manage timeDo you ever feel overwhelmed as a leader? Me too.

Maybe you’ve had this thought, “I have way too much to do and not enough time.” Or you regularly leave work with a stack of stuff unaddressed or undone.

I’ve learned the most important person a leader I will lead is myself. In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges in the area of self-leadership is managing the calendar. Many leaders struggle to say no, create margin or maintain focus on what’s most important, not simply what’s most urgent. Oh, and when I say “many leaders,” I’m including me!

As a young leader, I once thought my biggest problem was poor time management. I relentlessly searched for better task management apps, drank more coffee to increase focus and worked on advanced planning. However, I made some key mistakes.

I assumed that if I found the perfect task management app, I’d get the most important things done consistently. (I’m still looking for that app!) I made the mistake of thinking more coffee meant more productivity. But I simply spent an ungodly amount of money on coffee and constantly felt sick. Advanced planning worked great until my inability to control life’s unexpected events ran headlong into my plan. As Mike Tyson once said, “Every one has a great plan until they get punched.”

Three Ways to Manage Time Better

Out of frustration, I embarked on a journey to discover how successful leaders managed their calendars and accomplished the important work only they could do as leaders.

Along my journey of books, blogs and podcasts, I discovered three ways successful people leverage their calendar.

First, I stumbled on an article written by computer programmer and venture capitalist, Paul Graham. In “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Graham wrote, “The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

I realized much of my frustration came from the fact that I had responsibilities as both a manager and a maker, yet my time functioned according to a manager’s schedule. Following Graham’s example, I began identifying slots on my calendar (both by the hour and the half-day) as “maker” or “manager.” When I put on my “manager” hat, I was able to thrive in half-hour or hour slots. But when I put on my “maker” hat, I gave myself the freedom to spend 2 or 3 hours writing a talk, an article or tackling a complex problem. If you struggle in this area, you can become much more present as a manager if you set aside dedicated time to be a maker.

Second, I discovered what entrepreneur and author, Michael Hyatt, called “your ideal week.” Hyatt created an Excel spreadsheet template which maps out what an ideal workweek would look like for him if he could control all the forces in the universe. While neither Hyatt nor you nor I will ever see an ideal week (much less 52 of them in a row), identifying what our preference would be, allows us to take control of our calendar. If you would prefer to work on a certain project in the morning because you’re sharper mentally, creating your ideal week could show you a way forward. Maybe you could ask out of a meeting you’re not really contributing to anyway. Or you could move a standing appointment to another day to create a block to work on that project you’ve been punting.

For me, creating my ideal week helped me identify the times when I’m at my best, so I can give myself to the tasks which matter most. I also identified all of my standing meetings, and I began working towards batching those into one or two days. As leaders, managing our energy is much more important than managing our time. An ideal week enables us to be flexible with unpredictable events while remaining aware of when we’re at our best so we can do our most important work.

Third, I discovered how many successful leaders get so much done without keeping a to-do list. Kevin Kruse, New York Times-bestselling, author, studied over 200 billionaires, entrepreneurs and athletes. He discovered none of them mentioned their to-do lists or task management apps. They all mentioned their calendars. Chris Ducker, an entrepreneur, embodied this approach. “I simply put everything on my schedule. That’s it. Everything I do on a day-to-day basis gets put on my schedule. Thirty minutes of social media on the schedule. Forty-five minutes of email management on the schedule. Catching up with my virtual team on the schedule…Bottom line, if it doesn’t get scheduled it doesn’t get done.”

As I began reflecting on this perspective, I realized my calendar and list of action items were at odds. I rarely integrated them, only attacking my action items when I had “free time.” Accordingly, I was regularly carrying action items over from one week to the next. When an action item had to be done, I was staying at work late or staying up late at night to finish, wondering, “why didn’t I get this done over the last four days when I was in the office?”

Kruse advocates turning your calendar into your to-do list. Schedule time to complete action items and when you don’t finish the item, reschedule the appointment in the future. Instead of putting our work at odds with our appointments, we can actually create appointments to complete commitments. While this approach might favor those working on manager’s time and not maker’s time, integrating one’s calendar with one’s action items is a key step I somehow overlooked. Maybe you have too!

These three steps have revolutionized the way I work and schedule my life.

I’d love to hear from you. Which lesson stuck out to you? Have you learned something else about managing your time, energy and work which revolutionized your leadership?