of other people’s calendars, since it will give everyone ample time to know what is ahead for them, and they can look forward to the same time and date each week or month.
One of the greatest things I did for my own sanity was to keep a pad of paper near my nightstand at home. How does this relate to time management? When random thoughts pop into my head at night, I write them down immediately. The benefits are as follows: 1) I don’t forget, thus I don’t waste time trying to remember, 2) I sleep better knowing I have immediately addressed my thoughts, 3) I have stronger ideas since I have reached the inner non-stressed part of my brain and can formulate a plan of action. All of this allows me to enter into my day knowing where and when things are happening, with a clear plan of attack to get it done.
Don’t be a slave to your calendar, but be committed to it and avoid constant appointment pushing. Consistent appointment pushing to another day is a red flag that you need to change the calendar process—it is either too full or you need to be more committed to it.
You should invest ample time in understanding your future calendar appointments. Organize tomorrow before leaving today. You should invest five minutes before leaving for the day. I make very few promises, but I will make an exception. I promise you will sleep better knowing exactly what’s on your plate tomorrow. You should actually schedule this five minute event for the end of day as a calendar appointment. Five invested minutes will save you hours later. Additionally, organize the next week every Friday. Look out a week at a time. Again, schedule this Friday event on your calendar. Finally, organize each month with a few days before the current month ends. Look out a month at a time. Once again, schedule this event on your calendar. This shouldn’t be done on the thirtieth of the month—it should be done around the twenty-sixth to avoid surprises in the first week of the following month. The outlook a month ahead of time allows you to determine what normal routines you need to conduct each month and how to spread them accordingly. When we have certain obligations that are required on a monthly basis, I find as high as ninety-five percent of the people on any given month, if given the choice, will do the task at the end of the month. Be in the minority and get things done before they are scheduled and due.
We are in a culture of procrastinators. I am on the opposite end of the spectrum, almost to the extreme, viewing it as the antithesis of procrastination. I want tasks out of the way as quickly as possible so that I can concentrate on other things. I front load certain events in the first or second week of each month to get them out of the way, and allow flexibility in case other events come up that need to be accomplished prior to the month ending. There have been many times when something did come up at the end of the month, and a number of leaders did not meet their requirements as a result. Keeping ahead of your schedule allows for the unexpected. As I was going through my career growing pains, it was effective time management that often kept me afloat.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood
MP3 Downloads of “From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide” are available at Apple iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Emusic, Nokia, Xbox Music, Spotify, Omnifone, Google Music Store, Rdio, Muve Music, Bloom.fm, Slacker Radio, MediaNet, 7digital, 24-7, Rumblefish, and Shazam “From Fear to Success” MP3 on CD Baby