When I’m delivering time management training, I ask people what they want to learn at the start of the day. Many people are looking for time management tools to help them. The problem is, time management skills are what you really need. Tools often aren’t the answer.
A time management tool is a quick fix. A band-aid solution. A tool makes you feel good, because you feel like you have something tangible to grab hold of and use.
Unfortunately, tools are absolutely useless unless you can apply them to your role and your workplace, or your life in general.
And that’s where it gets tricky, because there are many things stopping us from doing that.
What you need instead are time management skills and the mindset to use them effectively.
Why People Struggle to Apply Time Management Tools In Their Life
There are a number of reasons why people find it difficult to apply time management tools.
Tools might include models like the Urgent-Important Matrix, prioritisation models, email inbox strategies or focus apps or websites.
People find it difficult to apply time management tools because:
- Key stakeholders aren’t on board with the idea. This might be a demanding boss, colleagues or team members
- They feel selfish. People sometimes feel bad putting their own priorities first; or
- Tools don’t take into account the people factors. Time management skills are required to put the tools into effect.
Next I’ll take a look at what I consider to be the top 3 time management skills to develop, to look after your own effectiveness, productivity and of course… wellbeing!
Learn More: How Better Time Management Will Help Your Team (Not just you!)
What’s Your Time Management “Why”?
Before I go on, it’s important to back up a bit to answer some important questions.
Why do you want to improve the way you manage your time?
What will better time management skills help you to do or give you?
What is the consequence of staying just the way you are now … and not doing anything?
Is it really important to improve your time management skills? Or did someone just tell you that you should?
Take a few minutes to answer these.
If you don’t have a solid “why” for improving your time management situation, you’ll struggle to make any change. And this is when all your tools and techniques will fail to provide any benefit.
If there is no compelling reason for you to make a change, then you’ll struggle to consistently apply the time management skills to improve.
And that will feel frustrating, demoralising and stressful.
Learn More: Time Management for Leaders: 5 Top Tips.
The Top Time Management Skills to Develop to Improve Your Effectiveness
Below are my top 3 time management skills to help you improve your effectiveness … and make it stick!
Time Management Skill #1: Prioritisation
I’m sure you’ve heard of prioritisation before, and it’s not rocket science.
You don’t need a fancy prioritisation tool or algorithm, you just need some priorities, that’s all.
But many people don’t sit and prioritise, because they think they know their priorities already. Or, they have a huge to-do list which they pick from as they go through their day.
It is extremely useful to identify your top 3 or 5 items for each day. I like to say to myself “If I finish these 3 items, it has been a good day”.
Prioritisation gives you a target to aim for, and a direction to head.
Sure, it can change during the day as life happens, but without a direction, you’re working aimlessly, at the whim of the workplace.
Schedule Time In Your Calendar For Your Key Priorities
Book meetings with yourself in your calendar, to focus on your key priorities for the day or week. This way, you increase your chances of having time available to complete them. Without this step, you run the risk of setting priorities, with no realistic time allocated to complete them.
This also prevents others from filling up your calendar for you, which is a common workplace occurrence.
Set your priorities to give you direction, then book the time to enable their completion.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #80: What to Do When You Have Too Many Priorities.
Keep Your Big To-do List Handy
There is nothing wrong with keeping a longer to-do list handy. This will contain longer-term projects and larger items, that may not be your top priority on a particular day.
Keep this list close, because sometimes you’ll complete your top priorities for the day and have some spare time.
You might also have small blocks of time during the day where you can tick off a quick task, because there isn’t quite enough time for one of your top items.
Learn More: Taking On Too Much? Here’s Why.
Time Management Skill #2: Pushing Back
Number 2 on the critical time management skills list is one of my favourites … pushing back. Otherwise known as saying “no” or “not right now”.
This comes in handy because work flies around our workplaces and often lands in our laps unexpectedly. Your boss or a colleague might ask you to take on something that you hadn’t planned on.
If you can push back with skill, diplomacy and respect, you’ll be well placed to manage your time effectively.
Of course, it’s not easy, because pushing back can feel confrontational and unhelpful.
However, it doesn’t need to be. Here are a few strategies that can make it feel like more of a conversation than a flat out “No”.
- Negotiate priorities. Here’s where your priorities list comes in really handy. Use them to negotiate. “I’m currently working on these three things right now. Which one should I de-prioritise?” This helps people understand your workload, and decide what might be most important.
- Offer a different solution. Sometimes people will ask you to do something a certain way. But if you can come up with an alternative method which is quicker or easier, you might be able to suggest it in place of the original proposal.
- Ask for help. If you’re aware of someone else who might be able to help (when you can’t), you can suggest them as a potential option. It doesn’t always need to be you.
- Delay the task. See if you can propose that the extra task be completed at a later time, maybe the next day or next week. If it can’t wait, see if one of your other priorities can be delayed instead.
As you can see, none of these options involve shouting “No!” with your palm outstretched in someone’s face. In fact, they are professional, courteous and respectful.
You might not always succeed in pushing back when you’re faced with a demanding stakeholder. However, you’d be surprised at how often people are willing to cooperate when you push back.
After all, people often take what you give them.
If you accept everything thrown at you, they’ll continue to throw. If you push back, they’ll learn to think harder before they take aim.
Learn More: Why Leaders Must Push Back and Say “No”.
Time Management Skill #3: Delegation
Delegation makes it into my top 3 time management skills, because it’s much more than a time management skill. It helps with team development too.
Delegation is all about giving someone else responsibility and authority for completing a task, or managing a function of the team.
Yes, this can be helpful because it takes work off you, but it also provides a potential development opportunity for somebody else. If you can delegate challenging work, your team members may learn new skills in the process.
If instead, you simply delegate all of your least-favourite and boring tasks, you’ll only receive the first benefit, which is to reduce your own workload.
However, you’ll also potentially damage motivation in your team, because people will be lumped with annoying work that they know you don’t want to do!
Keep In Mind the Different Levels of Delegation
Delegation doesn’t need to mean throwing something at a team member and coming back a week later to see if it’s done. There can be different levels of delegation. The level you choose will depend on the level of skill and motivation of your team member.
Delegation is a spectrum.
At the lower end, you might say:
“Go and think about how you would complete this task, then come back to me before you do anything”.
Or a step higher might be:
“Have a think about this task, and provide a recommendation back to me.”
Even higher still could be:
“Do some analysis on this task, make a decision about how to proceed and then tell me what you decided later”.
“Go and work on this and let me know how you went next week.”
As you can see, it doesn’t need to be throwing work over the fence and seeing if it works out OK, because that can be stressful for a leader!
You can also put in place any guard rails you need to maintain oversight of the work. For example, you might set up daily or weekly meetings to check in with your team member specifically about how the delegated work is progressing.
Delegation becomes much less daunting when you realise there are many ways to approach it.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #18: How to Delegate to Improve Your Team.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #105: Downsides of Delegation.
Apply These Time Management Skills to Improve Your Effectiveness
Time management tools are great and they can definitely help, but I believe your behaviour and ability to set boundaries is the most important aspect of managing your own time.
Some of these time management skills will take practice and repetition, before you become more comfortable with them.
However, if you can master these, you’re well on your way to being more effective. And remember, the more effective and productive you are as a leader, the better you are able to support your people!
What are some other time management skills you believe are most valuable? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!
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