Tom Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. For this week’s column, he answers a reader question:
I’m being asked to do my regular work plus a major increase in additional work with implementation of the Affordable Care Act on the horizon. How do I set my priorities and best manage my time? - GS-14 federal leader, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Whether I’m talking to emerging federal leaders or executives, I hear more questions about time management than any other topic. Leaders at all levels are feeling the pressure about how to get their work done and deliver vital services to the American public, particularly with sequestration and the possibility of furloughs.
Leadership books like Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” Scott Belsky’s “Making Ideas Happen” and Robert Pozen’s “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours” have a wealth of advice on setting priorities and time management. But some of the best management techniques may come from someone you already know and admire. The breakthrough for me came after talking with a highly productive executive assistant who shared her secrets for managing a CEO’s calendar.
To help get you started, here are a few of the techniques that I share with leaders.
Set goals every week, every day. This may sound daunting, but it really works. At the beginning of each week, identify the three things you absolutely need to get done. Jot down your goals and post them by your computer or on your wall to serve as a reminder. Then each morning before you open and respond to emails, set your goals for the day. Finally at the end of the week take time to double check that you have achieved the goals you established on Monday. Consider keeping an ongoing list of your goals. After just a few weeks, it’s likely you’ll have an impressive list of accomplishments.
Schedule for your priorities. Once you’ve set your weekly goals, use those priorities as a starting point for your schedule. I recommend dedicating at least a third of your time against your priorities. If your schedule fails the one-third test, look for meetings you can reschedule so you can stay focused on your priorities. As new issues emerge during the week, use your goals as a sorting tool to determine whether you need to accept every invitation you receive. Just because you’re invited doesn’t mean you have to attend every meeting. Just be certain to give those inviting you a reason you will not be able to participate.
Keep your inbox clear. Try to build in a few short windows of time each day to clear your inbox — 5, 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning and again at the end of the day. There are two additional techniques I find especially useful. The first, David Allen’s two-minute rule that says if an inbox item will take you two minutes or less, just deal with it right now — respond to the message, file it into a folder or share it with another colleague. The second, Robert Pozen’s OHIO rule, only handle it once. Whether it’s a letter, a voicemail or an email, returning to it over and over again is wasting time.
These time-management techniques are just a starting point. Federal managers, what advice do you have for setting priorities and time management? How is sequestration affecting your ability to get your work done? Share your comments below. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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