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Unlocking the Leadership Time Management Challenge: Prioritization and Time Management Insights


To do list sitting on a table
“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things” - Peter Drucker

How many of us struggle to find enough time in the day to get everything done? It's a challenge that seems particularly acute when you take on leadership of a problem, team, organization, you name it. I know it's something I struggle with; it is a challenge I've been considering recently. How to focus more of my time on Ordinary Leadership while still getting into new projects, ensuring I do an excellent job for current clients, and spending a reasonable amount of time with family and friends. Sometimes, it genuinely feels impossible.


To be clear, I am not bad at managing my time.


I've been told "I'm highly efficient" and that I generate high-quality output in a short space of time. I'm also a big fan of time-blocking, the ruthless prioritization of my time. I can manage a to-do list with the best of them - thank Mum! I've concluded that it isn't my ability to prioritize and manage my time that's the challenge; I need some new ideas for thinking about what gets into my calendar in the first place and potentially how to say no better and more often. Potentially not a strength of mine, and frankly, it's not a strength I see in lots of the great individuals I work with, many of whom are great people because they are so willing to help others and take on problems that someone else might have overlooked.


So, to come up with a solution or a different way of thinking about this challenge, I've been going through my notes and skimming the internet for ideas on different approaches and tools for managing all the other demands on my time and attention. Let's start with three principles of getting better at saying no that stand out from my reading and internet trolling.


Values to keep in mind when prioritising your time


Value 1: effectiveness is about choosing what to focus on. Like the Peter Drucker quote, Mark Carney points out that effective leadership is about focusing on clear priorities and then having sufficient time to catalyze action. Oliver Burkeman called this "limiting work in progress". In other words, choose your priorities and give them enough attention to deliver them.


Value 2: less is more. This is a build-on the first value, but substantial enough that it deserves its statement. As with many things, the more you try to do, the more stretched you are and the less you can deliver. A great, if slightly unlikely, story about Warren Buffet makes this point well. Warren Buffet is flying from one city to another, and the plane's pilot asks him how he chooses what to focus on. Warren Buffet says he lists his top 25 priorities and orders them from 1-25. The top five must get your attention. The remaining 20 must be avoided at all costs. These tempting distractions end up spreading you too thin and making it impossible to deliver effectively.


Value 3: Pay yourself first. Another Oliver Burkeman point, but one that I think is important - and Ordinary Leadership suffers from, as I put other work first. You need to focus on your priorities, and the priorities of others drop. That's not because their priorities aren't necessary; it's just that the more you let other preferences take precedence over your priorities, the more you are indebted to what others want, and the less of what matters to you gets done.


How do you make these values stick - time management tools


Now, the tricky question. How do you make those values stick? Especially in a leadership role when so many demands are on your attention. There are three tools that I like and have been experimenting with.

They all have a common theme: they encourage you to say no, to drop activities and recognize that not everything will get done.

Tool 1: The rule of three. At its most basic, the tool says you can only accomplish a maximum of three things in a day, so don't try and do more than those three things.


To apply this tool, you do the following: 1) look at your to-do list or devise a list of priorities (al la Warren Buffet) for the coming week, month or year. 2) Now rank these priorities from 1-25. 3) Choose the top three priorities; these are the priorities you focus on. 4) Using this set of three priorities, you then decide what three things need to happen to deliver those priorities this month, week and day. You never have more than three daily tasks, which should always be tied back to your main priorities. 5) As you finish a task or achieve a goal, you review your list of priorities to make sure you are still focused on the three most important tasks.


Tool 2: The not doing list. It is nicely summarised here. The not doing list also encourages you to think about three focus areas—the measure of success for this year, month or some other timeframe. You then identify what you must do this week to progress on your focus areas. And then, you have the kicker. You develop a negative, not-doing list for everything that doesn't help you achieve your weekly goals. This might involve cancelling meetings and saying no to specific events, amongst other things.


Tool 3: the fixed volume approach to time. This is about accepting that you won't accomplish everything. Instead, you need to have a to-do list with everything you need to do, then add things to a daily list. My variation on this tool is to take a weekly perspective. Sit down with your to-do list once a week, and decide what has to get done this week to help you achieve your goals and objectives, and make sure those tasks are on your list and blocked out on your calendar.


As you might notice, none of these tools is perfect. They all involve making personal choices, and often I've found in experimenting with them they ignore the realities of life - all the niggling admin that we have to do. My tweak to them is to always have one goal in your life. This might be an admin you need to do, spending time with family and friends, etc. That way, you are constantly making time for those priorities. You are forcing yourself to fit your work into your calendar rather than providing your life around work and other preferences.


As Oliver Burkeman concludes, the objective measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.

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