Leaders Don't Manage Time, They Manage Choices

How a powerful behavior is replacing outdated time management practices.

Posted Aug 09, 2016

 Alex Krivec/Unsplash
Source: Alex Krivec/Unsplash

Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked at the four behaviors that differentiate a functional manager from a true leader. As you know, I refer to these behaviors as the “Phenomenal Four,” which include:

  • Cultivating reflective silence
  • Capturing meaningful stories
  • Reinforcing what’s important
  • Posing curious questions

If you haven’t had a chance to read the first two entries in this series, I recommend starting here, then reading this.

Today, we are going to examine the third behavior: reinforcing what’s important.

In its most basic form, reinforcing what’s important is about ensuring you are working on the most important things each day. This behavior may seem ordinary, cliché, in fact. However, I would caution you not to dismiss it as just another tip for time management

This third behavior, in all of its supposed simplicity, may be the most powerful out of the four in distinguishing a functional manager from a leader.

Let’s dive in.

The Truth About Time Management  

In the last year, I (like many people) read Marie Kondo’s charming book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One thing that struck me was her conviction that before you can begin to organize your possessions, you must first cull through them and purge what does not bring you joy.

Ms. Kondo notes that most people skip this purge and go straight to organizing, assuming that they are happy with everything they have. However, over time, organizing becomes harder and harder the more things you accumulate.

To me, this is exactly what is wrong with traditional approaches to time management.

Instead of starting the process from a place of deciding what is important, we assume the worthiness of all our existing commitments, responsibilities, and activities and focus exclusively on how to fit them all together into our waking hours. Over time, this challenge becomes greater and greater, and pretty soon, our efforts to “manage” time become akin to our efforts to “manage” clutter: futile.

This is why I say leaders don’t manage time; they manage choices. They constantly try to stay attuned to what is important in their life (what brings them “joy,” as Ms. Kondo says) and make decisions on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis based on it. 

While managers struggle to fit everything into a day, a leader is willing to purge, delegate, or just say no to anything that isn’t truly important.

The ability to reinforce what is important and exert energy in accordance with what is important is what makes this third behavior so powerful. 

The Third Behavior: Reinforcing What’s Important

The behavior of reinforcing what’s important is about giving yourself a moment each day to see both the big picture and the little pieces at the same time, so you can act accordingly. 

This means taking five minutes at the beginning or end of the day to review your list of big-picture goals and then review your daily action plan to ensure you’re working on the most important things related to your larger goals.

I have found this to be an invaluable strategy for helping me to stay above the urgent-not-important things that bombard leaders every day. It is also a great way to keep those seemingly productive time sucks (i.e., email, social media) in their proper place.

Personally, I review my lists at both the start and end of the workday. It’s always satisfying to strike through an action or two or three or more. Over time, I realized that when I took care of the important items, my work really progressed. I finished that webinar design. I published that blog. I got that meeting scheduled where a decision had to be made.

I also noticed that when I did the items that were the least pleasant first, my progress was faster. What was it about those items? They were the ones I was avoiding because they had implications, and as a result, were important. Avoidance was coming out of my fear that they would not produce the right implications. What was I afraid of? Today, as I look at the list either in the morning, when I am determining which are the most important actions, or at the end of the day, when I am considering the accomplishments of the day, I’m conscious of what avoidance means. It tells me exactly which are the most important.

This week, challenge yourself to reinforce what is important by keeping a list of long-term goals alongside your daily action list, and check it at least once a day. 

Next week, we will explore the final Phenomenal Four behavior: posing curious questions!