3 proven time management techniques for leaders

Time management is one of the most common themes in my coaching conversations with CEOs and other leaders: there’s just not enough time in their diary and day to get everything done. It’s a challenge for any leader but it’s particularly acute for leaders in the high-growth businesses that I work with, as they realise that they can’t scale at the same rate as their business. 

Born out of real coaching conversations with my clients, here’s three proven time management techniques to help you manage your time diary better – undertaking a diary review, blocking out focused time and setting up Office Hours. Experimenting with these techniques will likely, at the same time, reveal some deeper, psychological truths about what drives you and your behaviour.


Time Management Technique 1: Diary Review

“How you handle your own time is, in my view, the single most important aspect of being a role model and leader.” 

Andy Grove

I commonly review client’s diaries with them. We systematically go through every engagement for the next few weeks with the objective of removing at least three hours of meetings per week from their diary. You can review previous weeks but it’s more proactive to consider what’s coming up and then reflect on how it went. I ask: 

  • Is it absolutely necessary that you attend this meeting or engagement?
  • What would happen if you didn’t attend? On a scale of 1-10 how bad would it be? The answer to this question is a good heuristic for how important a meeting really is.
  • Who is already attending, or could attend, that could lead the meeting in your place? Could that person be better briefed in advance and feedback? 
  • For one-on-ones, is this still someone that you need to have a one-on-one with? Do you need to meet them so regularly? Could your fortnightly one-on-one move to monthly?

Attendance at many meetings is essential. But things get more interesting when digging deeper into the real reasons that clients are attending certain meetings. There’s almost always emotional and behavioural reasons that drive some commitments:

  • Are you struggling to let go?

    In How to Scale: Do Less, Lead More, my colleague Ed Batista highlights “the importance – and the difficulty – of transitioning from a hands-on leader who personally gets things done to someone who leads in a different way in order to be more effective as the organization scales”. He unpacks how the leader who continues to lead by doing more often becomes less effective and may even undermine the organization as it grows larger and more complex. Ironically, one of the paradoxes of leadership is that, at the same time you need to let go of your organisation (to allow it to become bigger than you), you also feel the need to pull it back within your control.

  • Deeper worries, anxieties, insecurities or fears?

    Exploring this further with one client revealed that it wasn’t just letting go that bothered them. Deep down they didn’t trust their CTO to deliver on a critical project. Realising how much time this was taking up and how important it was for the success of the business encouraged them to tackle the issue head on with the CTO.

  • Because it’s interesting but not important or urgent?

    Another client working in government found themselves attending the weekly Special Forces briefing because it was so interesting, but talking it through they realised their attendance wasn’t critical for them to do their job effectively. They took an action to sort security clearance for a direct report who would attend and feedback on anything relevant.

Many clients don’t even realise that they’re struggling to let go until we review their diary. What starts off as a simple task always opens up a deeper conversation about emotional attachment and behavioural drivers. If you think this might be you then don’t fret, it’s one of the most common conversations I have as a coach. But do review your diary and ask yourself the harder questions. Thinking about your commitments in this way can not only lead to improved time management but also to profound shifts in your leadership style and understanding yourself.

Let’s review your diary together. I’m offering leaders a free 45 minute, no-obligation call.

Time Management Technique 2: Focused Time

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.”

Warren Buffet

We live in a world that is fast-paced and action-orientated. We spend most of our time ‘doing’ rather ‘being’. Whilst this is good for getting sh*t done, it doesn’t allow us the time to determine whether we’re getting the right sh*t done, and to grow as leaders.

Research on sleep, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes clearly shows that our brains need more down time. Mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity. Leaders are no different. That’s why the objective of the diary review is to free up at least three hours of time for you to block out your diary and focus on you and your business.

With this time management technique, my clients that have managed to free up focused-time have used it for:

  • Mindfulness, meditation and exercise
  • Focusing on their own personal and leadership development, through reading, listening to podcasts, or however else they get their fix
  • Coaching or self-coaching
  • Pondering the big strategic challenges facing their business
  • Deep work

If you could free up one, or even two half day blocks in your weekly calendar, what would you spend your time doing?

Time Management Technique 3: Office Hours

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

Clients commonly complain that they can’t focus because their day is constantly disrupted with meetings and other requests for input. Inspired by the maker’s approach, Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham offers up Office Hours as a solution.

Several times a week I set aside a chunk of time [for meetings]… These chunks of time are at the end of my working day, and I wrote a signup program that ensures all the appointments within a given set of office hours are clustered at the end. Because they come at the end of my day these meetings are never an interruption.

I’ve worked with many clients who have successfully adopted an office hours approach. They offer up several four hour blocks of time in their diary and communicate to their team that they are available for meetings, on a first-come, first-served basis, during these times. It works particularly well for these types of meetings:

  • One-on-ones – carving out specific time for these sessions and encouraging reports to take responsibility for arranging them sends a clear message: you are there to support them but it’s up to them to find a time to meet you and they must take responsibility for their own development. 
  • Project updates – avoid disruptions by taking the lead and being clear that, genuine emergencies aside, you expect updates only during your office hours.

You’re a leader so, without getting too egocentric, reports need to align with your diary, rather than the other way around. Of course, there’ll be times when you have to compromise, but as a general principle, office hours allow you to group meetings effectively, avoid disruptions, work in an improved state of flow and wrestle back control of your diary.

It’s time to experiment

In a complex world one of the best ways to establish what works is to run safe to fail experiments:

  • Conduct a diary review with the intention of freeing up a 3 hour block of time. You can do it alone, with a peer, or book a free call with me and we can do it together.
  • Brief in advance anyone who might expect, or be relying upon you to attend certain meetings. Explain that you’re not dropping them in it. Rather that you’re experimenting with how you manage your own time, that you have confidence in them and are giving them their own space to grow. Ask what support they need from you and be clear about what you need from them before, during and after the meeting.
  • Notice what happens when you don’t attend that important or critical meeting. Do you miss it? Are you missed? Do the wheels actually fall off?
  • Block out your focused time in your diary and protect it all costs. Again, communicate to others what you are doing. Notice what happens during your focused time. What do you spend your time doing? Where is your attention drawn? How do you feel at the end of the session, and day? What else do you notice?
  • Let your team know that you’re experimenting with an Office Hours approach. Clarify for what type of meetings, to avoid ambiguity. How does this approach work for you?

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Explore my executive coaching services further and get in touch if you’d like to know more. I’m a trusted partner to founders and executives in high-growth businesses and the investment industry.

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