This article originally appeared in AllBusiness.
Effective time management ranks among the more challenging, and often exasperating, aspects of being a successful leader. It requires the flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges and the self-discipline to block out distractions and complete daily tasks.
In my experience as a business coach, I frequently hear leaders express frustration with how easily their well-planned days veer off course. They describe how demands from clients, colleagues, and other constituencies take away precious time from their workday.
Face it: There will never be enough hours in the day to accomplish everything you need to do. But if you methodically review how you spend your days and instill focus and discipline while completing daily priorities, you will soon find more time to work on the long-term success of your business. Here are six ways to do it:
The first step to effective time management is to audit your calendar. Sit down and review three months of activity. The data from the analysis will show where you spent your time (which projects, tasks, and priorities demanded your attention) and with whom you collaborated to get the work done.
The audit will also reveal if the work you were doing is properly aligned with company goals and priorities. It will shed light on areas where you were distracted, where you were the most productive, and which tasks/projects took more time (or less) time than anticipated.
Another significant benefit of a time audit is it will identify unimportant and noncritical activities that take up your day. These are the kinds of things that sneak up on you and steal time, and can be better put to use growing your business. Look for these time drains: not delegating tasks, not managing meetings efficiently (tip: always have an agenda!), and spending too much time writing/responding to emails.
If you’ve done your job as a leader, members of your team can handle a majority of meetings and emails. You hired great people. Now let them do their job.
Repeat after me, “I am the only person responsible for how I spend my time.” Remember you drive your schedule; don’t let others drive it. Block time throughout your day and guard against changing your schedule to work on tasks that are not important or urgent.
The way you allocate your time has a direct correlation to your effectiveness as a leader and, ultimately, the performance of your business. Prudent calendar management will also send a strong signal to your team that you take this seriously.
Plan every day and determine your priorities. Yes, that should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many business leaders I’ve coached who don’t. When you know your priorities for the day you will be better prepared to reset your work schedule if the unexpected comes your way.
Once your schedule is set, block off chunks of time to work on your priorities. I recommend 90-minute blocks so you can concentrate on big-picture items or work on a group of related tasks. Stay disciplined and don’t allow yourself to go over that amount of time.
Now comes the hard part. Once you start working on each priority you need to remain focused. Close the door and don’t answer the phone unless it’s a critical issue. Avoid checking email. Don’t let distractions slow you down.
The final piece of the puzzle is accountability. Share your tasks, priorities, and deadlines with a colleague. Meet with that person at least monthly to review how well you managed your time. The probability of success increases when you have someone watching your progress and coaching you cross the finish line.
Time will always be a precious resource for business leaders. But if you follow these steps you’ll find more time each day that you can spend on improving operations, staying ahead of the competition, and positioning your company for future growth.