Anyone leading any kind of initiative knows that there are several aspects, departments, teams that come together to contribute to success.
And the leader is usually the one keeping an eye on everything.
We are frequently the head juggler, trying to keep all the balls in the air, or – at least – we work really hard at not dropping too many. As part of that juggling exercise, we tend, some of us anyway, to want all the things all at once this month.
What we must keep in mind though, is that there's an extremely fine line between pushing for results and overextending ourselves and our team.
If you find yourself, or you're finding your team, frequently remarking that there's not enough time, then it's important to start digging into the issue and make sure that we're not in fact setting ourselves up or setting our team up for burnout.
So how can we evaluate whether what seems on the surface like a time management issue is actually hiding a much larger problem?
The first thing to do is to review your setup.
If you want to eliminate the idea that it's a time management problem, then you need to satisfy yourself that your time management setup is sound, that you have all the elements of time management success in place.
But what are those elements?
Well, you need to make sure that you have a clear strategic goal. You need to know where you're going at the end of the day. What is that general direction that you're headed in?
Then, you need to have the elements broken down into more manageable defined chunks. You can't just say: “I'm heading way over there and we'll figure out how we get there as we move forward.”
No, you need to know how you get there and whether it's manageable. And you need that to be very defined. Ideally, you also have it broken down by quarter and by month.
Another essential element to that successful time management is making sure that you have clear success metrics. How are you measuring progress? Do you have milestones? There are times when it's easy to fall into this trap of just digging deeper into something and really just staying in the same place as opposed to moving forward. We want to make sure that we define what is “good enough”, what is “done”, and time to move on. As opposed to just staying in that one place. That needs to be clear.
You also need to be clear on how you are ranking your tasks by priority to meet these milestones. Once you have your priority clearly defined, once you know what “priority” means – because sometimes you may think: “Oh, it's a priority because somebody came and asked for it.” or “It's a priority because two people asked for it.” or “This person's complaining about it the loudest”, it doesn't mean it's a priority. You have to be able to differentiate and define what is a priority.
Another element of time management success is a task or project management app. Personally, I rely on mine all the time. Let's face it, my mind is so full – and I'm sure every other leader out there’s mind is also extremely full – that we can't keep it all in our heads. We could, but it's exhausting and we spend all of our time trying to not forget anything. So having an app really helps. Or even if you write it in a binder, I don't care. It's having that system where you keep track of things and, as soon as you remember you need to do something, you keep track of it. And with an app, or piece of paper, it will also show you whether you're being realistic or not. Because you only have a certain number of hours in a day.
Also, if suddenly your list is gigantic, then you’re going to recognize there’s a problem. Hopefully, you time block. I know, not everybody likes time blocking. I do. And I do it at the beginning of the day just to keep me focused on the day's necessities. That way, I'm less inclined to be dragged or gently nudged in a different direction than what I need to be focused on. Then, when I have my defined blocks for the day, then I'm sure that I am truly working on the necessities of the day.
And, for some people as well, having some form of accountability partner or group that they can check in with so that they can support each other, that really helps them as well be successful with their time management.
By reviewing this setup, then you really can eliminate the idea that this is a time management problem.
Once you’ve done this, then you are confident that you have a solid foundation, a solid roadmap, and you know that you're being productive or at least reasonably productive and reasonably efficient.
Obviously, there are always going to be things that come up that are unexpected, but for the most part you're being efficient, you're being reasonably productive.
Now that you've confirmed your setup, now that you're confident that time management is not the issue, what do you do?
Well, now you dig for the underlying issue.
If you start to notice that, even with all of these amazing, sound habits in place, you are still finding yourself constantly overwhelmed by conflicting tasks, constantly overwhelmed by too many priority ones, then it is time to consider another possibility.
And it is time to consider that maybe it is not poor time management, but it is actually a symptom of a bigger problem.
Something to consider is whether your schedule is too aggressive. As I mentioned, sometimes, we want everything “today”, and we're feeling the pressure. Pressure from the team, the clients, the financials. We're feeling the necessity to move forward rapidly. And, sometimes, we may inadvertently have created a schedule that is too aggressive and is actually not possible.
It's not just a question of motivating the team to do more. It's just not possible.
And we really need to consider that. Sometimes, it's just not possible to meet this date in the calendar that we've created. I've heard it said many times: “You can't take nine people and make a baby in one month.” You're still going to need to take nine months.
Even though you may throw more people at it, it's not going to make it happen faster.
In fact, in some situations, throwing more resources at it makes it worse. To use another expression, you may end up with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
Another reason as to why this might be happening could be that you are actually short on resources.
You may have all these wonderful, amazing people who are doing their absolute best and they are as productive as can be expected.
Even if their time management is fantastic, they're just too few of them and they cannot meet the level of work that is expected to meet the goals.
It could be that the scope itself is too ambitious or too many things are expected within this goal.
The scope itself may have increased as the project moved along. That's actually something that happens frequently. We start off with one very simple goal and, as we're moving toward that goal, the scope keeps creeping and creeping and creeping to the point where it's no longer feasible. And the scope is now too ambitious and we need to look at it again to bring it back to a more reasonable scope, maybe more in line with what it started with.
Maybe pairing it down would be sufficient to meet certain goals.
In revisiting the scope, you can decide what is truly necessary. Pair that down so that you can still meet certain goals, but that are much more reasonable.
Especially if you recently brought on new team members or there are too many individuals in one team, there may be duplication in the work that is going unnoticed.
Again, with rapid growth, there may be a lack of training for the team in terms of skills. And it's not time management, it's just skill level.
At the end of the day, setting realistic goals is hard.
There's a constant battle between pushing enough to see results but not so much to burn everybody out, including ourselves as leaders.
And there's a fine line there and it's really hard to see sometimes where we are in relation to that line.
If we take the time to first eliminate the fact that, yes, it's not a time management issue, then we just need to keep an eye on that line and make sure we know on which side of it we’re currently standing and adjust accordingly.
Without doing this type of exercise to find the underlying problem, we may actually make the mistake of thinking that it's a productivity problem, and we may be inclined to push harder.
We may even sign ourselves or our team members up for more time management training and that would just make it worse because that's not the problem.
Yes, there will be times when we need to do a big push and it's necessary to do that big push. And when that happens, that's fine. But it's important to do so intentionally, and it's also important to have a plan for when and how we'll allow ourselves and everyone else the chance to recover.