There comes a moment in every rising executive's career at which they lose control of their time. This is the flip side of the important versus urgent tradeoff. Things that are urgent, but not important to you are, almost by definition, important and urgent to someone else. This is why the busiest executives cannot manage their time without help from others: two-way time management.
Eisenhower's urgent versus important principle, elaborated on by Stephen Covey, yields this matrix:
I) important & Urgent: Do First......... | II) Important & Less Urgent: Schedule
III) Less Important & Urgent: Deflect | IV) Less Important & Less Urgent: Do Not Do
Most know to do urgent and important things first and less urgent, less important things last. The challenge is in choosing between important, but less urgent and urgent, but less important things. Sometimes this means choosing between doing things yourself and teaching others to do them. While the former is often easier over the short term, teaching others works better over time.
The breakpoint comes when deflecting requests from others becomes a significant time drain on its own. That's when you should stop trying to manage your time on your own and get others to help you. This requires 1) clear delegation to people who 2) accept accountability for the things you delegate to them and 3) help you manage your specific role on any particular task.
1) Clear Delegation
There is an art to delegating involving discriminating between things you must 1) do well yourself, 2) do yourself, but just well enough, 3) delegate and supervise, 4) delegate without supervising, 5) do later and 6) do never. Use the last five of these to help free up time for you to spend on the most important things. Strive for clarity and consistency between the levels - especially between delegating with and without supervising.
When you delegate, be explicit about whether you intend to a) delegate responsibility for the work while continuing to make the decisions or b) delegate responsibility for the work and decisions or c) a mix of the two where you are delegating responsibility for the work and the decisions but want to be kept informed and influence in line with The Fundamental Difference Between Leading and Managing: Influence versus Direction.
2) To people that accept accountability
As described in Accountability: The Essential Link Between Empowerment and Engagement, choosing to pass the baton is only part of the exercise. The person you trust with delegated work must choose to pick up the baton.
This is about the three levels of engagement. The lowest level of engagement is compliance when people do what you tell them to do - and no more. It's better if they leverage their strengths to contribute, or ideally, commit to the cause and do what it takes to deliver what's really needed.
3) Help you manage your role
Start by inviting people to help you manage your role and time. Most won't do that without being asked. Then alter the balance of consequences to encourage and discourage behaviors as appropriate, primarily by reinforcing helpful behaviors and making sure not to reward unhelpful behaviors either directly, indirectly, explicitly or implicitly.
People can help you manage your time across the four levels of your involvement:
- Approve: Provide well-thought through and well-presented recommendations for your approval.
- Input: Ask for input, explicitly not seeking approval so you can act as a coach or guide and not as a boss for this particular moment or item.
- Inform you as appropriate of things not requiring your input or approval but that you should know about.
- Out of the loop: Not bothering you with details of things you don't need to know about while letting you what those things are so you can ask for more details as appropriate.
Clarity counts. Whether it's your personal assistant, chief-of-staff, peer, subordinate or anyone else, they can help make clear what your role should be at any particular step. They might do this in meeting invites, cover notes, the subject lines of emails, the opening of any meeting, or in other ways.