LEADERSHIP: How to manage your workday

June 29, 2009

Why are some leaders able to get so much more out of their teams than others?

Typically, the response to this question focuses on an individual's ability to inspire, set expectations and hold others accountable.

While these are all important, I would argue that there is an equally important factor that is almost always overlooked. I believe that before you can become an effective leader you must learn how to prioritize your time.

Although this sounds simple, my experience has taught me that effective prioritization is extremely difficult to develop. We all walk into the office on Monday morning with the best intentions for the week.

Then it happens.

One of your direct reports pops their head in your office and asks if you have a minute to answer a quick question. Forty-five minutes later, you decide to review your e-mail before preparing for the weekly staff meeting at 10 a.m.

The next thing you know it is 4:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon. You look up and wonder how in the world you put in another 60-hour week without really knowing what got accomplished.

Here's the problem:

You landed in your current leadership position for two main reasons: you outworked everyone else and you displayed an exceptional ability to solve problems and get work completed.

As a result, whenever you see a problem (no matter how trivial), you feel a burning desire to jump in and fix it -- it's how you're wired. In addition, you justify this diversion by telling yourself that you can always put in more time at the office to get caught up.

So, week after week, you work more hours than anyone else and solve thousands of problems. Unfortunately, you don't always get the important activities completed.

You see, the definition of "important activity" is different for leaders. Instead of reacting to circumstances all day long, a leader should focus on strategic thinking -- developing a vision, communicating this vision to the team and ensuring that everyone is doing their part.

Unfortunately, the strategic-planning activity that is critical in leading an organization will not provide the same immediate gratification as dealing with a pressing issue, a.k.a., solving a problem.

In fact, a new CEO once told me that he felt "bored" in his first few weeks in the corner office. He missed the "rush" that came from being the guy who had all the answers and could solve any problem.

Being the boss is different. It's no longer about putting out fires and working until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The best leaders recognize that their time is valuable. They understand that the strength of the organization is related to how they choose to structure their day.

It's all about prioritization.

It's about running your week instead of letting it run you and keeping "the main thing the main thing."

So, how do you effectively prioritize in today's hectic information society? I recommend the following simple rules:

• Plan your week in advance. By that I mean, on Monday morning (before you turn on your e-mail) write down the tasks that must be completed by the end of the week. These are the activities that will drive you toward your goals. Keep this list with you at all times and refer to it daily.

• Look at your calendar and block time for certain activities that don't provide immediate gratification and always seem to get neglected. Examples include prospecting, reviewing members of your team, customer-care calls and professional development.

• Figure out a method for effectively keeping up with the "to-do's" that pop up throughout the week. No matter how well you plan, you will need to fight some unplanned fires.

Leaders have more challenges and opportunities coming our way than any one else in the organization. That's why we need a simple strategy for keeping track of all of this information.

I've got a solution—it's called a notebook. Keep it with you at all times and whenever someone asks you for something (that you can't accomplish immediately or delegate) or you identify a new task that needs to be completed—write it down.

Intellectually speaking, effectively prioritizing your time is simple. However, making it happen is extremely difficult.

Don't over think it.

It's a straightforward, three-step process: plan your week, block your time and document all of your tasks. That's it.

Remember, time is the great equalizer-we all get 24 hours each day. You can run the day or let it run you—it's your choice.*

McClanahan is a business coach and inspirational speaker with ReachMore Strategies. He can be reached at 576-8492 or cjm@goreachmore.com.

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