You’ve probably been hearing a lot about managing your time lately.  It tends to become a big topic of conversation when the deadlines approach.  But if you’re like many busy professionals, you have probably tried several “time management” techniques that work for a little while but aren’t sustainable.  You are constantly on the rollercoaster of being on top of things, only to quickly find yourself behind the ball. Why does this happen?

Well, because time can’t be managed.  You can’t slow it down or speed it up or make it more efficient.  Instead, you should be focused on managing factors that you can control.  

Things that can be managed:  

  • Tasks & projects
  • Expectations
  • Energy

Here’s how.

Managing Tasks

Becoming a master at managing your tasks is a crucial skill, especially if you want to avoid fire drills and potential burnout for yourself and your team.  There are plenty of resources available to you to help manage your tasks. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Handwritten lists with due dates: Great for daily to-do’s and for those days when you just need to cross things off of a list.
  2. Calendar blocking: as simple as it sounds- scheduling out time on your calendar to complete your big tasks; I particularly like this for time-consuming tasks. 
  3. Virtual task lists:  this can be done with tools like Trello, using “tasks” in your Google/Outlook calendar, or having a living list in Excel.

The key is to find the system that works for you, customize it to your needs and stick to it.  Resist the urge to give up the system that is working for you as soon as the problem is “fixed”.  Managing tasks is an ongoing commitment.  

Managing Expectations

Another Jedi-level supervisor skill is to learn to manage expectations.  This goes both ways- you need to set and manage expectations for the people you manage, and you also have to set & negotiate expectations upward with your supervisors.  

Let’s start with your staff.  Make sure that you’re setting very clear guidelines and deadlines for projects.  If you’re finding that your staff can’t meet those deadlines, consider setting progress milestones. Use those milestones as check-in’s so you can ensure that they’re moving forward and aren’t burning your budget.  

Here are some examples:  

You:  This project is going to take you about 6 hours.  When can you have this complete?

Staff:  I will be able to get it done by the EOD Friday.  Does that work?

You:  *Either accept this timeline or propose a new deadline.*  

Accept:  Sounds great- let’s check in on Wednesday so I can see your progress and answer any questions.

Propose new:  The client needs this back by Friday, so I will need time to review.  Would you be able to get this to me by noon on Thursday?

This same approach can be used to manage expectations upstream.  If your supervisor gives you a task without a deadline, make sure to ask when they need it by.  They may not be thinking ahead, but this is your way of managing YOUR tasks and making sure that you’re meeting expectations.  Don’t be afraid to negotiate potential deadlines to make them work for you. Be wary of saying YES to a deadline that you realistically won’t be able to meet.  This will put you behind, cause you stress, and ultimately everyone loses.  

Managing Energy

Managing tasks and managing expectations both contribute to the ultimate goal of managing your energy.  Staying on top of your tasks and expectations can reduce stress, minimize the number of fire-drills you’re responding to, and help eliminate the swings in your schedule.  However, even when you find yourself faced with a tight deadline, you can still be responsible for managing your energy. How? By managing your reaction to your circumstances. 

Start by identifying your normal reaction- maybe it’s to panic, or become fearful, or put strict/unrealistic expectations on your staff.  Once your normal reaction is identified, challenge yourself to choose something different next time. Consider replacing the knee-jerk panic with a moment to breathe, followed by some time to get organized.  Our reactions to situations like this are often the biggest energy drain. If you can start to respond more productively, you’ll be ahead of the game.