Lack of time is just an illusion!

Time management. One of the basic skills you are required to master when moving up the ladder to management positions and in fact in any professional role at all. There are hundreds of books written on the topic (only on Amazon when searching time management you get more than 100.000 references), and there are countless leadership programs and seminars focused on time management you can attend. And yet, you cannot manage time. Time flows and there is nothing you can do about it.

What you can manage are your priorities and your attention. Each of us gets allocated 24 hours of time a day and it is just up to you to figure out how to use it in a way that helps you achieve your goals. And by that I don’t mean just spending 20 hours a day in the office getting 100 tasks done. What I’m talking about is to spend time doing things that help you reach your life goals based on the value system you have. It might be getting the project done on time, getting a promotion, building a house, raising your children or traveling the world.

So if you are a person who is constantly overloaded and never have time to do all the things you want to, there are couple of things to consider.

Don’t manage time, manage priorities

Stop blaming lack of time for not being able to deal with everything on your plate. Learn to prioritize and learn to live with the fact that there are some things you will simply not do. There are tons of tips and tricks on how to set priorities. My favorite one is the concept of 4D as shown on the picture below. You can use this as a guideline for prioritizing your own work. The idea is to focus on things that are important to you and your goals. It may sound a bit selfish but that is the way to ensure that you are the one managing your priorities and you don’t let others to do it for you.

Concept of 4D

Concept of 4D

See the things in quadrant four? Ignore them! Learn to live with the fact that something will not be done and that it is completely fine not to do it. One trick that I used on numerous occasions with my team was to ask team members who felt overloaded to write down all the things they do ordered by priority and draw a line to indicate what they are able to manage. Everything below the line won’t be done. I would go through the list with them, agree on priorities and acknowledge that there are things that get postponed or canceled at all. That way I helped the team member to understand priorities and removed the stress that they will not manage all the things on the list.

Manage your attention

Priorities are nice, but most of us understand the priorities and still not get things done. Why? You need to learn to manage your attention. In today’s world with abundance of information, interactions, and tons of distractions it is increasingly difficult to stay focused. Find a system that will help you focus on what is important. Each of us is different so there is no such thing as best practice, but consider these questions

  • Do you really need to be on email/skype/phone 24 hours a day? What is the worst thing that would happen if you switched it off for a while?
  • Do you really need to know about every single thing that is happening in the world? What would happen if you switched of the internet for couple of hours and didn’t constantly look for news or tweets?
  • Do you really need to say “yes” to any request you get? What is the worst thing that could happen if you said “no”?
  • Do you really need to multitask and do ten things at the same time? What would happen if you started doing them in series rather than in parallel?

My favorite question to ask myself, and often get depressed by the answer is: “What did I achieve today / this week / this month?” Not what did I do, but what did I achieve. If you find yourself being constantly busy but not achieving anything that matters you need to stop right now and reevaluate your tasks, priorities and indeed your life.

Lack of time is just a mindset

Edward T. Hall came up with concept of monochronic versus polychronic societies. The monochronic time concept is derived from “one thing at a time” paradigm and the polychronic from idea of “multiple tasks at the same time”. The implications he raises lead to different views of time. In the polychronic culture interpersonal relationships are much more important than time. Things will still get done, but in their own time. In the Western world time is a rare commodity that is continuously running out. “Time is money” and “Time is wasted.” However, there are cultures where time is abundant and people don’t concern themselves with “not having the time” to do stuff.

Think about it! There are people and in fact whole cultures who live similar lives to your, do similar work, still have just 24 hours a day available and yet, they feel like having plenty of time. The implication is that in a culture where time is limited being late for a meeting is a big no-no. In other cultures it is a way of life, people are fine waiting or coming another day. There is nothing right or wrong with each of the ways, they are just different. Though I had to admit for someone who grew up in central Europe where time is limited it drives me sometimes crazy to adapt to living in the Philippines where apparently time is abundant.

What does it all mean? It is only up to you if you want to create a mindset that will allow you to have all the time in the world, spend your attention on things that have priority for you, and feel good about not doing bunch of stuff that doesn’t need to be done anyway.

Twitter type summary: “It is your choice to get a mindset that allows you to have all the time in the world and spend your attention on things important to you.”

What about you? Do you manage time or time manages you? How do you ensure you focus your attention on the right things?

Learn to be genuinely interested in people

One of the key aspects managing people effectively is the ability to show genuine interest. What do I mean by genuine interest? I mean that not only you act as that you care, but you really do care and listen to what people are saying. It is easier said than done. Especially when you just want to get the job done and you may not care about the employee at all. If that is your case then face the sad truth: you are not a leader. At best you are a manager, who needs to use authoritative style of management, and no one will follow you. Some people are more adept at this, have more empathy and are more people oriented. Others may be more task oriented and may not have the curiosity and interest in the other people’s lives and problems. However, as a leader it is your responsibility and in fact your purpose to be there for your team.

The good news is that the ability to be genuinely interested in people is something that can be learned. You can learn to be interested in others. You can learn to care about others around you. You can learn to trust people around you and by doing this other people will be interested in you, will care about what you have to say and will trust you. The bad news is that it takes lots of effort and time and you need to be willing to change a bit who you are. If you decide to change who you are you need to be aware of the impact of the change on you, your personal and professional life and on people around you. The change will be probably pretty slow and needs some careful consideration before you start.

I don’t have a recipe for how to do it as each of us is unique, but I can offer you couple of thoughts that can help you with this learning process. Depending on your habits, on your beliefs, learned behavior and generally on who you are you may need to build this skill in phases.

