No matter how smart or experienced you think you are, it’s important to remember you’re always a novice at something. Sounds obvious, but it’s something managers, entrepreneurs, and other business leaders are liable to forget, especially when it comes to how they manage their time. In fact, some of our biggest time management mistakes are simply borne of ignorance. So how do you know when you’re doing something wrong, simply because you don’t know any better?
One area where I’m a novice is gardening. This year, I’ve tried and failed several times to sprout flowers from seeds. (Trust me, it’s harder than you think.) Preoccupied with giving them what I thought they needed, I overwatered a good many of them, and they died. My next attempt involved petunias. Here in Michigan, we get quite a bit of summer rain, so I decided to hold back on how much I watered the petunias in my flowerbeds and hanging baskets outside. But despite frequent downpours, they soon looked desiccated.
I reached out to a friend with a green thumb, and she set me straight. Armed with new, reliable knowledge, I discarded my dead plants and started over, and I’m happy to say they’ve flourished. I realize, of course, that knowing how to care properly for your plants is only partly about timing (much in the way that it’s only partly about watering), but my experience underscored the role my own ignorance played in setting things straight. And I realized the same goes for some of the most common time management issues.
As I learned the hard way in my garden this summer, you can’t apply the same strategies to every situation. For one project, you may just need to be cc’ed on certain email updates rather than weigh in directly. But on a different project, email itself might not be enough. You might have to schedule some lengthy meetings to define the strategy and then check in once a week to make sure it stays on track. And with yet another project, a daily standup meeting is the best use of your and your team’s time.
The point is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for your business activities. Most entrepreneurs and managers understand that, but few really know how to tailor their efforts to each new issue that arises and demands their attention. It takes experience and trial and error. It also takes a willingness to admit when you’ve messed up because you didn’t know any better and start over. Awareness itself can make a huge difference in how well you allocate your time.
Try this: Take a quick inventory of your work landscape and ask yourself:
- Which projects might need less of my attention?
- Where do I see warning signs that I need greater involvement?
- How can I get either more or less involved, as the individual case may require?
I didn’t mean to drown the seeds I planted this spring or dehydrate my potted plants, but they didn’t care about my intentions. It was the outcome of my actions that mattered. That isn’t to say intentions don’t matter, but it’s the way our behaviors impact our work and others’ work that tends to make a bigger difference.
There are many factors that can lead to difficult work relationships, but–without oversimplifying things–ignorance about your own role in helping your professional relationship thrive is a big one. If you aren’t sure what your team, colleagues, and business partners need to get the job done, make it a top priority to find out. Chances are you’re either putting too much time into something someone else could handle better themselves, or aren’t giving enough attention where it’s needed more.
Personally, I’ve seen assistants and newer staff members prefer frequent contact with their direct managers, sometimes as much as once or twice a day, for quick questions and feedback. Senior managers who report to you will typically be okay with strategy-focused meetings once or twice a month. Whatever frequency you determine is best, keep in mind that everyone appreciates when you stick to your commitments.
Try this: Make a list of your most significant relationships at work: assistants, colleagues, direct reports, supervisors. Ask yourself what each one needs from you to thrive–and decide whether they could do with more or less. If you don’t know, reach out to them directly and find out.
One last note about my flowers: I found it difficult just remembering to water them even after I learned how much and when to do so. I’d conquered my ignorance, but I hadn’t yet put my new knowledge to work. So I set a recurring all-day event in Google calendar and made sure to write it on my daily to-do list. That approach might be overkill for you, but it’s what worked for me.
Once you’ve figured out what you hadn’t known before about the ways you’re managing your time, it’s, well, time, to start actually managing it the right way. Let your calendar do some of the work for you. That could mean setting a weekly recurring reminder to read the status updates on certain projects, or a daily reminder to touch base with your new assistant. This isn’t being clinical, it’s just being practical. It’s genuinely hard to remember things.
But if you’d rather not get pummeled with reminder alerts, put those relationships we mentioned a moment ago to good use. Ask that assistant to give you a quick nudge after lunchtime to go over the questions he had earlier that day. That won’t only solve his problems, it’ll help strengthen your grasp of what that particular relationship requires from you.
Try this: Think about what organizational changes you could make to help you remember to offer the right support at the right times. Decide which technological tools work best for certain things and which analog ones might work better for others. Then put some new approaches into action and see which ones work.
It’s only by first knowing which people, projects, and relationships need your attention that you can then make changes to help them thrive. Ignorance can be a very big hurdle to get over, but it’s no excuse.