Remember the game show “Minute to Win It” on NBC?
Hosted by Guy Fieri, it pitted contestants against a series of ten nerve-wracking challenges using household objects. To advance and win money, each task had to be completed within the one-minute time limit.
Degree of difficulty escalated as players progressed, and time was always the enemy. Going over by even one second meant elimination. Ironically, just about any player (or viewer) could’ve easily succeeded at most of the tasks — if only they were given enough time to work on it.
Does that more or less describe your situation at work? Does it feel like there’s never enough time to accomplish the projects on hand?
Guarding our most precious commodity
There’s no shortage of time management seminars. And there’s a mountain of books, articles, and podcasts out there on planning and maximizing our time. By now, we’ve all been thoroughly admonished to set clear goals, get more organized, learn to delegate, and so on.
So how come we’re still short on time?
One thing’s for sure, it’s not a recent problem. Quaker colonist William Penn said, “Time is what we want most, but use worst.” Still rings true.
Recently, I met with a successful new client whose main complaint is an all-too familiar one: “I simply don’t enough time to do my work. There just aren’t enough hours to fit it all in.”
My client’s frustration about “time versus task” is an issue many leaders can relate to. In our meeting, I shared three simple but effective lessons I’ve learned over the years that every busy leader can apply to be more productive.
Here they are (estimated reading time four minutes) …
Lesson #1: Put “time blocking” in your toolbox.
A while back, I worked with an executive who sometimes contacted me at 3:00 in the morning. After I quickly informed him that I had certain boundaries (blocks of time when I couldn’t be reached, disturbed, or interrupted), I asked him, “Why are you working at 3:00 am?” He told me that he was stressed out, putting in dozens of overtime hours every week just to keep up. He told me there was “never enough time” to do his work.
So, I asked him, “What getting in the way of you doing your work?”
“If I could just have two hours of uninterrupted ‘head down’ time every day, I know things would be better”.
“When would be the best time to schedule those two hours?” I asked.
“From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.,” was his reply.
My next question was “So, when are you going to implement this?”
Within three weeks, he caught up on his backlog and was able to resume a normal 8-to-5 work schedule.
I suggested my client do the same. I asked him what he could get done if he spent 8 to 10 a.m. secluded in a coffee shop. He beamed, “A ton of work.” Based on that, I suggested he set up a similar no-go zone in his workplace. I suggested that he daily block out a certain chunk of time when he locks himself in his office and no one is to interrupt him. If that seems harsh or impossible, I reminded him of this: When you’re out with a prospect or client, none of your staff would dare bother you, right? So, they’ve already proven they know how to respect boundaries — if they’re sufficiently motivated.
If you decide to institute a daily block of undisturbed time, your team members will also benefit — by learning the value of boundaries, setting priorities, and thinking independently. They’ll learn to organize and plan their interactions with you around your predetermined isolation.
Takeaway: Time blocking will maximize your time and increase personal productivity
Lesson #2: Don’t ever answer this question…
It happens to every leader — on a daily basis in some cases. You’re in your office, working through a project that requires concentration, when suddenly the door swings open and a staff member pops in with a question. Often, their question begins with: “What do you want me to do with…”
When you hear that, DO NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION. Instead, respond by putting the ball right back in their court. Respond with something like, “What do you think? Why don’t you think about it, then come back with one or two potential solutions that we can discuss.”
In effect, you’re saying, “Don’t ask me about this again until you’re ready to offer concrete suggestions we can discuss together.”
I once had an office manager who was prone to taking up my time with questions on issues she was entirely capable of handling. When I shifted her over to the “come back with your own ideas” approach, she blossomed. I understand it’s tempting to always be the “answer man,” but using this alternative approach results in an important win-win:
- You won’t be bothered as often; you can remain focused on task.
- Your staff will learn to think critically and grow as problem-solvers. When people feel their ideas and contributions matter, their self-respect is enhanced. Discussing solutions — versus giving answers — fosters teamwork and turns employees into empowered stakeholders.
Takeaway: Not answering the question will maximize your time… and create a more engaged team culture.
Lesson #3: Let them skin their knees.
Back in the nineties, psychologists coined the term “helicopter parents” to describe adults who “hover” over their kids, monitoring and overseeing every aspect of school, play, sports, and so on. This overprotection leaves no room for children to explore, experiment, and experience life.
We’ve all known parents like that. But there are also what I call “helicopter leaders” in business and organizations. They overshadow and overprotect their employees. They want to shield the workers and the company from potential harm. That’s commendable, but it can smother creativity, risk-taking, and growth. Plus, it takes up much of a leader’s time!
I was speaking to a client who had a three-year-old. I asked him if he spent time and effort doing things like preventing his child from burning himself on a stove or consuming a harmful substance. “Of course,” he said. Then I asked, “Do you follow him around 24/7 preventing him from doing things like spilling his milk, breaking a toy, or falling off his bike.” His reply was “No.”.
Kids (and employees) learn best from their mistakes. Too much preemptive “damage control” in the home or the workplace stifles growth. Every leader and parent must find the correct balance in this. If not, our kids will never learn to swim, play baseball, or climb a tree.
Same for the workplace. Over-supervise your team and they’ll never learn to make independent decisions or explore unknown possibilities. Bottom line? Don’t let team members get seriously hurt (or seriously hurt the company), but don’t be afraid of a “skinned elbow” now and then. Protect the company from serious errors, but don’t be afraid of a scraped knee.
Takeaway: Letting them skin their knees will maximize your time … and will develop strong new leaders.
Do this before time runs out.
If you’re unable (or unwilling) to create blocks of “protected time,” you risk burnout. If you refuse to give up being the answer man or woman, you risk impairing your team’s self-reliance. If you cling to being overprotective, you risk stunting the growth and creative potential of your staff.
Failure to make these adjustments can trigger two bad outcomes:
- You won’t have enough time to complete your work. Which means you’ll be on your way to becoming a frustrated, bitter workaholic who’s no fun to be around. Or to work for. Trust me, nobody will enjoy following your leadership.
- You’ll set a terrible precedent for peers and staff. A leader’s behavior (good or bad) is mimicked by their employees. If you can’t manage your time, it will negatively impact work-life balance in your entire organization.
So don’t get sidetracked, highjacked, or flattered into giving away your most precious resource. Stop working through lunch, skipping vacations, and losing sleep. Stop sacrificing relationships, jeopardizing your health, and working absurdly long hours. Switch over to a healthier, more sustainable way to live and work. You’ll actually achieve more and enjoy a rewarding lifestyle with time left over for doing what matters most.
David duChemin is an internationally known photographer and author. Based in Canada, this globe-trotter is famous for chasing and capturing humanitarian and ecological images on all seven continents. His work schedule is complex. The demands on his time are extraordinary.
Obviously, he can’t afford to waste time. Here’s his advice: “Guard your time fiercely. Be generous with it, but be intentional about it.”
I agree. Intentionality is the one-word key to success in this area.
Remember, our time is limited — not our potential.