Whether you are stepping into a new leadership position or a seasoned technology leader, your time is not only of the essence, but crucial to your team and wider organisation’s mission.
Getting everything done can often feel insurmountable. And while there will be times that juggling multiple tasks at the same time is necessary, it shouldn’t be the norm. Thankfully, there are a number of ‘hacks’ that can help you step back and keep your eye on the bigger picture, while still ensuring that your team delivers what is needed.
Time Distribution and Control
One of the top causes of work-related anxiety is not being a master of your own time. Being reactive to things that come your way, rather than proactive, can leave people feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus. The latter allows you to determine not only the direction in which you want to go, but ensures key decisions can be made in a timely, informed manner and with all the necessary information to hand, rather than rushed because they have been mismanaged and suddenly become urgent.
While time management practices can be helpful on an individual level, they are even more beneficial when everyone in your team subscribes to the same ethos and habits. This is because they will impact each other – especially when you are dividing your time up between solo and collaborative work.
First, consider how and when you work best. When is flow and deep work more likely? If, like many, it’s pre-lunchtime then reduce interruptions during that period. Ensure however, that you make others aware of this self-imposed ‘quiet time’ in order to manage expectations and demands. There will, of course, be times when something urgent will arise, but anything else should be relegated to the afternoon when you can allocate the required resources and attention.
Second, put controls in place that will help you get the most from your day:
- Set and manage your goals – While it may sound obvious, plan your day in advance and set the right, achievable goals. Plan for a maximum of three ‘big’ tasks per day and as Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” meaning, tackle the difficult projects first before procrastination, distractions or faux busyness get the better of you;
- Organise tasks appropriately – Do not multitask unless it is necessary, short-term and you can do so effectively i.e. juggling two tasks that do not tax the same part of the brain. Failing this, multitasking has been shown to impair cognitive performance and hamper productivity. You actually also lose time by doing so which is the opposite of what is intended;
- Prioritise – Use the Eisenhower matrix (below) to sort through your tasks and grade them according to their importance, urgency and anticipated effort. When collaborating, request and also give timings and deadlines for input and diarise any follow-ups;
- Optimise your calendar(s) – Your calendar is your most powerful tool when it comes to managing your time and balancing the competing needs and priorities of your team(s). Create a routine, defrag your calendar (we’ll come on to this) and if possible, factor in your non-work related activities;
- Reduce distractions – Minimise procrastination opportunities i.e. use headphones during deep work, have a timed closed door/open door policy, install website blocking browser extensions and/or use the renowned pomodoro method – a time management process developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into multiple intervals of 25 minutes separated by five-minute breaks; and
- Utilise reminder notifications – While some may make do with a to-do list jotted down on the nearest scrap of paper, others may prefer the latest app-based prompter system. Whatever your inclination, daily or weekly reminders can ensure you don’t forget the less-important-but-still-necessary tasks, without them taking up much needed headspace.
Defragging your calendar
Being technologists, you obviously know what defragging is when it comes to your computer – the process of reorganising the data stored on the hard drive so that related pieces of data are put back together, all lined up in a continuous fashion to increase performance. Well, now it’s time to do this to your calendar.
Take a look at it quickly – are meetings strewn across the course of the day? Are ‘quick’ calls put in by others at the drop of a hat and emails are looked at whenever they come in? This isn’t a ‘healthy’ way to work. Moving from one thing to another regularly is called context switching and has been shown to negatively impact people’s work in the following ways:
- Reduction in productivity
- Loss of overall time
- Lower quality work
Did you also know that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to what you were doing once you have been distracted? If you think about emails in this context and how many you receive on average per day, you can see how this once brilliant invention of modern times has become a double-edged sword.
Defragging your calendar is a concept coined by former VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and Engineering Director at Etsy, Lara Hogan. She was asked for help by a number of tech leaders who were feeling overwhelmed and found themselves with too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. Defragging takes an upfront effort and regular maintenance but the overall time saved by front-loading this at the beginning of your working week makes it worthwhile. Along with colour-coding each type, you should start by doing the following
- Define activities according to your own – Put simply: Solo/Deep Work, Meeting, Call, Collaborative Project, 1:1 etc.
- Estimate activity resources – Think about the level of input each task will require, tools and collaborative efforts etc.
- Estimate activity durations – Be aware of the Planning Fallacy – We all have a tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task, as well as the costs and risks associated with that task—even if it contradicts our experiences. This is because we have a bias towards optimism, which includes when thinking about our own capabilities. Researchers found that setting specific implementation intentions – i.e. specifying what day and time and in what location you will work on a particular task, and visualising yourself following through on said plan – results in significantly more realistic goal-setting.
- Sequence activities and create a schedule – Batch activities together and/ or say no to meetings during certain hours or on specific days like Citi CEO, Jane Fraser who just implemented a firm-wide policy banning internal video conferencing meetings on Fridays.
