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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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How To Budget Time


By Stephen Northcutt
Version 1.3

It is twenty five minutes till one o'clock and I haven't gotten anything done today. Worse, I just got off the phone with one of my direct reports where I was coaching her to be more effective. I feel like a hypocrite. I have been working, I am even pleased with the direction of a few of the phone calls, but at the end of the day, it is unlikely that what transpires on a phone call will be remembered. To be successful as a leader we need to budget our time, our resources, and our finances and invest in the things that count. Often we do not give sufficient consideration to our time. Take a minute to check your Daytimer; if you do not have regular appointments six months out or more to do the critically important tasks such as planning, personnel management, and systems and budget reviews, it is an indication that you are living day to day. It means every crisis that comes up can derail your program.

Have you ever heard the expression, "Time is money"? Theres some truth to it! We "spend" money just like we "spend" time, and in both cases we have to spend it wisely if we want to get something good in return.[1] And as a leader, we need to ensure we are spending our organizations time and money wisely so that we are furthering the mission of our organization.

The Management 512 PDA/Daytimer exercise

In the SANS Security Leadership Essentials[2] course we teach, we do the following exercise on the first day. We ask all the computer security managers to get out their organizational tools and put their PDAs and Daytimers on the desk. We ask them to turn to six months from today and see what they have on their calendars. We have been doing this 6-8 times a year with an average of 30-40 leaders and only a handful have things planned for 6 months in advance. We know already that we have performance reviews to conduct, annual and semi-annual reviews, holidays and so forth. The first step in time planning is strategic tasks.

Try it now! Stop reading for a minute, open your own organizational device and check what you have in place 6 months from now. If it is empty, check the week before and the week after. If that is empty it may be a sign that you are 100% in fire fighting tactical mode. If that is true, you can be a more effective leader if you budget your time wisely.

Where does all the time go?

Leaders need to be able to answer that question. I asked the employee I am coaching to track her time for a couple of weeks recording tasks in the Stephen Covey quadrants. Tea Trust describes the quadrants like this:

  • Quadrant 1 represents things which are both urgent and important. We've called this "firefighting". The activities need to be dealt with immediately, and they're important.
  • Quadrant 2 represents things which are important, but not urgent. We've termed this one "Quality Time". Although the activities here are important, and contribute to achieving the goals and priorities - they don't have to be done right now. As a result, they can be scheduled in when you can give quality thought to them. A good example would be the preparation of an important talk, or mentoring a key individual. Prayer time, family time and personal relaxation/recreation are also part of Quadrant 2.
  • Quadrant 3 are distractions. They must be dealt with right now, but frankly, are not important. For example, when you answer an unwanted phone call, - you've had to interrupt whatever you were doing to answer it.
  • Quadrant 4, are things which are neither urgent nor important. Some meetings could fall into this category - they've been scheduled in advance, but if they achieve nothing, or you don't contribute to them, then they have simply wasted time. Other examples could include driving time and low quality relaxation or family time.[3]

Another helpful strategy is to use time billing software, such as Time Tracking Standard. [4] Or some people prefer Google Calendar, others a composition book. However, one thing is certain, you want to have a ready answer when someone asks you how you spend your time.

Strategic planning goals and benefits

Strategic planning is a management tool, period. As with any management tool, it is used for one purpose only which is to help an organization do a better job - to focus its energy, to ensure that members of the organization are working toward the same goals, and to assess and adjust the organizations direction in response to a changing environment.[5] In order to plan well, we must first achieve Business Situational Awareness.[6]

  1. Clearly define the purpose of your part of the organization and to establish realistic goals and objectives consistent with that mission in a defined time frame within the organizations capacity for implementation.
  2. Communicate those goals and objectives to the organizations constituents.[7]

Try it now! Stop reading for a minute and invest a bit of time for you and your organizational system whether PDA or paper based. Look at goal number 1. Doesn't that sound like it would help align your program with the needs of the business? How comfortable are you that you are up to date and in alignment? If the answer is less than 100%, mark out a time to accomplish this important task. Move to goal number 2. Have you been doing that? Does the rest of the organization know what you are trying to accomplish? If you are not 100% sure, mark out a time to accomplish this important task. Now before you close your Daytimer, take a minute to fill in any dates you know you are going to have meetings or appointments. Block out your vacation if you have that planned.

