Leadership guru, Peter Drucker, once said, “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” No matter how well we’re working on something, it really doesn’t matter if that something is the wrong thing. Especially for business owners and leaders, time is our most precious resource so investing it in the right things is crucial.

The old saying that we must manage our time well is really a misnomer. It’s about managing ourselves in relation to time. Efficiency is a process issue and where most of us tend to go first to address personal and company capacity. Effectiveness is a people and behavioral issue. It’s about focusing our behaviors on the highest value use of our time; it is about prioritization, doing the right things. Prioritizing allows us to get the highest return on our most precious resource, time. By applying our full attention and focus to top priorities, we complete them faster, get a higher return on our time and avoid the regret from missed opportunities. The challenge is, it may be overwhelming to decide what activities deserve the most attention, however, there are various methods to find the best way to make maximum use of time. Let’s go through some of the best we’ve seen.

The 80/20 Rule

Yes, the tried-and-true 80/20 rule, also known as Pareto’s Principle, states that 80% of your results come from only 20% of your actions. Across the board, you will find that the 80/20 principle applies to a lot of things, like the top percentage of clients generating most of your revenue. Bottom line is, to maximize the use of our time, we need to be focused on the 20%. Sometimes it takes some basic analysis to figure it out like time tracking your activities for a week or two. See where your time is going and where it’s getting the highest return. Allocate more time to those activities. Look at some client reports to see who’s generating most of your revenue. Invest more time with them. When doing your employee reviews, look for the fewer to almost every situation. Spend more time helping them achieve more and less time with those who are draining resources. Essentially, this principle can truly help you prioritize your time. 

The Urgent/Important Matrix

Managing time effectively and achieving the things that you want to achieve means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent. To do this, you need to distinguish clearly between what is urgent and what is important:

  • Important: These activities are typically proactive and lead to achieving goals with the greatest impact on your business.
  • Urgent: These activities are typically reactive, demand immediate attention and are often associated with someone else’s goals rather than our own.

The Urgent/Important Matrix, also known as the Eisenhower Principle, is a powerful way of organizing tasks based on priorities. It’s a natural tendency to focus on urgent activities because being perpetually busy makes us feel important, passes time quickly and gives us a false sense of achievement. I liken it to drinking a diet Coke after eating a Big Mac, large fries, and a milkshake. 

This simple framework is easy to understand and a simple exercise can help you immediately begin to focus more on your highest priorities. Start by drawing a box with four quadrants. On the vertical axis, write “Important” at the top and “Not Important” at the bottom. On the horizontal axis, write “Urgent” on the left and “Not Urgent” on the right. Label the quadrants starting with the top left, “Quadrant I” and going clockwise, “Quadrant II” and so on. Familiarize yourself with what each of these quadrants means:

  • QI “Urgent and Important”: Activities in this area typically pose an immediate high risk if not completed (like losing a client) or high reward (like closing a new client) if completed. They often deal with critical issues as they arise and meeting significant commitments. Put these on your tasks list and DO ASAP.
  • QII “Important, But Not Urgent”: These tasks are often connected to longer range risks and rewards. They are success-oriented tasks critical to achieving goals. Schedule these tasks using time block strategies to DO LATER.
  • QIII “Urgent, But Not Important”: These chores have little risk or reward but often are things we either like to do or give us a false sense of being productive and important. They are unlikely moving you towards your big goals. Manage by delaying them, cutting them short and rejecting requests from others. DELEGATE or DEFER these tasks.
  • QIV “Not Urgent and Not Important”: These trivial interruptions are just a distraction and should be avoided if at all possible. However, be careful not to mislabel things like time with family and recreational activities as not important. Avoid these distractions altogether, ELIMINATE and SAY NO.

With these guidelines in mind, start every day with a task list and designate each as QI-IV. Delete QIV items, stay focused on your QI and QII items until complete and only then consider QIII items last.

