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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

5 effective time management strategies for busy leaders

It isn’t just about time. It’s about fulfilling your duty as a leader and, perhaps even more importantly, getting your sanity back.

5 effective time management strategies for busy leaders
[Daniel Krasoń / Adobe Stock]

As a leader, your time isn’t just something you’re “selling” to whatever company employs you in exchange for a wage. It’s an important asset you must divide carefully to ensure operations run smoothly, everyone on your team receives the support they need, and any individual tasks also get completed. Whichever way you look at it, time management is essential for busy, high-achieving leaders. So, here are five strategies you can implement to master the skill of time management.

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1. AUDIT YOUR TIME

How can you expect to divide up and manage your time in the most efficient way possible if you don’t even know where your minutes are going each day? You could be spending three hours a day checking email and two hours chatting by the water cooler, but you’d be none the wiser.

It’s time to start logging.

But how far should you take it? There are a few different perspectives here. I find that some advocate tracking literally every minute of every day for at least one week to give you a precise picture of where all that time is going. Others think that rounding up or down to the closest hour is good enough.

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Whatever you opt for, you should be able to identify two main categories for your daily activities:

• Non-negotiables: time that you have to spend on essentials like sleeping, eating, and showering.

• Free time/wasted time: time you spent doing one activity that you’d prefer to dedicate to something else.

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Once you block in the must-do activities and allocate your free time to the activities you really care about, you’ll be able to design your new schedule. With any luck, you’ll find there’s more time to play with than you thought.

2. SET PROPER GOALS

If your ambition is to “waste less time” and you never create a more specific goal than that, then congratulations—you just set yourself up for failure. Precision is everything.

That’s why leaders should always set SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound).

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For example, instead of aiming to communicate with and listen more to your team, set yourself the target of having a one-on-one meeting with each team member every two weeks, starting next week.

How does this link with time management? Once you have a specific target, you can build it into your carefully planned schedule and make it happen.

3. TACKLE TASKS IN THE RIGHT ORDER

Even the most conscientious time managers tend to fall into the same trap: spending too much time on the low-hanging fruit. It might feel extremely productive to answer all your emails, organize your computer files, and clean your desk, but maybe they’re not the most important things for you to do.

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This is why so many people believe in identifying the most important task (MIT) each day and tackling it first thing in the morning before moving on to anything else. If you’re freshest and most alert in the morning, like many are, it’s the perfect time to dedicate to your biggest priority.

Then, once you’ve completed all the “must-do” activities of the day, you can gradually make your way through the “would-be-good-to-do” ones.

4. TRACK YOUR TIME

Auditing your time was all about logging what you do now and setting yourself a schedule. But you can’t blindly assume that you’re going to follow whatever schedule you set, so try tracking yourself as you go about your activities.

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There is a range of applications that can help you do this, with various levels of sophistication. DeskTime, for example, includes all kinds of features, such as reports, integrations with your project management software, and even productivity timelines for your day.

Or, if you’d prefer something more basic, you could opt for a free Pomodoro timer like Pomofocus. It only obliges you to focus for 25 minutes at a time, so there’s no excuse to fall prey to distractions.

But as Stephen Covey points out in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we should always put human connection before our schedules when the moment arises. Don’t refuse to help the old lady cross the road just because you only gave yourself 20 minutes to complete the commute!

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This leads nicely to the next point.

5. PRACTICE GRACE

The four pieces of advice above may as well be gospel in the world of community, but one thing that would-be time optimizers don’t hear enough is the importance of cutting yourself some slack.

If you’re constantly “messing up” your schedule by taking longer than it should to complete your tasks, it’s possible that you were overambitious. You might feel like you have to solve everything immediately to stay on time, but sometimes, life gets complicated.

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The point of making a schedule is to avoid time-wasting activities, like scrolling through social media and checking your email. Carefully considering a decision and exercising your creativity aren’t time wasters!

IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST TIME

When the stakes are low, it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s more to life than careful time management. But as your responsibilities, task list, and the number of people counting on you multiply, you may realize that you need to have your time management down to a fine art to be able to think about or enjoy anything else.

This isn’t just about time—it’s about fulfilling your duty as a leader and, perhaps even more importantly, getting your sanity back.

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You have eight hours to sleep, eight hours to work, and the last eight hours of the day—what you do with that time will determine the quality of your life.


Tim Madden is an Executive Coach and former Headhunter. Founder of Executive Career Upgrades, he’s on a mission to help accelerate careers.

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