Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, your in-tray just keeps growing faster than your out-tray. For many business leaders this feeling of being ‘up against it’ might follow the peaks and troughs of new business activity, for others it could be a daily battle with no light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, it’s not uncommon for business leaders to have a high workload and the level of responsibility that comes with running a company will always necessitate periods of intense activity. But a lot of the problems associated with a mounting workload over a long period of time can be put down to bad time management.
In this guide, I want to look at the five pillars of effective time management. Whilst I can’t promise they will change the nature of your job or the volume of work you are responsible for, they should help you manage that workload in a way that is more productive and less stressful.
The To-Do List
A to-do list needn’t be anything more complicated than a handwritten list or Word document but ideally you want to be able to be able to rank tasks by importance and set deadlines and alarms to remind you. There are a variety of cloud based time management solutions out there that will allow you to create tasks, assign them to yourself and other people, share calendars, etc.
A good way to approach prioritization of work is to use a system like Stephen R Covey’s time management matrix. Covey proposes that all work fall into one of four quadrants on a matrix, which will in turn determine how you should deal with it (see image below).
The general idea to keep in mind is that you can’t change the size or composition of the overall matrix (that’s your total available time) but you can alter the size of each quadrant in relation to the others. Ideally you want to be increasing quadrant two, whilst shrinking the rest.
The Covey Matrix is a powerful tool and can really help business leaders change the way they think about the importance of what they are doing. Start by listing all of the regular work activities and projects that take up your time and then put each into the corresponding quadrant. Some tasks you may be better off avoiding entirely, whilst others you could be delegating down the chain of command.
Learn to Delegate
Teamwork is at the heart of any organisation so it’s very important not to try and shoulder all of the burden. Building strong relationships with your team is the secret to effective delegation. A good business leader will get to know where each of their team member’s strengths and skills lie and use this to help improve their team’s overall performance levels and delegate work down the management chain in a way that is sustainable and agreeable to everyone involved.
Another skill to delegation requires identifying work that isn’t a priority to you and learning when to say no. Much of this can fall into quadrant 3 on Covey’s matrix and can include meetings and other unimportant interruptions.
No matter how effectively you manage your time on paper, a loss of focus can scupper all your good intentions. Multitasking has a lot to answer for in this respect. Studies have shown that very few people can pull off multitasking effectively and that overall it can have a negative effect on efficiency.
Distractions are also responsible for a loss of focus and more often than not they can be managed. Email is without doubt responsible for the vast majority of our day to day distractions. It’s all too easy to spot that email reply you’ve been waiting for pop up at the bottom of your screen whilst you’re in the middle of something else. Before you know it you’ve stopped what you’re doing and have got sucked into an email conversation. Be strict with yourself and turn your email notifications or your entire email program off when you’re tackling something important. Even better, decide a time to check your emails 3 times a day and don’t look at it outside of those times.
Get a Life
It might seem unimportant, but going home on time and taking proper lunch breaks are very important conditions to effective time management. Study after study has shown that taking a break can improve efficiency and productivity at work and that long hours correlate to high stress levels.
Put simply, maintaining a healthy work / life balance will help you stay motivated, which is one of the prerequisites of any successful business leader. Accepting that tomorrow’s another day may not help you when you’re up to your neck in work and can feel like defeat, but having a life outside of work really can help you become an effective time manager in the long run.