Time Management for Leaders


Time in the organization is constant and irreversible. Nothing can be substituted for time. Worse, once wasted, it can never be regained. Leaders have numerous demands on their limited time — time keeps getting away and they have trouble controlling it. No matter what their position or role is, they cannot stop time, they cannot slow it down, nor can they speed it up. Thus, time needs to be effectively managed to be effective.

On the other hand, you can become such a time fanatic convert by building time management spreadsheets, creating priority folders and lists, color coding tasks, and separating paperwork into priority piles that you start to waste more time by managing it too deeply.

In addition, time management techniques may become so complex that you soon give up and return to your old time wasting methods.

What most people actually need to do is to analyze how they spend their time and implements a few time saving methods that will gain them the most time. The following are examples of some of the biggest time wasters:

The following are examples of time savers:

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter's Law into account.

A Simple Time Management Plan

Effective time management is crucial to accomplishing organization tasks as well as to avoiding wasting valuable organizational assets. The following nine rules (Butler, Hope 1996) will aid you:

People and Time

Get Started - This is one of the all time classic time wasters. Often, as much time is wasted avoiding a project, as actually accomplishing the project. A survey showed that the main difference between good students and average students was the ability to start their homework quickly.

Get into a routine - Mindless routines may curb your creativity, but when used properly, they can release time and energy. Choose a time to get certain task accomplished, such as answering email, working on a project, completing paperwork; and then sticking to it every day. Use a day planning calendar, as there are a variety of formats on the market — find one that fits your needs.

Do not say yes to too many things - Saying yes can lead to serendipity, but the mistake we often make is to say yes to too many things. This causes us to live to the priorities of others, rather than according to our own. Every time you agree to do something else, something else will not get done. Learn how to say no when needed.

Do not commit yourself to unimportant activities, no matter how far ahead they are - Even if a commitment is a year ahead, it is still a commitment. Often we agree to do something that is far ahead, when we would not normally do it if it was in the near future. No matter how far ahead it is, it will still take the same amount of your time.

Divide large tasks - Large tasks should be broken up into a series of small objectives. By creating small manageable tasks, the entire task will eventually be accomplished. Also, by using a piecemeal approach, you will be able to better fit it into your hectic schedule.

Do not put unneeded effort into a project - There is a place for perfectionism, but for most activities, there comes a stage when there is not much to be gained from putting extra effort into it. Save perfectionism for the tasks that need it.

Deal with it for once and for all - We often start a task, think about it, and then lay it aside. This gets repeated over and over. Either deal with the task right the first time or decide when to deal with it.

Set start and stop times - When arranging start times, also arrange stop times. This will call for some estimating, but your estimates will improve with practice. This will allow you and others to better schedule activities. Also, challenge the theory, “Work expands to fill the allotted time.” See if you can shave some time off your deadlines to make it more efficient.

Plan your activities - Schedule a regular time to plan your activities. If time management is important to you, then allow the time to plan it wisely.

What use is wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn? - Peter S. Beagle in The Last Unicorn

What use is saving time if you do not get something important in exchange?

The Big Picture

ClockKeep the big picture of what you want to achieve in sight. Checklists normally have such items as, “staff meeting at 2:00” and “complete the Anderson Company memo Tuesday.”

In addition to these small tasks, ensure you set quality time for the important tasks, for example:

In other words, do not get caught up in short term demands. Get a real life! One quarter to one third of the items on your To-Do list need to contain the important long range items that will get you, your team, and your organization on its way to excellence.

The Big Rocks of Time


Stephen Covey (1996) tells a great story about the real things that we should devote our time to:

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” He then pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on the table. He produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them one at a time into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?”

He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing it to work down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time, the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied.

He reached under the table, brought out a bucket of sand, and started dumping the sand in the jar until it filled the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?” “No!” the class shouted. Once again, he said, “Good.”

Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!” “No,” the speaker replied, “that's not the point.”

“The truth this illustration teaches us is that if you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all. What are the 'big rocks' in your life? Your children, your loved ones, your education, your dreams, a worthy cause, teaching others, doing things that you love, your health; your mate. Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you'll never get them in at all. If you sweat about the little stuff then you'll fill your life with little things and you'll never have the real quality time you need to spend on the big, important stuff.”

So, tonight, or in the morning, when you are reflecting on this short story, ask yourself this question: What are the 'big rocks' in my life? Then, put those in your jar first.

Next Steps

Activity: Time Management Activity

Next chapter: Meetings

Main Leadership Menu


Butler, G. & Hope, T. (2007). Managing Your Mind. New York: Oxford City Press.

Covey, S. (1996) First Things First. New York: Free Press.