Although most managers understand intellectually that time is their scarcest resource, few make the effort to gain a strategic perspective on how they spend their hours each week.

Still fewer make a regular practice of keeping track of how the priorities they say are most important jibe with the way they actually spend their time. “Those we label natural born leaders know how to leverage their time,” says Warren Blank, president of The Leadership Group, which provides consulting and training services to Fortune 500 companies and US government agencies. For those who do not innately have this talent, here is a brief guide how to do it.

Breaking up

Start by breaking your responsibilities into categories. The categories will vary depending on your job function, but they must be both strategic and tactical – identify not more than six. They should, however, include the following:

Growth and improvement: This category focuses on opportunities, not on crises and it is often the one in which the added value you bring to your company is the greatest. The challenge is to keep the time allotted to these high-leverage activities sacrosanct – do not let pressing but less important needs crowd them out.

Managing people: You may want to break down this category into managing up, managing across and managing down. Managers are well aware that coaching and mentoring enable them to maximise their influence but especially in times of belt tightening, it helps to be reminded that you cannot create efficiencies without managing your staff effectively. Everyone agrees that communication is critical but how many people actually plan time for it? In managers’ haste to make their numbers, it is vital they don’t let their communication falter.

Primary day-to-day responsibilities: Depending on your role, this area could also be subdivided into selling and delivering services.

Administration: This includes necessary chores ranging from assessing resource needs to interviewing job candidates to responding to email. Brace yourself for a shock when you add the numbers.

Allot your time

Having done that, managers need to ask themselves what percentage of time they should be spending in each category. Before you assign percentages, Blank advises that you ask yourself a question: ‘Given what I want to accomplish today as a leader, what will be the best use of my time?’

To answer, factor in the competing claims on your time: the activities that enable you to generate the most leverage; the company’s strategic priorities; and the short-term needs of your supervisors, direct reports, and customers. Once you have assigned percentages, translate them into hourly figures for each category. Is the total number of hours realistic and sustainable for the timeframe you are considering? To be useful, your time allocations may need to change quarterly, monthly, or even weekly. Then check for alignment with
your superiors. Run your time allocations by your manager and key colleagues; ask them to share theirs, if possible. Sharing time allocations with a team gives a group focus and cohesion.

Now that you have a plan for leveraging your time, all you need to do is be ruthless in your execution of it. Take out last week’s calendar and evaluate it using your newly established time allocations for each category. This will give you a sense of how much adjustment will be necessary going forward. Record how you spend your time in a time-management log – for many, this very discipline is half the battle.

“The last time I kept a time log, I was surprised to learn that, when I am in the office, I spend almost half of my time on the telephone, either taking calls or leaving messages for people who aren’t available,” says Elaine Biech, president and managing principal of Ebb Associates, an organisational development firm that helps companies work through large-scale change.

“Time audits can also reveal when and how you get distracted from things that matter,” says Blank. For instance, is multitasking really helping you? This skill is regularly held up as the sine qua non of modern-day managerial aptitudes, but a 2001 study by Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans indicates that people experience something akin to writer’s block whenever they have to switch tasks. The more complicated the task you are switching from or to, the greater the time cost. That is, the longer it takes you to shift over to the new task and adopt its mindset, the longer it takes to then get warmed up again once you return to the original task. All told, the study estimates, these switching costs could reduce a company’s efficiency by 20 per cent to 40 per cent. To-do lists will be only marginally useful if you do not set parameters for how much time to devote to each task. When you make your list, carefully estimate the time each task will take and box it into your calendar.

This discipline not only will help you finish your list but it will also improve your ability to estimate time and manage expectations of those around you. Particularly if you are in a new position or are confronting new tasks, ask for help estimating the time for each task – otherwise, you run the risk of missing deadlines and mismanaging expectations.

Addressing weaknesses

Finally, managers need to pay attention to the areas where they are weakest. If you always delegate the tasks you do not do well, your weak points will haunt you. Acknowledge your weaknesses but use structure to shore them up.

For example, many managers have difficulty saying no to colleagues who make impromptu requests for their time. Let these people know your priorities for leveraging your time and encourage them to schedule meetings with you.

“Most people manage their lives by crises,” says Stephen Covey vice-chairman of FranklinCovey, the leading global professional services firm. “The only priority setting they do is between one problem and another.” Effective managers focus on opportunities, he adds, and they structure their schedules accordingly. “Unless something more important – not something more urgent – comes along, we must discipline ourselves to do as we planned.”