Your time is a precious commodity. It’s your one nonrenewable resource, and it’s something that you can’t get back. As linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have noted, the metaphors we use around time reflect sacred scarcity. We say time is money. We invest, save, protect, spend, audit, give, squander, waste, and budget our time.
It’s unsurprising that time management ranks as one of the biggest challenges in the modern workplace. To maximize efficiency at work, you need to be hard-nosed with your time. And there are a host of productivity tools designed to help you do just that: the Pomodoro Technique, Kanban Board, Eisenhower Matrix, time audits, and so on. However, unless you’re a one-person operation, you can’t rely on these tools alone. You also need to communicate your time-management approaches to your colleagues.
The key is to be ruthless with your time without being ruthless with your team. At LifeLabs Learning, we study what makes unusually productive teams and leaders different. Below are eight tools we’ve collected from our research to help reach that mutually happy quadrant where you can manage your time and support your team at the same time.
1. Do a precheck
If you’re trying out a new time habit, check in with people who might feel the impact ahead of time. Make sure that you explain the reasoning for the change, and do so with empathy.
“I’m trying out X to be more efficient with my time. However, I understand this may impact you and would love to set up a time for us to problem-solve together.”
2. Have a trade-off conversation
If someone asks you to do something that interferes with your current workflow, let them know what that entails and make them part of the solution.
“I can do X, but it means I can’t do Y. I think I should stick to X because it’s imperative to the company at the moment. What are your thoughts?”
3. Show the pie
Create a quick visual of what’s on your plate. For example, one team we studied had a “key lime pie of productivity,” and each project represented a slice. When someone asked for help, they showed their pie as a way to decide which slices they could exchange.
“I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but here is what my to-do list looks like at the moment. Do you see this request as more critical than one of these items? If not, I would still love to help in the future. My earliest available date is . . .”
4. Create if-then rules
This is a set of rules that automate actions. If X, then Y. For example, if you’re the manager who continually gets bombarded with questions, then ask your team to come up with at least one solution before asking for help. This if-then will not only save you time but will also help your employees become more independent.
On the flip side, if your manager regularly “surprises” you with requests, instead of reactively reprioritizing your whole day, then politely ask about urgency and/or share trade-offs.
5. Create “dark time”
This is a term that we use at LifeLabs Learning to describe the times that employees aren’t available to work (usually after 6 p.m. or on weekends). Having such norms also prevents burnout. For leaders, it’s essential to model this behavior and hold others accountable as well.
“I’ve noticed that a few people on the team communicate during off hours. I was wondering if we could establish an explicit norm around when we should/shouldn’t expect people to reply. What are your thoughts on this?”
6. Hold “office hours”
Creating new time habits at work can induce anxiety. People may feel like they’re losing access to a valuable resource. That’s why you must schedule a recurring meeting, or “checkpoint,” when people know they can come to you. This gesture is likely to reduce anxiety and unscheduled shoulder-tapping.
“Some of you may have noticed that I’ve made efforts to be more deliberate with my time. That said, in addition to our regular 1-1s, I want you to know that I’m available to meet and discuss anything you need during these hours [list them].”
7. Model time integrity
“Quick question.” “I’ve got a minute.” “EOD.” “ASAP.” These are all examples of being blurry and unspecific about time. The most effective teams we study do something different. They model time integrity and are specific with their communication when it comes to time. Here are a few examples.
“To make sure I can respond on time, can you please specify by when you need this?”
“I have ten minutes to talk now. Is that enough time? If not, let’s schedule a time that works.”
“To make sure I’m focused on this conversation, how long do you think we need?”
The magic of time integrity lies not only in being specific about your own time but also in respecting the other person’s request and time.
8. Do a calendar cleanse
In many organizations we work with, it’s hard to say “no” or “not now” to meetings. Often, you feel like you’re violating a cultural norm. But at the same time, most people feel like they’re spending way too much time in pointless meetings. If you’re not sure if a meeting is a good use of your time, get in the habit of asking.
“Thanks for inviting me. So that I can contribute well, can you share the agenda or goal of the meeting?”
If, after receiving a response, you feel that the meeting isn’t a top priority, then politely decline.
“Thanks again for inviting me. To stay efficient, I would prefer to collect a summary of what was decided/discussed. Does that work?”
By using these methods, it’s possible to manage your time and maintain a positive relationship with your coworkers. The key is learning to communicate preemptively, set expectations, make people part of the process, and find structured and creative ways to solve problems together.