Why time management is the most valuable skill you can learn

Most of us make new year’s resolutions. When we do so, we’re filled with hope, determination, and some excitement. We start the new year with a renewed sense of purpose but, pretty soon, old habits resurface and a few months into the year it becomes harder to have the resolve to stick to our changes.

As business leaders, many of us approach strategic planning the same way. Before we know it, another year has passed and we haven’t made a dent in those goals we set.

It’s time to break the cycle.

Why time management is so important

At the end of an unproductive day, we can’t just hit the reset button and get those hours back again; they’re gone forever. So the question is, how do we make every hour count?

One of the most famous and useful time management tools, and one that I use daily, is Eisenhower’s urgent/important principle.

By segmenting my to-do list into four key categories, I can stay focused on the things that matter:

  1. Important and urgent. These are the things that will help drive you towards your goals and are time-sensitive. They should be at the top of your list.
  2. Important but not urgent. These are the things that usually get neglected in favour of fighting fires. They’re crucial to achieve your goals but they are often overlooked because they’re not time-sensitive. To give them the priority they deserve, you should consider setting deadlines for these tasks and putting them near the top of your list.
  3. Not important but urgent. These are the activities that other people ask you to do, often with a short deadline. Doing them won’t help achieve your goals but they’re time-sensitive, so it’s tempting to drop everything and attend to them. There’s nothing like a deadline to get the adrenalin flowing and it can be hard to see clearly whether it’s worth it. Instead, see if these tasks can be delegated or altered to provide more value.
  4. Unimportant and not urgent. These are often the things we do to procrastinate, or the things that other people have asked us to do. Take them off your list or ask the person to explain why they think the task is important.

When you segment your to-do list according to these four categories, you can immediately see the value of prioritising certain activities over others.

The importance of saying no

It’s hard for many of us to say no to things people have asked us to do. We want to be seen as a team player, we want to avoid disappointing our colleagues or clients, and we like to think we can do it all.

However, time is finite and, once the day is done, you can’t get those hours back again. If you want to be an effective leader or a valuable, productive team member (and avoid spending all your waking hours at work), you need to learn when and how to say no.

A colleague, client, or manager is less likely to mind you saying no if you can:

  • demonstrate where the task sits on the important/urgent matrix compared to the rest of your workload
  • explain why you believe the task shouldn’t be prioritised
  • offer an alternative or a solution, such as delegating the task to a different team member.

The meaning of the word ‘important’

What’s important to you may not be important to someone else. For teams to run effectively, they should have a strategic plan that everyone in the team understands and is committed to. Team leaders should state the goals explicitly and make sure every team member knows what the goals are and how they’re expected to contribute to achieving them.

Sometimes an activity doesn’t seem important according to the team’s goals. However, there can be good reasons to do an activity that seems unimportant. For example, it might make a client look good or help a supplier out of a tight spot. So, while the important/urgent matrix is indispensable, it’s also worth keeping an open mind to certain tasks because they can contribute intangibly to the team’s success.

Using the important/urgent matrix can help you clearly see where you should spend your time. By using it consistently to manage your workload, and talking to your colleagues about it, you can both improve your own time management and contribute more effectively to reaching the organisation’s goals.

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