As a subject of study, time management is in vogue. A quick review of the media landscape shows there is a book, seminar, video course, or mastermind program for virtually anyone to take control of their time. However, for all the discussion and energy that goes into time management, reports of tangible results are few and far between.
In business, there is often an unspoken assumption that bedrock time management skills are innate. Few internal talent development programs discuss time management. If business school did not equip you to use time optimally, there are few signposts to guide you on your way.
Yet, at the director level and beyond, time management emerges again as a central issue.
In a career trajectory toward senior leadership, demands on an executive’s time grow exponentially – far beyond the ability to delegate. As they uplevel their time management skills to align with a breadth of strategic responsibilities, leaders learn that fundamental ideas outperform the “next big thing.”
So, what time management practices translate into truly effective habits?
Adopt The Pareto Principle To Guide Your Time Management Decisions
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes – the “vital few.”
Writing in the 19th century, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto proposed this “unscientific law” based on observed distribution of yield versus cost in commercial activity and property ownership. Subsequent research shows marketing and quality management often follow this distribution.
Attested examples of the Pareto Principle include:
- 20% of customers generate 80% of turnover
- 20% of products deliver 80% of total profit
- 20% of fault points result in 80% of product failures
- 20% of top sellers are responsible for 80% of sales
- 20% of problems cause 80% of business losses
The Pareto Principle does not disclose specific time management principles, but it serves as a foundation on which leaders can build best practices. No matter how effective your time management becomes, you can continue to improve processes around identifying and centering the vital few.
As that cultural value flows down from the top ranks of the organization, it is crystallized in measurable, time-tested KPIs for job roles and teams, ensuring each member of the enterprise has an efficient way to test their time investments against their most important priorities.
Prioritize Tasks Using The Eisenhower Matrix
Named after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Matrix is a practical tool for day-to-day time management. Popularized by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey, it reflects the intense challenges of marshalling limited time faced by a commander-in-chief.
The four-square matrix is set up as follows:
- Do First: Tasks that are both important and urgent
- Schedule: Tasks that are important, but not urgent
- Delegate: Tasks that are urgent, but not important
- Delete: Tasks that are neither urgent nor important
Strategic wins are often achieved by focusing on what is important, but not urgent. As a leader grows in responsibility, he or she should spend more time within this quadrant and establish a vision for the organization that motivates others to do the same. Naturally, leaders will also have the opportunity to leverage their strengths on tasks that are important and urgent.
The Eisenhower Matrix highlights how scope creep in junior roles can also impoverish time management. Consider a writer at an executive job search firm. With some years of experience, she is able to create a client’s LinkedIn profile in two hours. Later, a new template is introduced that requires her to design graphical headers for each of the client’s past job roles – headers only the client will see that do not appear in the profile itself.
For a very marginal increase in client satisfaction, the new requirements hinder efficiency and demand skills far outside the original scope of hiring or talent development. The result: A less productive employee who must manage more unimportant, but urgent tasks … without the benefit of any delegation.
Insist On Uninterrupted “Focus Time”
Time management does not derive only from having clear priorities: It is also a function of well-trained attention management. Deploying attention on important tasks to the exclusion of distractions, in turn, helps leaders shepherd their limited energy resources. This is crucial on long, challenging days.
The working lives of many professionals are, in effect, interrupt-driven. Senior leaders can and should reclaim their time from an endless stream of emails, voicemails, and notifications. That means setting aside a specific period of time early in the day to “move the needle” in a distraction-free environment.
This does not mean you need to sequester yourself away for hours at a time, however.
One powerful model of focus time is provided by the work of management consultant Francesco Cirillo, who has advocated for his “Pomodoro Technique” since the 1980s. Originally named for a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, the technique prescribes spending 25 minutes of focused effort on a single task before taking a 5-minute break. Performing even 2-3 pomodoros can substantially improve productivity.
Codify Accountability Standards For Demands Made On Others’ Time
Accountability for time management in less senior employees is a challenging subject. Naturally, most employees adhere to a standardized schedule and rely on some form of time card, an idea harkening back to the Industrial Revolution. Likewise, many workplaces filter out digital “time sinks” like YouTube.
Across all dimensions of business, accountability is crucial: Delays in one team’s timeline may leave another unable to act. But heavy-handed time management tools, such as apps that monitor computer usage and record employees’ screens, are no more than technology-mediated micromanagement.
Such techniques treat time management too superficially to inspire buy-in and are not clearly linked to outcomes. Instead, executives should seize opportunities to integrate healthy respect for the value of time into company culture. One highly visible avenue for improvement is the business meeting.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that when the workday grows, meetings will expand to fill it. Research from Harvard Business School demonstrates that remote workers in the early weeks of COVID-19 shelter-in-place not only worked longer – an average of about 48 minutes longer – but attended more meetings.
An analysis of business activities among 3.1 million people in 16 global cities found:
- People attended 13% more meetings
- The number of people invited to each meeting rose by two (14%)
- The length of individual meetings declined by 19 minutes (12%)
The antidote to ever-expanding meetings may well be found in the Agile methodology, which prescribes a morning huddle and weekly all-hands meeting. Brief, regularly scheduled meetings with a clear agenda are more easily linked with the KPIs they are intended to influence.
Outside these periods, employees with authority to call meetings should be prepared to show good reason and, in the long run, measurable impact. Without these, it is very likely that the meeting’s purpose is ill-conceived, having little bearing on the work or simply scheduled to “look busy.”