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How To Help Fix Your Employee's Time Management Problem

Being bad at time management isn't necessarily a personal failing, it's a skills gap that you can help coach your employee to overcome.

How To Help Fix Your Employee's Time Management Problem
[Photo: Perfect Lazybones via Shutterstock]

You might think that by the time people enter the workforce, they would know how to manage their time. And yet in any office, there is someone who creates chaos and bad feelings because of his or her relationship with the clock. As a manager, "You really shouldn’t be the one who has to teach this," says Bruce Tulgan, author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, and yet if it’s a business issue, then you do. So how can you teach an employee time management?

First, identify why you feel the person is "bad" at this soft skill. The simplest problem is if he is not meeting your expectation for timeliness in everyday activities. You want your meetings to start on time, which means you want everyone in their seats at 9:28 a.m. so when you walk in at 9:30 a.m., it’s game time. To you, this seems like simple respect and courtesy for one’s manager, but not everyone can read your mind.

"Make sure it's really clear," says Tulgan. Use very direct language: "If we have a phone call, I expect you to be on the line at the time the call is scheduled." You can even go the extra mile and ask, "Is there something you need from me to help you meet that expectation?" Tulgan suggests. Then thank the person for meeting the expectation, or note when she doesn’t meet the expectation, and reiterate it. Says Tulgan, "What a lot of managers find is that’s really all they had to do."

Solving More Complex Issues

If the person is missing deadlines, working very long hours right before them, or ambushing teams with last-minute requests, this is a more complex problem.

Maia Heyck-Merlin, author of The Together Leader, suggests having your team member track his or her time, ideally for a whole week. Then you can look at the data together. She suggests asking a few questions:

  • How well is your time aligned with what matters most?
  • What gets in the way of spending time on your priorities?
  • What took more time than you thought it would?
  • What took less time than you anticipated?
  • How well are you able to use small pockets of time?

Then you can brainstorm solutions with a focus on practical approaches. Melanie Nelson, who runs the Beyond Managing blog and teaches courses on time management, says, "I think people who struggle with time management can feel a lot of shame about it, and that's not helpful at all. They feel like being bad at time management is a personal failing, but I see it as a skill gap, and I really try to frame any discussion around skills."

For instance, one common reason for missing deadlines is that the person is a perfectionist who struggles to recognize when something is good enough. You can ask this person to show you intermediate drafts of work products that both of you know aren’t finished, so you can explain what requires polishing and what does not. Others say yes to too many things, and need help prioritizing what matters (being responsive to your biggest client) and letting go of what doesn’t (trying lots of different fonts on an internal PowerPoint to find the exact right one). You can teach this person to make a short (three- to five-item) priority list for each day. Go over this list together each day for a few days, and talk about which tasks matter most to you and the organization.

Learning To Plan And Estimate

The most common skills gap, though, is being unable to estimate how long things take, and from that, planning back from a big deadline. People can manage multistep processes in some parts of their lives—"It’s like putting bread in the oven," Tulgan says—but not others. Indeed, time estimation for work projects is a skill that very few people ever truly master (see "How To Manufacture More Time In Your Day").

So put yourself in a coaching mind-set. As your employee approaches a long-term project, "Have them make a plan, and then you’ve got to review the plan," says Tulgan. Include lots of intermediate benchmarks with deliverables and dates. Have the person create a list of concrete actions necessary to achieve each benchmark with estimated time budgets for each task. "Make sure the time budgets are realistic," says Tulgan. Has he thought about what he’ll need from other departments? Has he thought about what might go wrong? If you arrive at an estimate of four hours for a step, then you can look at his calendar together and block in when that can happen.

Then check in frequently. Yes, it’s a huge investment of hours and mental energy up front, but "you’re building a more developed, go-to person for yourself in the future," says Tulgan. And that will wind up saving you time in the long run.

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