Time management guide for executives who don’t have enough time

Vistage Staff

What is time management?

Time management is perhaps the executive’s most important tool. C-level executives are besieged by texts, calls, emails, meetings, charities, the news, board members, employees, other executives, their own health, personal obligations, and managing the company, among many other things.

But what, exactly, is the definition of time management? Time management is a process of planning and organizing projects, as well as the activities you and your team must do to complete those projects. Executives adept at time management always have an overview of their work and personal lives, allowing them to do more by working smarter.

Importance of time management for high-level executives

To leave time unmanaged is akin to being managed by your time. As Peter Drucker once said, “One cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time.”

By managing time, executives will see immediate benefits. An executive who manages their time can prioritize what needs to get done to keep from feeling overwhelmed.

Time management ensures that executives don’t get stuck in the details—it may take an executive less time to create a spreadsheet, but their time is better spent on high-level tasks. And time management can help executives better control company time—once executives have a grip on their own time, they can see where their teams are needlessly slow.

Example of time management in business

While working at Bethlehem Steel Company, Frederick Winslow Taylor invented a process that nearly quadrupled the speed of cutting steel. A mechanical engineer by trade, Taylor became rich by patenting the new process. Even so, Taylor squabbled with other managers and was forced out of the company in 1901, freeing him to spread the word of his passion: measuring and managing time. 

On his own, Taylor convinced shovel workers to use more efficient movements and shovels. His ideas were novel and helped the workers make more money—pay depended on their production. Quickly, his ideas spread across shovel-using workers—as well as managers and researchers—and became the standard.

While Taylor’s ideas have been updated, he created a time management definition that, in spirit, has stood the test of time: Logic, analysis, and rationality should be used to determine where time is best spent.

Benefits of time management

1. Prioritize work life and personal life

An executive can use time management to take on more important projects. If an executive is working on five big projects, for example, time management can give them an overview of where the parts of each project will fit into their schedule, allowing them to prioritize and arrange their work.

2. Keep from getting overwhelmed

To be a good time manager is to be organized, a skill that will keep executives from becoming overwhelmed. If an executive is working on those same five big projects, they’ll stand a better chance at success and confidence if they know when and how to work on each project. Time management can be the difference between knowing what needs to be done next and merely guessing.

3. Avoid getting stuck in the weeds

Executives who find themselves working on too many administrative tasks or spending too much time in meetings must become better time managers. The problem with getting stuck in the weeds is losing track of time, which is a lone main non-renewable resource. Effective time management allows executives to be rich in time.

4. Delegate to grow your team

An effective executive is able to delegate tasks and projects. A good team, one able to handle more complex projects, is often the difference between success and failure. There are few better ways to create a successful team than to trust employees with important tasks. Executives with too much on their plate can delegate tasks to their team and instantly gain more time.

Time management infographic

7 time management tips to create more time

 Here are seven ways executives can improve their lives immediately by using the best time management techniques.

1) Set boundaries by saying “no”

Marcey Rader, founder of executive coaching firm Work Well. Play More!, recalls an executive she coached who said “yes” to almost everything.

“She had all this FOMO [fear of missing out] and she came to me because she never had time,” Rader said.

 Rader gave the executive a challenge: Say “no” to everything for 30 days. If the executive really wanted to say “yes” to something, she could wait until after the challenge.

“Since then, she has written a book,” Rader said. “She got into the practice of saying ‘no’ and then realized that her business still actually existed. She opened herself up. She was free to do the things that she really loved, so she wrote a book. I see that often.”

Executives often have a hard time saying “no” or setting time boundaries. They get sucked into multiple meetings, events, or tasks they don’t have the time for. Instead, Rader said that executives must practice setting boundaries, ahead of when they may be asked for their time.

A time boundary could be a canned response, such as an email template, or it could be setting a limit of the number of boards or charities they’ll serve on. The point is to avoid the moment where an executive is asked for their time, caught unawares, and agrees to an action simply due to social pressure.

“People are put on the spot and want to be helpful,” Rader said. “I find that creating those boundaries ahead of time—whether it’s where you contribute your money, where you contribute your time, or what your company is going to contribute to—makes it easier to say ‘no.’”

2) Plan your next day before you leave

Executives are brilliant high-level thinkers and planners, but what about the tactical effort of each day? One way to better manage time is to list what needs to get done the next day—meetings, tasks, deadlines, and anything else that’s important—the day before.

It may take some work to break down long-term goals into day-to-day tasks, but the practice will pay dividends. A study published in Psychological Science found that people who converted their year-long goals and deadlines into day-to-day actions were better at working on what matters.

