Why is it that all managers complain of not having enough time in the day, while at the same time, these same managers are struggling to ensure that their staff have enough tasks to keep them busy? One of the greatest challenges facing leaders is developing effective time management strategies, and a caring, supportive culture can further complicate the picture.
The Time Management Rabbit Hole
For example, at Decision Toolbox, the leadership team “reports” to the employees and we strive for a very “human” and personal relationship with our team members. “Family” is a cliché, so I’ll stick with “community” to describe our culture. It is human nature for good managers to want to solve problems for their direct reports, but usually this means taking ownership of the problem and completely relieving the employee of any responsibility.
In taking the employees’ problems onboard and making them her own, the leader becomes trapped in the minutiae of day-to-day operations. Much like Alice heading down the rabbit hole, these tactical tasks eat up an entire day—and eventually the entire week—and the leader never has a chance to pause, raise her head, assess, and see the forest for the trees.
Time Management Strategy #1: Prioritize Your Big Rocks
There are many parables about time management, but perhaps the simplest and most visual is from Stephen Covey in his book “First Things First.” In it, he shares the following story experienced by one of his associates:
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I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouthed gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.”
He set one rock in the jar . . . then another . . . then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”
Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”
By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” we said. “Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all of the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked and said, “Is this jar full?” “No!” we roared.
He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, ” Well, what’s the point?” Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you work really hard you can always fit some more things into your life.”
“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: If you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”
This is a fun parable with an important lesson:
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Accomplishing small tasks that don’t amount to solving your fundamental business problems are not helping you achieve your goals. Start by prioritizing what’s most important and aim to tackle those big rocks first.
Time Management Strategy #2: The Egg Timer Solution
So how do you find the time to focus on those big rocks? Some days, being the visionary is harder than others, and if I don’t live every day by design, I end up losing focus—and lost battles aren’t too far behind. I’ve solved this problem with a $3 egg timer. My theory is that anyone can sprint for 45 minutes, no matter how distasteful the task at hand. Except for the rare long-distance runner who can grind it out all day, most of us cannot focus for extended periods and still be highly productive.
It must sound simplistic, but it is powerful. For any unstructured time in my day, I take one of my Big Rocks and list a series of tasks related to it. Sometimes my Big Rock is driving sales; sometimes it is to simply be the visionary. Then, I set my egg timer for 45 minutes and spend that time completing as many tasks as possible. When the buzzer goes off, I take a break—I have some coffee, go for a quick walk, phone a friend—and then prepare for my next 45-minute sprint. By spending my minutes in a structured manner, I use my day by design and keep my focus where it needs to be: on my Big Rocks.
Do you have any secrets for effective time management? Share in the comments below!