The Task-Time Tension

By Mark Smith , Author, Distinctions: 52 Lessons in Leadership

When I work with leaders and their teams, I hear a frequent and common frustration, “There is just not enough time in the day. The number of tasks is overwhelming, everything is critical, and everyone is ridiculously busy.”

This morning, for example, the CEO of an insurance company based in the UK told me, “We just don’t have the time to build the relationships that will allow us to operate effectively—there is not time for collaboration and it seems like we are just treading water.”

The problem is never about time. Time is finite and you can’t manufacture more of it. We all have the same number of hours in a day. Adding more hours to the workday is not the answer because that would likely only take away from family and “recharge” time, which reduces our contribution at work. The issue is not time, just as time is not the solution. The solution is prioritization and focus. 

I work with a gentleman by the name of Tony Carter, who is a venture capitalist and former vice president of Europe for CACI International. Tony is relentless in his encouragement of focus. As he works with emerging entrepreneurs, he has them recite this mantra: “If everything is important, then nothing is important.” It is only through focus that companies, teams, and individuals become highly effective.

We all have priorities – those things we typically think of as our “to do list.” Whether you keep your list on a notepad, phone, tablet, or computer, you likely have a list. We routinely add and delete tasks to these lists. It happens daily or throughout the day. Some of the items stay on the list for a long time and others are ready to be crossed out as soon as they are written. These lists reveal a lot about who we are and how we think.

We can ascertain something about leaders’ time management behaviors by looking at a manager’s list, and we can shift leadership behaviors by changing the structure of our lists. I coached CEO Greg Turley for several years. Greg is the founder of the successful internet company CarTrawler, which he built from a simple idea into a powerhouse in the travel industry. Greg was feeling the pinch of the “overwhelmed organization” and saw that people were multitasking in meetings, failing to meet commitments, and working longer hours to accomplish less.

When we recognize that these are the “symptoms” that something is wrong with prioritization and focus, we have taken the first core step to reprioritize our organization. Recognizing this, Greg developed “pre-printed” pads with core questions about the tasks on the list. Employees were encouraged to place a checkmark next to those tasks that contributed to the core mission of the organization. Imagine what items on your list would receive those checks? If you took this approach, how would that change what your list looks like? This approach changed the culture of the organization by challenging individuals to think about tasks and determining whether the tasks create value for the organization.

As you think about your own organization and your own leadership, I offer seven time management tips for leaders that will increase your effectiveness and reduce the overwhelmed feeling:

  • Relentlessly do what the company pays you to do—Create opportunities for others and inspire followers toward a common goal. Leaders aren’t paid to accomplish specific tasks by specific deadlines; that is an artificial measure of success. If you look at your calendar and at your to-do list, how many of the items are contributing to your role as talent developer?
  • Focus, focus, focus—Leaders understand that organizations succeed because they do less, not because they do more. Focused goals create focused decisions.
  • Build intelligent lists—Strong leaders recognize that lists are an effective strategy for ensuring the organization is aligned and working on the right things. Try categorizing your list by the most important things to you as a leader. Categories can include the following: “Those things that I promised to others,” “Those things that will create opportunities for the members of my team,” and “Those things that will create long-term value for the organization.”
  • Say “no” as much as “yes”—Our task lists grow when we say “yes” without thinking about the consequences. Appropriately challenge your peers and your boss about the value of tasks before adding them to the list.
  • Never break a promise—If you commit to something, follow through. Remember, never commit to something you cannot deliver as a promise.
  • Fix your calendar—Every week I challenge leaders to prove what they claim to be priorities by showing me their calendar. The schedules are littered with update meetings, status reviews, standing meetings, and other blocks of time with limited value. If you value developing others, demonstrate it with your calendar. If you value strategic positioning over tactical, show it in your calendar.
  • Respect others—Leaders that are late or multitask in meetings send the message, “I value me more than you.” Create a culture of respect and start by valuing people’s time.

Time-task tensions will always exist. As a leader, you can move your organization to a place or progress by shifting the way you spend time. By setting the example and following these time management tips for leaders, you’ll decrease your own feelings of being overwhelmed and create a new level of energy that’s sure to spread.

About the Authors

GP Strategies Corporation
GP Strategies is a global performance improvement solutions provider of sales and technical training, e-Learning solutions, management consulting and engineering services. GP Strategies' solutions improve the effectiveness of organizations by delivering innovative and superior training, consulting and business improvement services, customized to meet the specific needs of its clients. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, manufacturing, process and energy industries, and other commercial and government customers.

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