Early in my career I had some teammates that arrived late to a time-management seminar…
The facilitator made them sit in front.
If you can empathize with them or if you’re a leader frazzled by everything demanded of you, this list should help.
Take a deep breath and begin with the most important truth:
1. There is infinite need, but finite me
I think this is the most important item in the entire list.
You cannot begin to think about how to use your time until you get rid of the idea that you can do it all.
It is paralyzing to just keep adding projects, tasks, meetings, and social appointments with no thought to what you’re actually capable of.
Don’t feel guilty. Take another deep breath and repeat after me:
“In any day there are an infinite number of things I could do. I can only do a few of them.”
I’m serious about this. On days where you are frazzled and overwhelmed, come back to this bedrock reality:
Relative to the millions of things you might do, you can only do a few.
This truth releases you to work through the rest of the list.
2. You have a choice
Ben Franklin, quoting others before him, said that nothing is certain except death and taxes.
You have to die. And you generally have to pay taxes (or pay the penalty), but after that, everything is a choice.
Don’t skip this!
Most of us surrender our ability to choose and get frustrated. If you are letting others choose for you…that is a choice you’ve made. Even when someone holds a gun to your head – you still have a choice about what you do!
This is an amazing, incredible reality. It’s also scary – so scary that many people refuse to acknowledge it and prefer to live in a constructed reality where they “don’t have a choice.”
But our ability to choose is vital – with “infinite need, but finite me”, your ability to choose is your only tool.
Choice is the swiss-army knife of time-management.
3. Know your mission and your values
A quick review:
- You can’t do it all.
- You can choose what you will do.
Now, how do you make those choices?
You use a filter.
That filter is your own mission in life and your values. What are you trying to do? What is vitally important to you as you do it?
Hopefully, you make the choices that help you accomplish your mission in life and that are consistent with your values. If you’ve chosen to lead a team or an organization (there’s that choice again!) then the organization’s mission and values are important as well.
If you’ve never taken the time to think through your own values and what you want to do in the world, I encourage you to do that work. You can’t make some of the more difficult choices without it. This is where a coach can help. Contact me if you want to learn more.
4. Stopping is more important than starting
With a mission and values in front of you, the biggest challenge isn’t what to do – it’s what NOT to do.
A quick personal example:
Growing up, I had always aspired to be a master-level chess player. However, as I worked on that specific passion, it became clear to me that the time investment and work for me to succeed in chess would interfere with another even more important goal – to be a good husband and father.
In my case, I couldn’t do both (although there are some smart people out there that do, I wasn’t capable of it) so I stopped. I chose to play only casually (and last year my nephew beat me
If you’re leading an organization, you can waste time in a hundred different activities that seem important or that are important to someone else. But you’ve got to choose what not to do.
If it doesn’t help you accomplish your mission in any way, then why do it?
5. More time isn’t the answer
Remember, there are an infinite number of things you could EVERY DAY.
Even if you had the ability to create time, without items 1 – 4, it would just be consumed in the same way it is now.
6. It’s okay to close your door
Sometimes you need to close your door and focus on a project or a task or allow yourself to think about a problem.
There are lots of ways to ‘close your door’:
- Go for a walk
- Actually close the door
- Listen to music
- Talk with chronic office-wanderers about skipping yours
“But wait!” you say, “we have an open door policy…”
An open-door policy has become a cliche that was intended to mean managers want to hear about problems. “My door is always open…come talk to me.”
It’s a nice-sounding concept, but it doesn’t mean you are available to be interrupted at any moment of any day. You close your door or move to a conference room for sensitive conversations, right? You can also close it to get some vital work done.
If someone legitimately needs to talk, make the choice to have the conversation right then or to offer them an appointment later that day or the next.
[Note: an 'open door' policies won't help you learn what you need to learn about your team and organization either, you need to engage outside of your office for that.]
7. Your brain can’t do it
You may have dozens of different projects in progress at any one time. Some are personal, some professional. Some take days, some months, some years.
Your brain can’t keep track of all this.
The demands of organizational leadership exceed your brain’s unaided capacity.
Fortunately, we’re not limited to our unaided-brains.
Get a system that works and use it.
I had to start using a calendar near the end of college when I was working two jobs and volunteering. My brain could not keep track of everything.
It might be a simple pocket calendar. Maybe you prefer a phone. Maybe it’s one of those fancy paper-based systems. Maybe it’s a combination of google calendar and tasks.
Maybe (like me) you prefer David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. Maybe Covey works for you.
It doesn’t matter – find a system that works for you and use it.
Give your poor brain a break!
8. Turn everything off
The modern world is full of disruptions that keep our brains functioning in short shallow bursts. Email, texts, IM, twitter, 30 second news stories, facebook, blogs, and on and on and on.
Turn it off.
Not forever…just for an hour or two while you work on that project or talk to that person.
Be present with what you’re doing. When you’re checking email, do it intentionally, with focus, and do it once.
Use your technology to accomplish your mission and values. Don’t let your technology use you!
9. “Sleep is a weapon”
This is a line from one of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series. Jason Bourne, an amnesiac super-spy is being chased around the world by all sorts of dark government bad guys while he tries to unravel mysteries and stay alive.
Part of the super-spy special forces training he remembers is that “sleep is a weapon”.
Staying sharp, focused, and able to pursue our mission requires us to sleep.
Sleep is an investment in your mission.
If a hunted super-spy understood the importance of sleep, then you and I should get some too (along with exercise, rest, and laughter!)
10. Changing roles requires changing systems
As you change roles and responsibilities you’ll probably find that the systems you use aren’t as effective as they use to be.
My paper pocket calendar took me through those late years of college all the way to mid-career. And then I needed something more. I began leading bigger and bigger teams and my trusty pocket calendar wasn’t working any more.
You may find your current system can scale and work for larger assignments. Great!
But if not, understand there’s nothing wrong with you or ‘old reliable’. It was good for the time. Now it’s time for something that works for your new situation.
11. The bottom line isn’t
Don’t measure your use of time only by looking at a financial statement or productivity report.
That may be important for your mission, but I hope your bigger mission includes a life well-lived, meaningful relationships with friends and family, and making a positive impact on the world.
You may like:
- How to Make a Perfect Decision
- Minimalist Guide to Changing the World
- Seasonal Truths Every Leader Should Know
- A $15 Mistake Worth a Fortune
David M. Dye
(Photo by Toni Verdu Carbo)
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I share twenty years experience teaching, coaching, leading, and managing in youth service, education advocacy, city governance, and faith-based nonprofits. I currently serve as Chief Operating Officer for Colorado UpLift and enjoy helping others discover and realize their own potential.