If you are too busy, your personal strategy is lousy. How to free up time for important tasks

If you’re too busy, your time management strategy might just suck.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Executive Coach Dan Rockwell says time management boils down to these two recipes:

  • Do what is most important and avoid what is less important
  • The only way to gain more time is to increase your speed. delegate and assign someone else to do it; or eliminate – to stop doing something.

“Time management is about doing what’s important, not getting more done,” he writes on his Leadership Freak blog.

Former dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin, says when you tell people you’re too busy, you’re saying your personal strategy sucks. This becomes more important the higher up you are in the organization because your failure to manage yourself causes problems for others and the organization. You must consciously choose where to spend your limited time on tasks that, given your unique skills, will result in the greatest benefit to your business. “And since this doesn’t happen automatically, you need a personal management system to do this on an ongoing basis — because on this front, perpetual vigilance is the price of effectiveness,” he writes on Medium.

He remembers his own situation when he was hired as dean in 1998, his first academic position. He was fascinated by how deans spent their time. The data was far from perfect, but it appeared that its predecessor spent about a day a week on financial management, faculty recruitment, and fundraising, with the remaining time split between a variety of tasks.

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But Mr. Martin decided he couldn’t do that. He had to motivate the professors and give them something to believe in; fix the school’s economics to hire a cadre of world-class professors; and build Rotman’s reputation for intellectual leadership, particularly in integrative thinking and business design. That meant cutting out 100 days from his schedule that the status quo required — doing what deans supposedly do — and replacing them with 100 days of higher-value activities that he had the skills to excel at.

He told his chief administrative officer he would reduce his finance days from 50 to five each year and trusted her to handle that area because her skills were equal to or better than his, and proposed a similar path with his associate dean Academic who did this had a keen eye for hiring young talent, which also enabled Mr. Martin to reduce his time on this front by 45 days a year.

He invested this time in writing books and articles on integrative thinking and design to raise the school’s profile as it built the faculty. He taught courses, though most deans don’t, in order to set an example for professors and took time to meet with them in person.

He takes the same approach when advising CEOs, insisting on taking some of their time off their calendar. “Usually the goal is either 12 or 24 days — so one or two days a month. We can always find the days and reallocate them to more valuable activities,” he writes.

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That might sound nice for CEOs and deans, but it’s impossible in your situation. Although Mr. Martin had to negotiate to free himself, it was with subordinates, not a boss. But the principle of eliminating activities that don’t help you or your organization succeed is worth pondering and, once you’ve got it down, exploring it with your boss and co-workers.

At the very least, practice purposeful productivity by identifying your top priorities and learning to say no more often. Entrepreneur John Rampton recommends pausing before instinctively saying yes to a request. Assess the situation more precisely:

  • Would you consider that a request? Is it just a suggestion?
  • What does it cost to say yes?
  • Will this help you achieve your goals or serve your mission?
  • Should you make this a priority?
  • Is there an alternative? For example, instead of a meeting, a short Slack chat?

“Usually when you practice this you calm your anxious thoughts and prevent you from trying to please everyone. But more importantly, it keeps you from over-committing and wasting valuable time,” writes Mr. Rampton on Thrive Global.

Fast hits

  • To maximize your learning, you have to question your knowledge, says tech executive Julie Zhao. It’s a tricky balance – you have to have faith in your knowledge and doubt it at the same time. Author Mark Manson adds this perspective: A little self-doubt is definitely better than none, using the example of Kanye West literally.
  • Complainants live in the past, which is concrete. Executive Coach Dan Rockwell recommends steering conversations with them toward the future, but also trying to be specific: “I’m curious. If everything went perfectly, what would it look like?”
  • Andy Crestodina, Orbit Media’s Chief Marketing Officer, recommends that when designing buttons for website visitors to click, use the first person: “Create my account” rather than the second person, which you may have used repeatedly in content on this page . Studies show that “Create Your Account” is not that effective.
  • Your calendar is a better measure of success than your bank account would suggest Atomic Habits Author James Clear.
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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based author specializing in management issues. Along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of EDS Canada and Cancom, he is the author of When Harvey Failed to Meet Sheelagh: Emails for Guidance.

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