Sticky Notes: Teaching Time Management

If you have limited time and too much to do, then you need to set priorities—an order of precedence or preference—so you control what gets done first, second, third, and so on.

Time is precious: Everybody gets just 168 hours in a week. Employees almost always want more free time and more control over their own schedules. Managers typically see employees’ time as a business resource to be optimized. Thus, an incessant tug of war over time is always being played out.

Understand the True Time Requirements

Before you engage in a tug of war over time management with any of your employees, first make sure you really understand the true time requirements of the jobs in question. In certain jobs, it is critical that employees be faithful to a very precise schedule: Those are jobs where the employee’s physical presence at a specific place and time is essential to their work. It might be a factory where shifts are timed to keep the production machinery working around the clock. In retail, somebody needs to be there to open the store first thing, and close the store last thing, not to mention in between when customers might want to shop. In a hospital, you need coverage all the time because you can’t have patients there without healthcare providers. Whenever “coverage” is the critical time management factor, everybody has much less flexibility, so everybody needs to work harder to make it work.

There are other jobs where the key is to be available at a moment’s notice, such as doctors, police officers, and firefighters. On-call work is the extreme on both sides of flexibility. Whenever one is on call, the employee’s time is not really free. Yet on-call arrangements allow employers to be leaner in their staffing while maintaining coverage and, at the same time, they give some employees more time at least “almost off.”

Still many other types of work have the potential to be much more flexible. Lots of work can be done by mutual appointment—for example, real estate sales or financial advising. Increasingly, there is more work that can be done really anytime as long as it’s done by a certain deadline, for example, Web design or data analysis. Even work that requires considerable interdependency can be done on a flexible schedule as long as those who are working together remain in regular high-quality communication.

Don’t Engage in an Unnecessary Tug of War

One of the things I find baffling is when a manager struggles with an employee about being faithful to a specific schedule when the work of that employee really doesn’t need to be done in a particular place at a particular time. Why engage in that tug of war if it’s not necessary? Flexibility is something employees really value and you can sometimes leverage it as a powerful reward in exchange for high performance. If the job can be done within a flexible schedule, there is no sense in fighting unnecessary battles about adherence to a specific schedule.

Trumpet the value of time—everybody’s time. Remind people frequently and enthusiastically how valuable everybody’s time truly is and insist that everybody’s time be respected.

Believe it or not, some people, by the time they come to work for you, have never mastered the fundamentals of living by a schedule. You might be the first person to hold them accountable for being “on time.” In the process, you might end up doing this person a huge favor.

Setting priorities is usually step one in most time-management programs and seminars. If you have limited time and too much to do, then you need to set priorities—an order of precedence or preference—so you control what gets done first, second, third, and so on. That setting priorities is the key to time management is obvious to most professionals. The hard part is teaching employees how to set priorities.

Set Priorities Together

When it comes to setting day-to-day priorities, teach them how by setting priorities together with them. Let them know your thinking process. Walk through it with them: “This is first priority because X. This is second priority because Y. This is low priority because Z.” Over time, you hope they learn. Until they learn, you have to keep making decisions with them or for them. Teach them to postpone low-priority activities until high-priority activities are well ahead of schedule. Those are the time windows during which lower-priority activities can be accomplished, starting with the top lower priorities, of course. Time wasters, on the other hand, should be eliminated altogether whenever possible.

You don’t have to do all the work of planning. In fact, you shouldn’t. Make the employee’s next assignment to make a comprehensive plan for their primary responsibilities/projects. Use your one-on-one time to work on the plan together, providing guidance and feedback along the way: Take that person’s current bigger goals one by one; break them into intermediate benchmarks along the way; and break the intermediate benchmarks into smaller goals/deadlines along the way. Then look at those smaller goals/deadlines and map out the concrete actions necessary to reach each goal/deadline, including a timetable for the concrete actions. That’s how you lay out the work, piece by piece, into a realistic plan of action.

Delegation 101

Delegation 101 is synonymous with teaching employees the fundamentals of planning. Delegation 101 is all about clearly articulating goals, specifications, and deadlines.

In your ongoing one-on-ones, you figure out over time with each employee:

  • How big should the goals be?
  • How far out should the deadlines be?
  • How many guidelines are necessary with each goal?
  • What are the intermediate and smaller goals along the way and what is the timeline for those? These are always moving targets. That’s why there is no end in sight to this discussion. It’s just another part of your ongoing one-on-one dialogue.
Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: