You’re half-way through leading a performance review with one of your staff and it’s time to bring up the T problem.  Time management.

“John,” you start, “I’ve noticed you’re pulling longer hours than Tracey.”  John shifts in his chair.  “You’ve been given the same amount of work.  And you’re great at what you do.  I just don’t understand why it’s taking so long.”

For some bosses, addressing time management isn’t just a matter of work-life balance as it was for John’s manager who is worried John spends too much time at the office.  It can also be a performance problem.

Take for example Jackie.  She regularly misses deadlines, is constantly flustered and seems to be really busy.  What’s going on?  It’s poor time management.

Time management is very often a performance issue.  And managers have no alternative but to address it with their staff.  But it can be tough to solve.

No one formula works for everyone

So, what’s the answer?  A time management class?  A time and motion study?  Trite tips such as, “don’t look at your email in the morning”, or “always keep a clear desk?”   I don’t think so.

Avoiding email in the morning may improve Fred’s time management because he is easily distracted and isn’t as focused in the morning as he is in the afternoon.  But for Wendy, doing email in the afternoon may work against her efficiency.

You see everyone is different.  No one solution works for everyone and this is the key to understanding how to get the best out of your time.  Time management is deeply personal and affected as much by your diary, work style, personality and physiology.

Self-discipline and priorities

So, what causes poor time management?

One problem is self discipline.  Time management at the end of the day isn’t just about knowing what you have to do.  It’s about doing it.  The crucial bridge between knowing it has to be done and actually doing it, is tough for some people.

Another problem is people get their priorities wrong.  They might be good at “doing” but they do the wrong things.  That’s what we’ll focus on here.  Knowing what the right things are.

A third comes down to the fact that some people misunderstand what time management is about because of the term itself.

Let’s be honest — no-one can actually manage time.  There are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour — that’s not going to change.  What we are really managing is our priorities and resources.  It’s what we do that must fit into time.  It’s not about fitting time around what we do.

Fourth, many people attempt to multi-task.  Multi-tasking is a myth.  Physiologically, doing more than one thing at a time is impossible.  Anyone who thinks he or she is multi-tasking is actually juggling.  And not many people know how to juggle.  People get things done when they focus on one thing at a time.

Two management thinkers have liberated me from the old industrial mindset of treating time management in a rigid manner.  Jim Collins and the father of modern management, Peter Drucker.

I’ve heard Jim Collins talk several times.  Collins wrote the New York Times Best Seller, From Good to Great.  He has been enormously influential in the world of leadership and personal development.

Collins and what to do

At both talks Collins asked people in the audience to raise their hands if they kept a “to-do list”.

Conventional wisdom tells us that if you’re organized, you keep a “to-do list”.  In fact, mention a “to-do list” and you visualize those well-dressed, professional types wearing pin-stripe suits.

The fact many of us never make it half-way down our list is immaterial.  Culturally, “to-do lists” are sacramental.  If you have one, people assume you’re well organized.  If not, you’re labeled sloppy and disorganized.

So, Jim asked the crowd on both occasions if they kept one.  About 96 percent of people raised a hand.  (Some were like me who raised their hands out of embarrassment, remembering the last time we had a “to-do list” was sometime last century.)

Then he said, “raise your hand if you have a “not- to-do list”.  Only a handful of people thrust their arms in the air.  Collins went on to say that your “not- to-do list” is just as important as your “to-do list”.

Being clear about what we should not do or about things that are not essential to complete now, enables us to stop doing things that hi-jack our time.

So how do you identify what not to do?

Drucker & What Not to Do

In his book, The Effective Executive, Drucker lists three common time sponges.  We’re talking about things on your “to-do list” that if you don’t do them, no-one will notice.

When I ask participants in my leadership courses to list common time sponges, they suggest things like their Blackberry or iPhone, email, surfing the web, taking phone calls whenever the phone rings and talking around the water cooler.

The problem with these suggestions is that again, they will be different for everyone.  Your Blackberry may get you a client.  While your Blackberry may be a time sponge for others, it may make you money.

Likewise, email isn’t all bad either.  It may help you avoid expensive litigation.  And talking around the water cooler might help you build the rapport with staff that you need to be an effective leader.

Really these are not time sponges.  They’re symptoms.  If they don’t support your business goals, they are time sponges.  Luckily, Drucker goes deeper than symptoms.

Drucker suggests time sponges are doing things that:

  • don’t need to be done
  • are better done by others
  • require others to do unnecessary things

Questions for time management

So, let’s link that back to Collins’ tip of drawing up a “not- to-do list”.  How do you know what not to do?  Here’s where you come to the time and motion study.  What do you do each day?

Spend a few moments writing a time-log of what you did yesterday.  If you want to be more comprehensive, map out a whole week.  Write down everything you did from when you checked emails, took phone calls, went to the restroom or out for a cigarette.

When you’ve got your list, look at each item and ask:

  • Did I really need to do this?
  • Could this have been better done by someone else?
  • Did this require someone else to do something unnecessary?

Let’s look briefly at these questions.

Did I really need to do this?  Be tough on yourself.  A lot of leaders do work they used to do as subordinates because they can’t let go.

One CEO who was formerly the company’s chief engineer continued to check blueprints after he had taken over the chief executive’s office.  Checking blueprints is the chief engineer’s job not, the CEO’s.   If the old CEO had checked up on the current CEO when he was chief engineer, he would have been outraged.  He needs to let go and clear space in his brain for being a leader.

Could this have been done better by someone else?  New leaders hate this question.  Journalists who are promoted to editors often don’t like to let go of the reporting.  But their reporters are just as good as the editors were.  The difference is their reporters aren’t hassled by HR and distracted by management.  Reporters have the brain space to file a better story.

Did this require someone else to do something unnecessary?  Some bosses over-commit their staff to work on unnecessary things.  Maybe it’s to please the client.  Perhaps it’s to show off how much power they have.  I know one boss who would always volunteer her staff for projects that had nothing to do with the division she was leading.  The irony was, other divisions had people who could have helped the organization too but she wanted greater influence and paid for it with lower P&L.

Your team’s time management

When you sit down with a subordinate to help them develop their time management skills, remember to ask these questions.  Do you really need to do this to meet our business objectives?  Could this be better done by someone else?  And, does this require someone else to do something that is unnecessary.

Of course, to ask these questions meaningfully, you need to be very aware of what your objectives are.  You can’t analyze a task to determine if it’s really necessary unless you are really clear about your business plan’s objectives and mission.

But goals are a conversation for another time.  As are how to handle question number two which is all about delegation.  Remember, to be an effective manager in a complex, fast-changing environment, you need to know what not to do.  And you need to develop the self-discipline that ensures you don’t waste your valuable time doing things that prevent you from achieving your objectives.