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 calendar to get everything done. It’s a challenge for any leader but it’s particularly acute for executives in the high-growth businesses that I work with, as they realise that they can’t scale themselves at the same rate as their business.
Born out of real coaching experience, here’s 8 proven time management techniques that will help you manage your time better and get maximum leverage from it. Experimenting with these time management techniques will likely, at the same time, reveal some deeper, psychological truths about what drives you and your behaviour.
Click to jump to each time management technique:
- Calendar Audit
- Skip-Level Meetings
- Delegation and saying ‘no’
- Focused Time
- Office Hours
- Work with an Executive Coach
Effective executives know where their time goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under their control.The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
I often audit 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 audit 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?
I encourage you to go through your calendar once a week and add up where all your time is going. (Once you become proficient at this kind of auditing, bumping that down to once a month or once a quarter should be sufficient.) If your involvement is not uniquely crucial to the success of a task, or an item is not core to your personal life, you should figure out how to off-load it. In most cases, that will boil down to simply learning how to say no.HIGH GROWTH HANDBOOK, by Elad Gil
Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hoursHigh Output Management, by Andy Grove
For any leader, managing the flow of information down and up through the organisation is critical. This involves balancing what you ‘transmit’ to those you lead, and what you ‘receive’ back from them. One-on-ones are an important way to do this.
Getting the most out of them is essential, for both your benefit and the person you manage. From a time management perspective, let’s focus on getting the balance and cadence right. When you’re doing you’re calendar audit think hard about:
- Are you having one-on-one’s with all the people that you should be?
- Are you spending more time with some than others, and is that eating into your time?
- What about the cadence of your meetings? Do you need to have your one-on-ones weekly, fortnightly, or monthly? Frequency can vary depending up the individual. Perhaps there’s people you meet regulalry who you could meet them monthly and get updates in between at team meetings?
- Conversely, who are you not spending enough time with?
- Whether you’re spending too much time with some individuals and/or not enough time with other, ask yourself why? Dig deeper into those emotional drivers.
“When spring comes, snow melts first at the periphery, because that is where it is most exposed… we need to expose ourselves to our lower-level employees who, when encouraged, will tell us a lot that we need to know”.Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points that Challenge Every Company, by Andy Grove
If we only engage with our senior team, we risk existing in an echo chamber. We hear only their perspectives, based on what they want to share. Maybe they’re protecting us? Maybe they’re deceving us? Maybe they’re missing the obvious?
In a skip-level meeting you meet with employees who work for your reports or are further down in the organizational chart. Often extremely bright, junior people may have their fingers on the pulse of the market, or may be alert to key new ideas or information. You’ll benefit from hearing from them, and these promising people will also benefit from learning how you think about your company, product, market and culture.
Skip-level meetings help you:
Create open lines of communicationHIGH GROWTH HANDBOOK, by Elad Gil
Identify and nurture new talent
Get new ideas from people at the front lines of the company
Time management isn’t just about cutting down the number of meetings you have, it’s about getting the maximum leverage from the ones you choose to attend. Skip-level meetings may not free up time in the short run, but they’ll massively shift your situational awareness in the longer run.
As a general rule of thumb, the more senior the individual and the larger the organisation, the less leaders engage with those below them. Who are you not talking to who you know it would be an effective use of your time to do so?
Delegation and saying ‘no’
Clients often find their diaries full because they are struggling to delegate tasks down, or are simply just too involved in activities where they don’t need to be. There are often practical reasons for this. Less experienced leaders are often unsure what the boundaries of their responsibility are. Others have just not had training in how to delegate, or any real experience of doing it.
Digging deeper almost always reveals emotional and behavioural reasons that drive over-commitments to meetings, a lack of delegation and an inability to say no:
- 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.
- Focusing on activities that are 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.
“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
- Spending time with their future selves
- Learn new leadership-related skills 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?
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 improved their time management by successfully adopting Office Hours. 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.
“How you handle your own time is, in my view, the single most important aspect of being a role model and leader.”Andy Grove
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.
- 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?
Try delegating and try again until it works. This will be part of any approach you take. You need to build some pattern recognition for when someone is starting to flail (they seem over worked and rumpled, they’re late to every meeting, etc) or when people have more slack in their time. You will learn to iterate on the size of responsibilities, teams, or projects you give someone and build confidence in their skills as they continue to add to their stack.HIGH GROWTH HANDBOOK, by Elad Gil
- 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 Office Hours. Clarify for what type of meetings, to avoid ambiguity. How does this approach work for you?
Work with an Executive Coach
A good coach can help you with many aspects of your development (read my complete guide to finding the right executive coach for you), including time management . As we’ve discovered, it can be one thing to know that you are spending your time in the wrong places and another to uncover and change emotionally driven behavior.
When it comes to time management, here’s a few tips for how you can get the most out of your coach:
- Consider short Accountability Sessions – these can be 15-30 minutes long, during which time you can ditch the usual polite formalities and hone in exclusively on your priorities for the next week: what are the most important things you need to focus on? Where do you need to spend (and not spend) your time? Who do you need to brief and make your expectations clear?
- Get sessions in the diary in advance – when you are really busy, it’s easy for your coaching session to be the last thing on your priority list. If it’s not already arranged and blocked out in the diary, it will almost certainly fall by the waywside. But if it is your diary you’ll likely appreciate after the session that it was one of the most high-leverage uses of your time. If you don’t have time arrange your sessions, get your Executive Assistant onto it if you have one.
I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to CEOs and senior technology leaders.
My clients are transitional founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth technology businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.
Having often already mastered the technical aspects of their craft, I help my clients navigate the complex adaptive challenges associated with executive-level leadership and growth.
Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together. You can also read my Complete Guide to Finding the Right Executive Coach for You.