by mike smerklo
NOTE: This post originally appeared on Forbes.com
As a CEO, smart time management is critical to success. Let me tell you a dirty little secret: It doesn’t always come naturally, especially to entrepreneurs that become executives.
When I was just starting out as an executive, I found myself struggling with a seemingly infinite to-do list and not enough hours in the day to get everything done. I was determined to break the cycle. With practice, self-awareness and a few strategic adaptations, I learned how to correct what used to be my biggest time management mistakes:
By definition, CEOs are doers. We are committed to our company’s core purpose and are ready to work hard to advance our goals. It excites us, it invigorates us and it imbues us with a hero’s mentality: the idea that we are the only one that can bring the necessary experience and the perspective to successfully complete a task. And we’re willing to work ourselves ragged to do it.
For example, when it came to going on sales calls, I always found myself ready to jump on a plane to fly across the country to attend a sales meeting. I liked them, I was energized by them, and I felt like I was adding value to the company. After some reflection, though, I realized that just because I have that skill doesn’t mean that others don’t. I was spending a ton of time doing something that in most cases, I could have delegated to a trusted, qualified employee. My own time could be better spent elsewhere.
Now, I focus on tasks that I am uniquely qualified to do. When my instinct is to say yes to yet another commitment, I stop and question myself to determine whether it is simply something I enjoy, or whether there is someone else who is equally skilled for the job. It also means knowing when to say no, even when you may disappoint someone – or yourself.
It is easy to fall into ‘the busy trap,’ as described by Tim Kreider in his article for the New York Times. It’s where we run around talking about how busy we are, but not really putting a lot of thought into where all of our time is going and why. The temptation here is clear: as long as we’re always doing something, no matter what that something may be, we can tell ourselves that we are productive. We find comfort that we can pat ourselves on the back for ticking boxes off of our seemingly never-ending checklist.
But what if we’re ticking off the wrong boxes? Staying busy doesn’t necessarily make us productive, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re being effective. It usually just drives us to chase tasks that are easily within reach instead of the ones that are most important.
I often used to find myself seeking that rush of instant gratification, so I’d send yet another e-mail or even decide to fly and visit some small customer just to feel like I was getting something done, even if it wasn’t necessarily the most important priority.
Lately, I’ve been able to overcome that urge for immediacy by starting my day meditating for 20 minutes. This practice allows me to clarify my thoughts and helps me to take a step back away from the hustle and bustle. After meditating, while I’m still in a clear state of mind, I write down the two or three most important things that I want to get accomplished for the day. This helps to hold me accountable, making sure that I don’t trick my mind into believing I’m productive when I’m really just busy.
Even after I started sticking to my carefully crafted list of the most critical tasks to accomplish, I found that the task that I was most dreading somehow always made its way to the bottom. I’d start with the easiest or most comfortable task, and save the most uncomfortable one for last.
Sometimes, it was something I was good at, but didn’t particularly enjoy. Like budgeting, for instance. Other times, it was something that I didn’t want to face, like firing an employee who I liked, but who wasn’t producing. Either way, I realized that there’s a thin line between sensibly putting something off and procrastinating, and that I was often guilty of the latter.
I discovered a two-step process to help me overcome my own delaying tactics. First, I began to rank-order my list in terms of priority and made myself tackle the tasks in order. If something was at the top, I had to suck it up and get it done. I wouldn’t let myself make excuses. If for some reason I decided that it wasn’t suitable for me to be the one to execute one of the tasks at hand – see mistake number one – I could then make the decision to delegate. Either way, my habit now revolves around not letting myself move on without addressing the task at hand.
Time is money, and so much more
There’s an overused saying in business that ‘time is money.’ But it’s more than that. It’s sanity. It’s self-satisfaction. It’s freedom. A better, more mindful approach to time management helps us get our priorities straight, leaving us more fulfilled both in the workplace – and in life itself.