1. Announce it to the world

At the beginning you will most likely only pretend. Wait a minute. Leader and pretending? That doesn’t sound right. But again, you need to start somewhere and let’s allow ourselves (as junior leaders) the option to pretend, having the greater good in mind. You are doing this with genuine interest in developing a particular skill. You may also want to announce this to the world, meaning your team. For example: “Guys I realized that I don’t pay enough attention and don’t show interest in you and what you do. Please, help me to change this.” This statement doesn’t make the pretension right, but it buys you time as people will understand what you are trying to achieve and will be more lenient for some time in this regard.

2. Focus on the person

When you talk to a person always make sure you focus only on that particular individual and don’t get distracted by anything else. You need to not only pay attention but let the other person know that you are paying attention. This means that your whole body language must be in sync with what you are saying.  Stop doing whatever you are doing, face the person, make eye contact and listen.

Let me give you an example to illustrate. One thing that you can see in the business world very often, especially in fast-paced environments is that people are always busy, always online, reading emails, fiddling with their blackberry or iPhone. When you come to such a person with request or question he may not even glance at you, may continue writing his message and just asks “How can I help you?” So his words are saying, yes, I care about your problem, but his whole body language sends a very clear message: “Don’t you see I’m busy? I really don’t care about your problem.”

The leader who shows genuine interest would stop writing, maybe took a deep breath to switch from one context to another, face you, fully focus on you as a person and then ask how can be of help. The experience for you is very different and so it is for the leader. He genuinely cares and wants to help you. He understands that if he just half-listens not only he may not understand what message you try to get across, but he knows that you will also have a rather negative experience and will not feel like being treated with respect. Even if you caught the leader at a wrong time and he really cannot make the time for you just now, he still needs to switch the context, focus on you, ensure he doesn’t appear irritated, use the right tone of voice and ask you to come at another time.

3. See the world through their eyes

Another important thing that will help you to build a genuine interest in others is to be willing to step into their shoes and look at the world through their eyes. It may very well be that the topic someone came to you with is on the surface not important for you but it may be vital to that person. That makes it vital also to you as a leader who is responsible for that particular person. If you really don’t understand and feel like the topic is no priority, use the coaching approach and ask “Why is it important to you?” The person in question will have to think why this is a topic he cares about thus giving you a chance to understand him better.

If even the person admits that it is not a critical thing you can then easily move the discussion to another time or just let the person to come up with the answer himself by returning the question “So what would you do?” or “What do you want to do about it?” Of course empathy and tone of voice play a key role so you are seen as someone who genuinely cares and tries to help.

At the end it all boils down to a simple human condition called curiosity. If you want to be a great leader who cares about his team and is able to show a genuine interest then remember the days when you were a kid curious about everything and everyone around you…

Twitter type summary: “Treat each conversation like a surgical operation. Give it your undivided attention, your voice, eyes, mind and body must be as one.”

What about you? How do you show to your team that you care? How do you build respect? How do you make others to follow you?

Asking the right question, the wrong way and at the wrong time

It happens to everyone from time to time that we ask questions we wish we haven’t or make a statement we later realize wasn’t the smartest thing to say. We regret it and we even go and apologize. We know deep inside that it simply wasn’t the right time or place to ask the question. So why are we doing this? What does it bring? What does it take away? And what can we do about it?

To take a rather simplistic view, the answer can be pretty simple in most of the cases. It is us trying to feel important, trying to contribute without having an actual useful content to convey, us being obsessed with a particular topic, us trying to show off. It is a human nature and in fact, asking questions is a very desirable behavior and as the saying goes there are no stupid questions. However, there is such a thing as asking the right question, but the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Just imagine this situation. You are a new manager on a meeting with your direct superior talking about budget needs for the next year. You don’t really understand how the process works, what is the required input, how the decision will be done. It is a totally appropriate to ask any sorts of questions to understand both the big picture and the details. Your boss is here to provide that level of detail needed for you to do a good job and he is here to explain how things work.

And now imagine asking the same sort of questions in totally different setting. You are on a meeting with several other managers and you are listening to the CEO talking about a strategy for the next five years. The budgeting topic is still on top of your mind and it is really important to you to understand it, so you ask the CEO, “and what about budget for this year?” See the difference? The CEO may answer your question in some general terms without really providing a detail answer as that is not the focus of the meeting. But even if he does, you have shown that you don’t pay attention and you may not even belong to that room. We are talking strategy here and you are asking about some tactical aspect. And if the CEO is not careful enough he may get into the details thus derailing the meeting. That way you got your answer, but you have missed an opportunity to discuss the strategy and see the big picture. And what is worse you robbed others of the opportunity too.

So how do you ensure you are asking the right questions at the right time?

  • Always focus on topic being discussed and don’t try to broaden it too much as it will dilute the original message
  • Always consider whether the question and the answer will bring something to the rest of the audience, if not, take it offline
  • Always consider whether you are asking the right person who is best suited to provide you the answer

And if you are not sure whether it is the right time to ask just say something like “Can we talk offline after the meeting? I have couple more questions about budgeting that may not be relevant to others.” That way you show that you understand the reason for the meeting, you value everyone’s time and you want to understand impact on topics important to you. It may very well happen that several participants will say “Hey, I would be interested in that too.” and it will be added to the meeting as a legitimate topic.

This being said, please, always ask as many questions as possible as that is the best way to learn 🙂