Time – how to find enough?

We are all ‘time poor’

A lack of time to do what leaders feel they need to is one of the most common issues that leaders want to address.  There is never enough.  They are too busy.  Their teams are overloaded.  Everybody wants a piece of them: their superiors, their teams, their families and friends, the organisations they volunteer with.  Never mind about having time for themselves.

When you are in a leadership role you are always likely to be busy.  It goes with the territory and the acceptance of the responsibility of being in charge.  It is one of the factors that provides a healthy level of stress that leaders – who tend to be driven people – thrive on.  Nevertheless, when not dealt with appropriately, time pressure can put leaders and their teams under duress to an extent that is unhealthy, unsustainable and that leads to inefficient practices.

Leaders need time for three core work activities: to think; to do the tasks that they personally have to undertake; and to supervise their teams.  Time to think is critical, especially at the executive level.  They, above everyone else, must focus on the future and what is to come.  They must be able to think clearly about this and need dedicated time to do so.  Outside of this there are many other things that need a share of time in order to support a healthy lifestyle.  The good news is that there are some basic tools and techniques that, when practised and applied well, can help leaders at all levels manage the time they do have to the best effect.


The first of these tools is Prioritising.  Not everything needs doing, and it certainly doesn’t all need achieving straight away.  Knowing what has to be done is a crucial first step and keeping a list will help.  Then you can choose the few (and only a few) things that you are going to achieve in the next time period.  But how do you choose?  What are the priorities?  What criteria do you use to pull items from your complete list of tasks onto your short to-do list?  This is where experience and practised skill comes in.  

The leader must develop a set of criteria to decide what needs doing now, what can wait and what can be dropped from the list.  Experience in role and comprehensive understanding of the organisation’s wider goals, culture and ethos will help.  A short and impending deadline does not always make something important enough to be achieved now.  For a start, the deadline may be arbitrary and could be challenged.  Why has it been imposed and can it be moved?  Furthermore, tackling the ‘quick wins’ first just to move things off your list may make you feel better in the short term, but this approach often leads to insufficient time being available for what really matters.  Is the task given to you by your boss necessarily more important than the piece of work one of your team members has asked for your involvement with, just because it came from the top of the shop?  We all know people who take this approach, and achieving the balance is not necessarily easy, but the boss’s task is not always the most important I would suggest.  

These choices are personal and situationally dependent, but they are the sort of decisions that must be considered when prioritising.  One question I always ask myself is ‘what must I do today so that I don’t let anyone down tomorrow?’


The art of delegating is the second key skill to be developed.  Few people are expert at it.  Perhaps because they fear losing control, or perhaps because they see it as ‘dumping’ on their team, or perhaps because of trust issues (a whole other topic for discussion).  Done well, delegating tasks will give leaders more time for the things they really must be doing and can be empowering, developmental and provide appropriate stimulus for their team members.

As with prioritising, clear criteria should be developed to guide what tasks to delegate and which to retain.  An often-used phrase is ‘don’t delegate anything you are not prepared to do yourself’.  I don’t necessarily agree. Frequently, there are team members better qualified, skilled and experienced to complete a task than the leader with whom the task is currently sitting.  These tasks are obvious candidates to be delegated.  Other considerations include the capacity of team members – how full their workloads are – and which tasks would appropriately challenge a team member who is seeking to be developed.

Some leaders are highly practised delegators seemingly distributing the majority of their work to subordinates, sometimes peers, and even superiors.  Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, when Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the Second World War, had a reputation as a ruthless delegator, keeping for himself only those things that required the authority of his position to achieve.  This approach may be questioned by some, but it certainly gave him as much time as possible to think, supervise his subordinates and engage strategically as needed by his role.

While we have talked about delegating tasks, you will realise that responsibility cannot delegated.  The leader remains responsible to their boss, and the wider organisation, for the work given to them.  They should never try to dodge that responsibility – leaving their team exposed – if a task they delegated is not completed correctly.  This is a very quick route to destroying loyalty and trust in a team, and represents an alarming lack of integrity.

Transferring Risk

What do you expect your team members to do if they don’t have enough time to complete their tasks, and what do you do if you are in the same position, having prioritised and delegated already?  In both cases my recommendation is the same.  Take it to the next level up: approach the boss.  Your subordinates should raise the matter with you and you should raise your issue with your line manager.  Sounds obvious?  It is the way the approach is made that is key.

The art of transferring the risk of an unachievable work schedule is in being clear and factual with what you are asking.  Complaining to the boss that it is all too difficult and asking them to reduce your workload is unlikely to achieve the result being sought.  Far better to approach in a positive manner telling them what you can achieve – prioritised over a certain time period – what you recommend waits until later, and what doesn’t get done.  If the leader has set clear objectives and priorities, the approach being made by the under-pressure subordinate should be in line with those directives and fairly easy, therefore, to formulate and get agreement to.  An additional level to the approach would be to say what could be achieved if more resources were available and quantify what additional human and financial resources, time and equipment are necessary to deliver all the outputs.  By these means the next leader up is making the decision (based on the subordinate’s recommendation) on what gets done and is therefore taking the risk on what doesn’t. This eases the pressure on their team members, allowing them to concentrate on what they are going to do rather than worrying about what they cannot complete.


The ‘1/3:2/3 rule’ goes hand-in-hand with delegating and helps with prioritising.  It is a way of apportioning the time available to a team to help ensure they do have enough to complete a task.  When a leader is given a new task from above, they should be told, or make a conservative estimate, of how long is available to complete it.  They then take 1/3 of that available time for themselves, to think about what needs doing, to give their direction to their team (that is, to delegate some or all of the task), and to review their team’s subsequent work and to present it to the person who gave out the task in the first place.  The team, or person, to whom the task has been delegated then has 2/3 of the total time available to complete their part of the task.  If they have to sub-delegate, they take 1/3 of the time they have been given for themselves and allocate 2/3 of it to their subordinates.  The cascade continues at each level down to which parts of the task are apportioned.  In this way, at every level within the organisation, it is clear how long is available to complete a task which then helps with prioritisation and efficiently organising work schedules.

Time without agenda

This last tip may seem counter-intuitive to the time-poor leader, but I maintain that it saves time in the long-term.  I countenance all leaders to put some time in their diaries to walk around their organisations and stop to chat with their people.  No agenda.  No list of points to raise.  No previously raised issues to follow up.  Just give of yourself to your team and pass the time of day.  This is not a new idea.  Indeed, the well-known American business thinker Tom Peters advocated this approach and coined the phrase ‘management by walking around’ (MBWA).  This is an investment.  Team members crave the attention of their leader and rarely get enough.  Invariably they will stop you and raise points that are concerning them.  These conversations will help prevent matters festering, becoming larger issues which require more effort to deal with later.  At the least, your team will see that you care about and are interested in them.  This will buy goodwill and help nurture a happier and healthier workforce that is more likely to take that extra step when there is a time pressure.  Give of yourself to your team and you will not regret it.

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