Short range tactical time budgeting

To be effective we balance longer range more strategic planning with daily planned discipline. We are going to eat, sleep, work etc; and that all takes time. However, we are on this earth for a purpose; each of us is going to perish, so we might as well accomplish something while we are here and leave a legacy. Important tasks are the tasks that leave your legacy. Urgent tasks are the tasks you have to accomplish to remain employed. Try to keep them in balance. You can use the MSC method to sort your tasks into urgent and important:

  • Must Do - Urgent tasks
  • Should Do - Can be Urgent or Important
  • Could Do - Can be Important if they lead to your ability to leave a legacy

Time management is a discipline, but not a particularly hard one to achieve. Many people feel it takes about 21 days of repetition of a discipline to form a habit. Habits are formed by a combination of instinctive needs, subconscious tendencies, and the original conscious choices of learning and training which, with repetition, soon become subconscious. In other words, the body "remembers" how to behave in similar situations. The earlier the learning occurs, and the more often it is repeated, the stronger the habit.[8] For the next month, which is more or less 21 working days, work on living to a time budget. A simple one is shown below.

Sleep 8 hours
Prepare for work, eat, get dressed 1 hour
Commute to work, listening to training .mp3 .5 hours
Email morning or meeting 1 hour
Urgent tasks 2 hours
Lunch ( away from computer with a person ) .5 hours
Email afternoon or meeting 1 hour
Important tasks 2 hours
Final email or meeting 1 hour
Work out, exercise .5 hours
Commute home, listening to music .5 hours
Family time, dinner, relax, read, TV 4 hours
Final check, email 1 hour
Quiet activities before sleep, prepare for tomorrow 1 hour

Of course everyones situation is different, so this is notional; however, there are some entries to take note of. Many of us try to redeem the time we spend commuting. So in this time budget we have some "Sharpen the saw" time on the morning commute. During the afternoon commute, we suggest music as a way to separate work from life. Great leaders spend a lot of time working, yet, life is not work, so leave time for life. Whether the workout is in the morning or the afternoon is personal choice. If you have a lot of people management tasks, you may find you are mentally exhausted when you come home; a workout can clear the mind and give you a better outlook on life.

Have you ever had a day where you felt you had accomplished nothing?

Also, please note that email is budgeted. Email is a thief, it steals time away from important tasks. Many managers and leaders report they feel that all of their time is spent in meetings and email. This must not be the case, we become personally ineffective in short order. Also note that the day has a time block for urgent tasks and time for important tasks. If you budget time for email, meetings and important tasks you will be effective. If you don't , you won't be. Sounds great, but the problem is that we can always get swept up by a crisis. If that happens, the first things to go are the important times, the planning times. If you have an auto tickler like Outlook, set it monthly to check to see if you are still doing the important things. A Harvard business blog 18 minutes to plan your day suggests taking 15 minutes to determine what is important including defining When and Where you are going to accomplish tasks and then one minute every hour to see if you are on plan and finally a few minutes at the end of the day to review.

Practical Tips

A List Apart magazine carried an article titled A Four Day Workweek by Ryan Carson with the following tips:[9]

  1. Avoid using instant messaging; its a constant source of distraction.
  2. Only check your e-mail twice a day. The surest way to waste time is the old Send and Receive button.
  3. Stick to what matters. Take care of the most important stuff first. Don't waste time on low-priority stuff. (In fact, delete the low-priority stuff from your to-do list. It's not going to get done anyway!)
  4. Ask for alone time. If you need uninterrupted time to get something done, politely notify your co-workers that you'll be unavailable for a couple of hours.
  5. Limit blog-reading time. Set a time limit on your blog reading. If you don't get through all your blogs in that amount of time, hit the trusty "Mark All As Read" button and move on.
  6. Make lists. Write a "to do" list for each day (on paper if you can bear to tear yourself away from Outlook). Put the time-sensitive stuff at the top and be realistic. Choose three time-intensive things to do and five quick things to do. Make sure you finish all of them before you leave in the evening.
  7. Restrict meetings. If you can, restrict the amount of meetings you call, or are involved in. Meetings drag on and can eat into your day. Instead, aim for one or two meetings per week and plan them carefully to ensure you cover all important topics and keep on track.
All links were working at the time this article was created. If a link goes away, we retain the link in the list as it may be the only remaining source for this information:
1 http://pbskids.org/itsmylife/school/time/article3.html
2 http://www.sans.org/training/description.php?tid=452
3 http://www.teal.org.uk/sv/timemgnt.htm
4 http://www.tucows.com/preview/396687
5 http://www.allianceonline.org/FAQ/strategic_planning/what_is_strategic_planning.faq
6 http://www.sans.edu/resources/leadershiplab/situationalAwareness.php
7 http://www.managementhelp.org/plan_dec/str_plan/str_plan.htm
8 http://san.beck.org/Life6-Memory.html
9 http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/bregman/2009/07/an-18minute-plan-for-managing.html
10 http://alistapart.com/articles/fourdayweek