One of the great challenges of leadership is time management. Managers are under pressure to deliver results, to cut costs and increase productivity. All this pressure equals more work.
More work equals a to-do list that keeps growing. When you tick off the to-do list items, more just seem to appear to take their place!
I’ve worked in lots of different leadership roles in many industries. Sometimes, time management has been relatively easy. Other times, it has been a constant struggle.
After working through some nightmare roles where I struggled to keep my head above water, I learnt a few things. Here’s what I learned during the tough times, that helps me manage my workload today.
How to Conquer Your To-do List
1. Review Your To-do List Items for their “Care Factor”
You should be reviewing your to-do list frequently. But not just to see what you need to do next. No, you need to look closer at the items that are on your list and assess their value.
In the past, I would work hard on reports and other tasks and waste a lot of time, without thinking of the value they bring.
Then I started to notice that sometimes, nobody reads what you write, or notices that work you did. Sometimes, you spend hours on something that nobody cares about.
When you add an item to your to-do list, ask yourself this question:
“Does anybody really care if I do this or not?”
When People Don’t Seem to Care, Change Your Approach
If the answer is “No”, or “Maybe”, then you have two options.
Option 1: Stop doing the task. Get rid of it. Scratch it off your to-do list. Tell people you aren’t doing it any more…or better yet, don’t tell anybody and see if they complain. If nobody says anything, you win. If they do say something, then you know that the task has at least some value.
Option 2: Reduce your effort. There is no value in being a perfectionist and spending hours on a task when your stakeholders spend two seconds thinking about it. Find ways to reduce your effort. Reduce the number of pages in that report, or write a “1-pager” summary. Find a better way to accomplish the same thing. Remember: Done is better than perfect.
Good time management means spending your time on the things that matter most. You might be surprised at how many tasks are completed in your workplace that add very little value.
2. Classify Your Tasks. Keep it Simple.
Part of good time management is making sure that you have a classification system that you can use for your to-do list. I use the following:
- Important: Top of the list. Make sure you have no more than three of these at any time.
- Normal: The rest of the list. Order them in the sequence that you will ideally work on them.
- In Progress: The tasks that you’re currently working on right now (These might also be classified as Important).
That’s it. Hopefully you weren’t expecting anything too scientific or complex.
Keep it simple, so you can spend less time worrying about classifying your tasks and actually finishing them! Your classifications might be different from mine, but try to limit them to only a few different categories.
Try not to have too many “Important” tasks in your list at once. Remember that “Important” might change, depending on the situation. When you’ve left something to the last minute, but could have done it weeks ago, then that “Normal” task might now be “Important”!
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Cull Your List
I encourage you to be ruthless with your to-do list. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that some tasks sit there for a long time. They gradually sink to the bottom like a pebble thrown into a stream.
If you notice these tasks, get rid of them. Delete them from your list.
“But they need to be done!” you scream. Really? If you haven’t completed them and they have been sitting there for weeks, then they aren’t important. By definition, everything that is being completed before them must be more important. So let them go.
It’s important to note that just because it is on the bottom of your list, it doesn’t mean that it’s a pointless task. But if you’re not getting it done, I encourage you to remove it.
Why? Because while you may consider it to be important, it really isn’t important right now. If it was, you’d have done it already.
Keeping tasks on your to-do list for long periods is stressful. You see them every day, and they don’t go away. They take up valuable space in your mind and make you feel bad about yourself.
So let them go. They might come back, and that’s fine. But don’t clog up your brain with tasks that aren’t important right now. Tackle them when they do become important enough to worry about.
And you know what? Some of these tasks that you delete will never come back. So you win.
Beating the To-do List is Only One Part of Good Time Management
Managing your to-do list is just one aspect of effective time management. Good time management also includes aspects like effective prioritisation, pushing back on unreasonable stakeholders and delegating effectively.
If you want to learn more about these topics, check out my Effective Leadership Audiobook, which includes these topics and much more!
What are some of your tips for conquering your to-do list? Let me know in the comments below!