Being a victim is no fun, especially as a leader. And when I hear someone say the words “I don’t have time”, this is exactly what I’m hearing.
Managing your time effectively as a leader is a critical part of success. It’s not necessarily about productivity or efficiency – it’s about focus and knowing your boundaries. It’s about understanding what is important, and what can wait.
So when I hear a leader say that they don’t have time for something, I hear a victim. Somebody who is not taking control of their destiny, instead being buffeted by the stormy winds of their workplace.
From “I Don’t Have Time” to “That’s Not Important Right Now”
I’m a strong believer that the way we use our time comes down to choice. Of course, every manager and leader has competing demands and bosses telling them to do things.
We all have teams who need our support, and unexpected events occur that throw us off track. That’s all fine. But when we “Don’t have time”, we’re actually implying that we would like to do something, if only we had more availability in our day.
“I don’t have time” is demonstrating a lack of control. It is also used as an excuse when we don’t want to do something.
Let’s change the narrative.
What you really mean is that you have other priorities. If a task really was at the top of your list, you’d complete it. You don’t have to pretend you’d do everything if you had time.
Because you shouldn’t. You should focus, and think about what’s important.
“That’s not important right now” is intentional and shows that you’ve made a choice. “I don’t have time” shows that you don’t have control over your day.
When You Say “No”, What Are You Saying “Yes” To?
By saying “That’s not important right now” instead of “I don’t have time”, we’ve taken an important step. Now, when we are declining to do something, it’s because we’ve chosen that path.
It’s worth also remembering that when we say “Yes” to something, we are saying “No” to something else. Because in general, we can’t put our effort in two places at once.
You might say that you can delegate to your team, to do two things at once. However, you can’t delegate to your team members twice – you’re still making a choice.
Here are some examples of “I don’t have time” that I have observed during my career. When we reframe them as a choice, they actually come up looking like pretty bad decisions.
I Don’t Have Time to Work On Improvement Initiatives
I’m a big fan of allocating my teams to work at 80% on their day job, and 20% on improvement initiatives – things that make the team or workplace better.
It’s not an exact science, and the time spent on improvements will fluctuate, but it’s important that some time is allocated.
Once a colleague told me that they don’t have time to work on any improvement initiatives, because their teams were busy all the time.
The irony of this is that if you spend a little time improving how you work, you can gain a lot of time back because of the improvements you make.
If you are too busy to work on improving the way your team and workplace functions, then you are saying “Yes” to a life of constant overwhelm, where you continue to run on the hamster wheel, getting nowhere.
When you “don’t have time”, it doesn’t sound so bad, but we’re actually making a choice.
In this case, this person was choosing to stay on the hamster wheel of overwhelm. Not a nice place to be!
I Need to Reschedule Our 1 On 1 Again
Sound familiar? Ever had a manager who kept rescheduling your individual meetings?
I certainly have. I once had a manager who was really good at his job and I looked up to him as a role model in many respects. Only thing was, I could never get time with him. At first it was OK, I knew he was busy.
Eventually, I came to realise that it wasn’t about being busy. It was about priority, and unfortunately I was at the bottom of his list.
When you’re making a choice to say “No” to your individual meetings with your team members, you are saying “Yes” to helping that person feel unsupported. You’re saying that it’s not important right now.
I doubt you would ever say that to your team member directly. “Supporting you is not important right now”.
Doesn’t sound great, does it?
I Don’t Have Time For a Lunch Break
This one uncovers a different problem altogether. It’s not so much about failing to support your team, it’s all about failing to support yourself.
At first, this seems relatively innocent and inconsequential. I’m sure almost all of us have had days where we choose not to spend time on lunch because we’re otherwise occupied.
Before I go on, here is an article telling you all about the benefits of lunch!
However, continuing to make choices that put your own health and wellbeing second will eventually put you and your team in a bad position.
“I don’t have time for a lunch break” becomes “My health and wellbeing is not important right now”. This sounds nonsensical when you read it out loud.
I Don’t Have Time to Do Any Planning
Many people don’t seem to like planning, because it doesn’t seem as productive as doing.
Planning is a useful way to spend your time, because it helps you understand the magnitude of the problem you’re dealing with.
Got a huge project to work on? Well, you could just dive in and start doing, but you won’t really know how much work there is.
And when you don’t really know how much work there is, you don’t know how many resources you need, and you can’t really tell anyone when it will be finished. If you do, you’re just guessing.
Leaders who don’t do any planning feel like they are being more productive. But there is a reason why sayings like “Measure twice, cut once” and “Failing to plan means planning to fail” exist.
When we don’t plan, we’re actually saying “Understanding the work involved in this project is not important right now”. This seems silly when we say it out loud.
Planning to Reduce Uncertainty
Recently one of my coaching clients was struggling to deal with the magnitude of a big piece of work she needed to do.
What became obvious was that the stress she felt was not because it was a big project. The stress arose because she was uncertain about how much work was needed.
She was not worried about the hard work – she was more worried about whether she had enough time left to complete the project, if she kept going at the same pace.
Planning helped in this case, because it helped her understand whether she had a problem or not. The plan tells you whether you’ll make the finish line at your current rate. And if you won’t, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to change to get it done.
But I Don’t Have Control Over My Environment…
Some people will tell me that they don’t have complete control over what they do.
They will tell me that they have a bad boss, or a team that isn’t very good, or a nasty colleague that keeps trying to pile work onto them.
These are the realities of the workplace, and I get it.
But at every turn, know that you are making a choice about where you put your effort.
If you have a terrible boss who overloads you with work, you are making a choice to accept the situation. Perhaps you’re making a choice to say “Yes”, when you should be saying “No”.
If you’re in meetings all day and have no free time to do actual work, that’s your choice too.
Instead of saying you don’t have time to do things, try saying that it’s not important right now. And if this is the truth, then you’re in control and you’ve made your choice.
But don’t be fooled, you do have time to do the important things. It’s your choice.
What do you think? Is “I don’t have time” a cop-out or just fine? Leave a comment below!