Time ManagementI recently had a conversation with a vice president about the pressing challenges she’s facing in her division with priority overload. She was looking at bringing her management team to our Leading @ the Speed of Change: Transforming Personal, Team, and Organization Performance public workshop. We decided to tailor a session for her group that will especially focus on applying the leadership skills and approaches to their overwhelming problems of too much to do with too little time.

The prolific 19th Century writer, Charles Dickens, once reflected on this critical leadership skill; “I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time …” In today’s crazy-busy, always on, hyper connected world, demands on our time and concentration have sped up dramatically since Victorian London.

It’s a timeless principle that’s even more critical in these times. Leaders take control of their calendars and their lives. Leaders know that they don’t have to be accessible to everyone all the time. Leaders strive for balance. Leaders know they don’t have to answer every electronic message. Leaders look for leverage points and focus there. Leaders sort through the chaff of data and information to find the wheat of true communication. Leaders set priorities then reset them if conditions change. Leaders prune low-value tasks and maintain stop-doing lists. Leaders don’t confuse busyness and quantity with quality. Leaders know that blaming technology for sucking time away is like blaming the car for speeding. So they have found ways to tame and leverage technology. Leaders realize that being frustrated by endless streams of poorly run meetings and not doing anything to influence change is feeding the Meeting Monster.

Manage Your Own Time or Someone Else Will

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has authored many books on psychology topics, including problems with attention, focus, stress, and worry. He feels we’re in the midst of a major societal crisis. In his book, Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About To Snap, he writes:

“You can feel like a tin can surrounded by a circle of a hundred powerful magnets. Pulled at once in every direction, you go nowhere but instead spin faster and faster on your axis. In part, many people are excessively busy because they allow themselves to respond to every magnet: tracking too much data, processing too much information, answering to too many people, taking on too many tasks – all out of a sense that this is the way they must live in order to keep up and stay in control. But it’s the magnets that have the control.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and frantically busy, you’re letting others “should” on you. That is you should always be available, your door should always be open, you should respond to every message, you should attend every meeting you’re invited to, you should do whatever your boss asks, you should listen to every co-worker’s “grump dump,” you should have that expensive car, you should provide your kids with what they want, you should do it yourself to make sure it’s done right, you should be perfect, you should multi-task, you should take on that new project, you should sleep less, eat on the run, and skip exercise to get it all done … you should do all that’s asked of you. By everyone.

But … should you?

We’ve had decades of time-management studies that come to the same conclusion: people who get the most done and maintain a balanced life invest their precious time like a tightwad looking to stretch every nickel to its maximum buying power. “Sorry” isn’t the hardest word for most people; “no” is. We need to be “in the no” so people don’t should on us.

Effective leaders are focused and strategic with their time. In their article entitled “Beware the Busy Manager,” professors Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal report:

“After observing scores of managers for many years, we came to the conclusion that managers who take effective action (those who make difficult – even seemingly impossible – things happen) rely on a combination of two traits: focus and energy … aware of the value of time, they manage it carefully. Some refuse to respond to electronic messages, phone calls, or visitors outside certain periods of the day they decide first what they must achieve and then work to manage the external environment … refusal to let other people or organizational constraints set the agenda — is perhaps the subtlest and most important distinction between this group of managers and all the rest.”