Though most managers understand intellectually that time is their scarcest resource, few make the effort to gain a strategic perspective on how they spend their hours each week. Still fewer make a regular practice of keeping track of how the priorities they say are most important jibe with the way they actually spend their time. “Those we label natural born leaders know how to leverage their time,” writes Warren Blank in The 108 Skills of Natural Born Leaders (Amacom, 2001). For those in whom this talent is not innate, here’s how to do it.

1. Break your responsibilities into categories

The categories will vary depending on your job function, but they must be both strategic and tactical–identify not more than six. Consider, for example, the following:

• Growth and improvement. This category focuses on opportunities, not on crises, and it’s often the one in which the added value you bring to your company is the greatest. The challenge is to keep the time allotted to these high-leverage activities sacrosanct–don’t let pressing but less important needs crowd them out.

• Managing people. You may want to break this category into managing up, managing across, and managing down. Managers are well aware that coaching and mentoring enable them to maximize their leverage, but especially in times of belt tightening, it helps to be reminded that you can’t create efficiencies without upward and lateral alignment. Moreover, everyone agrees that communication is critical, but how many people actually plan time for it? In your haste to make your numbers, don’t let your communication–in any of these three directions–falter.

• Primary day-to-day responsibilities. Depending on your role, this area could also be subdivided–say, into selling and delivering services.

• Administration. This includes necessary chores ranging from assessing resource needs to interviewing job candidates to responding to e-mail. Get ready for a shock when you add the numbers.

2. Ask yourself what percentage of your time you should be spending in each category

Before you assign percentages, Blank advises that you ask yourself this question: “Given what I truly want to accomplish today as a leader, what will be the best use of my time?” To answer, factor in the competing claims on your time: the activities that enable you to generate the most leverage, the company’s strategic priorities, and the short-term needs of your supervisors, direct reports, and customers. Once you’ve assigned percentages, translate them into hourly figures for each category. Is the total number of hours realistic and sustainable for the time frame you’re considering? To be useful, your time allocations may need to change quarterly, monthly, or even weekly.

3. Check for alignment with your superiors and colleagues

Run your time allocations by your manager and key colleagues; ask them to share theirs, if possible. Sharing time allocations with a team gives a group focus and cohesion.

Managing your time

Now that you have a plan for leveraging your time, all you need to do is be ruthless in your execution of it.

Audit your time.

Take out last week’s calendar, and evaluate it using your newly established time allocations for each category. This will give you a sense of how much adjustment will be necessary going forward. Record how you spend your time in a time-management log–for many, this very discipline is half the battle. Here’s a sample time-management log from a consultant:

managing time - media

“The last time I kept a time log, I was surprised to learn that, when I am in the office, I spend almost half of my time on the telephone, either taking calls or leaving messages for people who aren’t available,” writes Elaine Biech in The Consultant’s Quick Start Guide: An Action Plan for Your First Year in Business (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2001).

Time audits, says Blank, can also “reveal when and how you get distracted from things that matter.” For instance, is multitasking really helping you? This skill is regularly held up as the sine qua non of modern-day managerial aptitudes, but a 2001 study by Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans indicates that people experience something akin to writer’s block whenever they have to switch tasks. The more complicated the task you’re switching from or to, the greater the time cost, that is, the longer it takes you to shift over to the new task, adopt its mindset, and then get warmed up again once you return to the original task. All told, the study estimates, these switching costs could reduce a company’s efficiency by 20% to 40%.

Practice time-boxing.

To-do lists will be only marginally useful if you don’t set parameters for how much time to devote to each task. When you make your list, carefully estimate the time each task will take, and box it into your calendar. This discipline not only will help you finish your list, but it also will improve your ability to estimate time and manage expectations of those around you. Particularly if you are in a new position or are confronting new tasks, ask for help estimating the time for each task–otherwise, you run the risk of missing deadlines and mismanaging expectations.

Pay attention to the areas where you’re weakest.

If you always delegate the tasks you don’t do well, your weak points will haunt you. Acknowledge your weaknesses, but use structure to shore them up. For example, many managers have difficulty saying no to colleagues who make impromptu requests for their time. Let these people know your priorities for leveraging your time and encourage them to schedule meetings with you.

“Most people manage their lives by crises,” writes Stephen Covey in Principle-Centered Leadership(Summit Books, 1991). “The only priority setting they do is between one problem and another.” But effective managers focus on opportunities, he adds, and they structure their schedules accordingly. “Unless something more important–not something more urgent–comes along, we must discipline ourselves to do as we planned.”

 

 

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