- Maintain schedule – What it says on the tin. Ensure that you’re consistent and stick to the routines set so that it becomes habit and potential distractions become less disruptive.
Prioritise Tasks and Delegate
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”Dwight D. Eisenhower
Getting through your to-do list is about effectiveness not just efficiency. Make a list of everything you want to do – including the smaller, constituent parts if relating to. Then, categorise them based on the following criteria known as the Eisenhower Matrix:
- Urgent and important
- Important not urgent
- Urgent not important
- Not urgent or important
Once this is done, you then break the tasks down further under the categories: Do / Decide / Delegate / Delete. The urgent and important tasks must be done first and as soon as possible. The important but not urgent ones can then be done afterwards or at a set date in the near future.
Once this is done, you then break the tasks down further under the categories: Do / Decide / Delegate / Delete. The urgent and important tasks must be done first and as soon as possible. The important but not urgent ones can then be done afterward or at a set date in the near future.
The urgent but not important activities should be delegated to others within your team that have the time and capability to do so. Finally, if a task on your list is neither urgent nor important, it should be deleted so that it doesn’t take up precious headspace or practical working time. If it’s not possible to delete it completely, you can always come back to it at a later date when more relevant (having set a reminder in your newly defragged calendar!) or once again delegated to someone else.
If you’re a new leader, delegating can be unfamiliar territory and feel like you’re losing control. However, by remaining involved in some projects on a practical day-to-day level, you’re at risk of becoming overwhelmed and/or wasting time, energy and resources which could be better utilised elsewhere. Delegation is a powerful tool that allows you to look at the bigger picture; through guiding rather than doing, it also helps extend your presence through the actions of others.
Crucially, delegating isn’t just about you and easing your workload. It’s also an important opportunity to empower and develop others, as well as recognising when upskilling may be required and taking the time to provide the necessary training (whether internally or externally).
When deciding what to pass on, consider where your effort is being focused and rank it against your team’s overall success – if not in top five things to do, it’s time to give it to someone else.
There is an art to delegation – it isn’t simply passing something on, never to think of it again, it requires clear communication and regular check-ins. For it to be successful, appropriate monitoring of the delegated tasks should be undertaken and involves:
- Clarifying the project, deadlines and key stages in advance;
- Confirming the objectives, ensuring they are achievable and inviting agreement and commitment from those involved;
- Using collaboration technology such as Google Suite, Slack/Yammer, Asana/Notion/Trello to ensure transparency;
- Holding regular meetings to review what’s been accomplished at an appropriate stage and discuss what next steps need to be taken;
- Encouraging employees to ask questions and be available to them when they need (but within boundaried times i.e. open door hours); and
- Providing ongoing support and giving and receiving feedback
Further, ensure you clearly identify constraints and boundaries. Where are the lines of authority, responsibility and accountability? Should the delegatee:
- Wait to be told what to do?
- Ask what to do?
- Recommend what should be done, and then wait for approval before acting?
- Act straight away, and then report results as soon as they’re achieved?
- Initiate action, and then report periodically?
Delegation fails where managers and leaders release control on the face of it but micromanage throughout completion of the task. It’s about building shared trust with those you delegate to: you have to have faith that they will complete the task to the best of their ability and they, likewise, must feel trusted to do so as they will then be more likely to be motivated and engaged to perform well.
Exercise your right to say ‘No’
Last, but by no means least, is utilising the force of saying ‘No’. The reality is as a leader you can’t be everything to everyone nor everywhere at the same time. While you will have more control over your own tasks and priorities, these will occasionally exist in a competing fashion with the needs of others and/or the wider business.
We already covered when and how to say no in our earlier piece as its importance in leadership is understated, but critically important to getting everything done.
For some, their foray into leadership was more by ‘accident’ rather than design – a situation required someone to step up or the role developed that way organically. Leadership requires flexibility and adaptability but this needs to exist with a boundaried setting – one created by the word ‘No’.
If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of saying no, it might help to reframe it from a negative thing to a positive one. It’s not about being difficult, it’s about mastering your own time through setting boundaries and managing expectations. The key is to be consistent so that you gain respect with regards to your time and decisions; don’t change your mind when you’ve already said no, unless the situation changes significantly otherwise you may be viewed as unreliable or worse, a pushover.
It should be part of a wider strategy of saying ‘Yes’, ‘Yes, if…’, ‘Not right now but on X date’ and ‘No’ to new requests in order to avoid diluting your impact through involvement in areas that don’t align with your priorities and goals (as well as those of your team(s)). If you find yourself saying it frequently and to unreasonable requests, you may need to consider whether the environment is not conducive to productivity and efficacy or could in fact, be toxic.
Remember, saying ‘No’ is about transparency, honesty and understanding, all central parts of developing a healthy working relationship, both with others and for yourself.
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