3) Set goals

Goals are at the heart of time management. By managing time, executives will have the ability to prioritize the goals important to themselves, their family, their employees, and their company.

The best long-term goals are those that cause an executive to stretch but not break, those that allow creative executives to have a sense of direction while doing their best work. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found in his research on flow states, humans feel happiest in the moments when they’re stretched to the limits of their voluntary efforts to accomplish a goal.

The best way to set goals is to find what matters and turn those ideas into SMART goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. In management coach Charlie Gilkey’s book “Start Finishing“, he suggests starting each goal with a verb. If your goal is to write a book, for example, don’t simply write “book” as your goal—write it as “write a book.” It’s a simple tweak, but action has the power to make ideas real.

Goals are inherently action-based and need high-level planning, which makes them perfect to work toward after executives have delegated low-impact work to others.

4) Delegate low-impact work

In his book “The Leader of the Future”, Peter Drucker wrote that, “Effective leaders delegate, but they do not delegate the one thing that will set the standards. They do it.”

Put another way: Do the work that matters, the work you do best, and delegate the low-impact work that can done by competent members of your team.

Gilkey wrote in his book “Start Finishing” that if one can list the steps of a task, they can delegate that task. By delegating, executives will have more time for high-level thinking, planning and management.

Rader said that executives often have tasks that they can do faster than someone to whom they’d delegate the task. But they should delegate those tasks anyway, she said, as it will save their own time.

In Rader’s business, she created a video and manual for how her employees can best distribute her books to companies that buy them. The video and manual were time consuming to create, far more than simply sending the books herself, but she sends books two or three times each month. By delegating the task, she’ll likely save hours over many months.

“A lot of times, people just think in the moment,” Rader said. “But a month from now, you could have recorded the video or written down the process, and somebody could be doing it for you.”

5) Prioritize with the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 Rule)

Once an executive has set their goals and delegated tasks, they’ll know what’s important to get done. But how can they prioritize what they do?

The Pareto Principle observes that for many events, about 80 percent of the results comes from 20 percent of the effort. This principle isn’t a law, but it contains a huge nugget of truth: most things in life have an uneven distribution. The most effective executives find where they can make the most impact, where they can find their 20 percent of input that creates 80 percent of output.

A big part of reviewing what needs to be delegated, what tasks should be prioritized, and how you manage your time should be thinking about where your effort is best spent. Each executive will have to review their own skills to see where they’re most effective, which may take some trial and error. But the power of Pareto, when paired with effective time management, gives executives the power to do more with less.

6) Stop multitasking

For most, multitasking simply doesn’t work. Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, told LiveScience that maybe 10 percent of the population is adept at multitasking. For the rest, multitasking is taxing on the brain, overloading its working memory, and badly hurts productivity.

Research has found that multitasking creates more mistakes and multitaskers retain less information. Psychologist David Meyer said that even seemingly small task switches—how often do most executives check their phone throughout the day?—can cost someone as much as 40 percent of their productive time.

But for many, multitasking has become habitual. To fight the seductive pull of habit, Rader suggests practicing single-tasking, just as one might practice playing instrument, doing an exercise, or speaking a new language. Practice won’t make perfect right away, but with practice will come incremental improvement.

To better focus on single tasks, Rader suggests creating theme days. For example, Monday can be a day for high-level thinking, Tuesday for marketing, Wednesday for administrative tasks, and so forth. “It doesn’t mean you don’t also do those tasks throughout the week,” she said. “But you’re batching them together to better focus on them on individual days.”

7) Schedule time between meetings

“Never let anyone own your schedule,” said Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, and this is especially important if you want to make good use of your time between meetings.

Every executive will have free time, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Make use of this time on your schedule by scheduling it rather than leaving it empty. If an executive has an hour between meetings, that may be a great time to schedule exercise or lunch. If an executive only has 15 minutes, that may be a great time to sit in solitude, away from the buzz of business.

Busy executives are in demand—people will seize the dead time on their calendars, if given the chance. Instead, executives should schedule their dead zones, downtime, and moments to feel rejuvenated and refreshed. Executives who schedule their downtime give themselves the space to be humans in addition to executives.

Time Management Toolkit

For executives who want to quickly improve their time management skills, download Vistage’s free Time Management Toolkit for Busy CEOs. In this toolkit, executives will find what the research says about how CEOs spend their time, what the experts say about the best time management practices, and what leaders need to manage their time, stay healthy and feel supported amid tough moments.

time management toolkit

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