Ruthlessly Protect Your Time 

The ability to say no is a powerful priority management tool. At times, requests from others may be important and need immediate attention. Often, however, these requests conflict with our values and take time away from working toward important goals. Remember, with finite time available to us, saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else. As business owners and leaders, we must also be intentional not to prioritize the needs of one above the majority. 

When you need to say no because you lack the time or have more important priorities, it can be hard. So one approach in dealing with these types of interruptions is to use a Positive No, which comes in several forms.

  • Say no and then briefly clarify your reasoning without making excuses. This helps the listener to better understand your position. Example: “I can’t right now because I have another project that is due by 5 pm today.”
  • Say no, and then give an alternative. Example: “I don’t have time today, but I could schedule it in for tomorrow morning.”
  • Empathetically repeat the request in your own words, and then say no. Example: “I understand that you need to have this paperwork filed immediately, but I will not be able to file it for you.”
  • Use a “yes” paraphrasing the request followed by a “but” and alternative option. Example: “Yes, I would love to help you by filing this paperwork, but I do not have time until tomorrow morning so you might see if __ can help you.”

Provide an assertive refusal and repeat it no matter what the person says. This approach may be most appropriate with aggressive or manipulative people and can be an effective strategy to control your emotions. Example: “I understand how you feel, but I will not [or cannot] …” Remember to stay focused and not become sidetracked into responding to other issues or defending.

Eat the Elephant

Often, those non-urgent but important items are larger projects. They can sometimes be so overwhelming it is difficult to plan to start them. This time management technique is ideal for taking on these jobs. Simply break down the project into manageable chunks, block off time to work on the project, and then tackle it with a single-minded focus.

  • Chunk: Break large projects into specific tasks that can be completed in less than 15 minutes.
  • Block: Rather than scheduling the entire project all at once, block out set times to complete specific chunks as early in the day as possible. This should allow you to ignore most interruptions and focus on just this task.
  • Tackle: Now tackle the specific task, focusing only on this task rather than the project as a whole. Once completed, you will feel a sense of accomplishment from making progress on the project.

Beat Procrastination

We’ve all heard the saying, “Ready, Aim, Fire!” Often in priority and time management planning, a better mantra is “Ready, Fire, Aim!” This is because most people aim for the target and keep aiming but never seem to fire. They get so caught up with the planning, they fail to act. This is a form of procrastination. Sometimes it’s better to take a shot, see how close you are to the target and then adjust your sights. Here’s the way to get moving.

  • Ready! Do not over-plan each of your actions. By the time you fire, the target may have moved.
  • Fire! Remember the 80/20 rule and just take action. Even if you don’t hit the bull’s eye, you’ll probably still hit the target.
  • Aim! Make new plans based on new information. Readjust your aim based on where you hit the target.

Practical Illustration

Elizabeth was feeling overwhelmed by the huge pile of paperwork scattered on her desk. Her manager, Jane, told her to sit down and to prioritize her work by making two piles of paperwork. The pile labeled IMPORTANT included items that directly impacted Elizabeth’s work performance. The pile labeled URGENT included items that needed attention immediately, however, did not involve Elizabeth directly. From these piles, Jane told her to create four others in order of importance.

URGENT AND IMPORTANT- items that not only needed immediate attention but directly impacted Elizabeth.

IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT- impacted Elizabeth directly, but they did not need immediate attention.

URGENT BUT NOT IMPORTANT – paperwork most likely given to Elizabeth by others.

NOT URGENT AND NOT IMPORTANT- more of a distraction than anything else. Thanks to Jane’s organizational advice, Elizabeth knew where to focus her time and felt great at the end of her day having finished her top priority work.

Our personalities and the way we’re wired play huge roles in how we manage our priorities. We’ve developed a powerful and complimentary “Confident Leader Insight Assessment” to help you discover potential time management barriers. Click HERE to take this brief but powerful assessment. The report is immediate and if you’d like a little more interpretation, send me an email or click the button below to schedule a complimentary Confident Leader Strategy Session to go over the key results and how to be more effective in using your limited time.