“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else.” ~Peter Drucker

Two things trip up most leaders’ attempts at managing their time. The first is the fact that the best systems and best intentions quickly run into dynamics in the real world: You’ll get interrupted, there will be an unforeseen obstacle or crisis, you’ll go through motivation and energy ups and downs, and so much more. Translating your intentions into practice often fails through small compromises you feel you must make in your day to day activities. The second is that most principles in time management focus on how you spend your time, but that philosophy just puts you on a “hamster wheel” that doesn’t move you forward. It isn’t about how you SPEND your time, it’s about how you INVEST your time.

Leadership presents some unique challenges for time management, but it presents unique opportunities as well. I’ve developed a three-step framework that that will help you get off the hamster wheel and into a position where you can make progress.

This framework has three parts: Prioritize, Negotiate, and Invest.

PrioritizeFirst 15 Minutes – Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You’re commuting to work and make a list of all the things you want to accomplish, you walk through the office doors, say “hi” to a few people, get yourself a cup of coffee, sit down at your desk, open your email…. and before you know it find yourself commuting home and thinking, “I didn’t accomplish anything I set out to do today!”

That scenario occurred because as soon as you opened your email, you made all your priorities subservient to everyone else’s. All time management starts with working on the right things, because the sad fact is you’ll never get everything done, but you can get the most important things done. Spend the first 15 minutes of your day with the door closed, with your email shutdown, and jot down a list of YOUR PRIORITIES. Just making this time to prioritize will help you better manage your time throughout the day. You most likely won’t accomplish everything on that list, but once you establish some momentum you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to spend those brief slivers of time during the day to keep it going and get them finished.

NegotiateFighting for Five – I am a huge fan of servant leadership, but I’m just as passionate about bringing balance to the equation. If you drop everything you’re working on every time someone pops their head in your office, sends an email, calls you on the phone, or texts you, then you’ll NEVER finish anything. One of the reasons our to-do lists are riddled with tasks in various stages of completion is this dynamic where we aren’t fighting for focus on our work.

Simply asking for five minutes, 10 minutes, or just one minute to finish what you’re working on will bring back an enormous amount of sanity to your day. Here’s the thing: nobody has a problem with you getting back to them IF YOU FOLLOW THROUGH. And if it’s an emergency, then of course you can drop what you’re working on. This is one of the most difficult paradigm shifts for leaders. So, start small, get some practice, then keep refining your approach to negotiate extra focus in your day.

InvestThe Five Essential Questions – Once you’ve finished some of your important tasks it’s critical for you to carve out a little time for investment. Delegation and employee development are the obvious places to invest those small amounts of time, but one of the most useful activities to start with is gathering information. Better information leads to better decisions, and in a practical sense shows where you need to spend time in the future. The following five questions are crucial for any leader:

  1. “What do you see going right in the department/organization?”
  2. “What do you see going wrong in the department/organization?”
  3. “Where are the opportunities we need to take advantage of?”
  4. “Where are there problems we need to fix?”
  5. “How can I help you do your job better and more easily?”

I recommend asking your team these questions either through your regular one-on-one meetings or through email. Then revisit them 3-4 weeks later after you’ve had a chance to act on a few of the items discussed. When your team sees you acting on the feedback they’ve given, you’ll see the feedback increase dramatically the second time.

Work on the right things, fight to get them done, then carve out a little time to invest some of your time. This process takes discipline, but as you go through one cycle, then another, and another, what you’ll find is that you’re getting compound interest on those investments in time so your focus can move to higher priority tasks.