Everyone knows the importance of making a list of things to do, prioritizing that list, and then working on the highest priority item. Yet how many managers actually do that? More often than not, managers have the best intentions as they come to work—but before they are even settled in their offices, they may be completely sidetracked by the needs of others. From that point on, most managerial days become a series of interruptions, conversation snippets, ad hoc meetings, rushed phone calls and crises.
Interruptions aren’t all bad, necessarily. In fact, research on time management indicates that effective managers and executives tend to have lots of interruptions during the day as they seek to keep in touch with day-to-day operations and to make themselves available to whoever needs them. In fact, many effective managers define the most important part of their jobs as being available to others. Conversations are the primary way a manager or executive has to influence others today. It may be the best strategy to take advantage of conversations whenever you can have them, even if other tasks you wanted to work on get delayed as a result.
Take Time to Focus
When, then, do those other tasks get done? When should a manager take time to concentrate, focus and reflect? The right answer varies from person to person and is a function, in part, of your personality. If you are a morning person, you may surprise yourself at how much you can get done by getting up an hour earlier in the morning. Some managers report getting everything they have to do in a given day done in less than an hour of unobstructed time, leaving the remainder of the day to help others. If you are a night owl, it may make sense to periodically carve out time in the evenings to do such tasks.
And increasingly, people are discovering the distinct advantage in having the flexibility to work at home. Managers indicate they can get two to three times as much work done than in a comparable time span at the office. There are no interruptions, no socializing, no phone calls—just quiet focus time.
Use Different Time Management Systems
Probably more important than having any specific rules for managing your time is having a willingness to try different systems when the one you’re using is not working. Since we are all creatures of habit, a time management system helps you gain efficiency in the use of your time. Having flexibility in using different systems helps you to gain effectiveness in using the system that works best at any given time, and keeps you from becoming a slave to a single system.
“To do” lists, card sorts, post-it reminders, calendar tie-ins and project planning software are all useful time management tools. Working on the next item that pops into your head, focusing on one high-priority item at a time, having a group work on a task, or doing a number of items as fast as you can, can also be effective time management approaches—but none of these approaches will work for you all the time. You have to have a willingness to switch to something new when what you’re doing is not working.
I go through phases in which a very flexible, detailed, priority-ranking time management system works best for me. During such times, I grind through the tasks like a machine. The following week I might go to bed determined to only work on one task the next day, stay home focused on that task, and put all other demands completely out of my mind until that task is finished.
Don’t Do What You Don’t Have To
Of course, the best way of getting something done is by not having to do it to begin with. Thus, a manager should constantly check to see if the things he or she is spending time on are items that have to be done or that could be better done by someone else. I find it useful to periodically review old “to do” lists to see if, looking back, those items completed were really that important. Often they were not. I then try to prune similar items from my current “to do” list.
We also need to constantly ask if things we are doing could be done better by someone else. It is human nature to lean toward doing things we enjoy rather than those things we are required to do as part of our jobs. Thus, a manager who used to be in a technical position might like troubleshooting equipment problems, while another manager who used to negotiate contracts might still enjoy spending extensive time combing over the details of a contract. Effective managers keep this tendency in check, realize what parts of their jobs could be better done by others, and assign those tasks accordingly.