When it comes to time management, an important tool on the leader's belt is the ability to say ‘no’.
Leaders are constantly surrounded with issues to be resolved, questions to be answered, advice to be given and major conflicts to be averted.
A recent research showed that highly-paid executives in the U.S. work, on average, 58 hours a week. Surprisingly enough, it's also known that executives complain of not having enough time for all their tasks. Almost 3.000 hours per year should be more than enough!
Successful leaders know when to act and when to delegate. More importantly, a successful leader is able to determine what needs to be taken care of right now and what can be taken care of a little later.
The wise Solomon was already teaching this principle around 250 B.C. when he wrote in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven."
One might argue we live in a different age than Solomon. "We live in the age of now", I have heard said many times. The ‘now’ is what matters, that is absolutely true. If one can't manage his own present tasks, it's likely that tasks planned for the future won't be properly managed either. Indeed, the importance of ‘now’ should be motivation enough to grant the ability to say ‘no’ to things that are less critical, in order to protect tasks that are truly at hand now.
One of the things a leader must identify is: is it the right time for the task? Is it something that must be dealt with now? Or can it wait? Identifying the right time for a certain task is an art in itself. The key to its mastery is to disconnect urgency from importance. Contrary to what many think, urgency does not necessarily denote importance. There are activities which are drastically more important than some urgent ones.
Maybe I can elucidate this with an example from personal experience. I used to have a boss who would call me to his room at least 5 times a day. He always had an Urgent request (with a capital U). His requests always came accompanied by the saying "this is for yesterday" (yes, he would even bend the rules of language and the physical flow of time to express his urgency).
Not surprisingly, I was unable to resolve all his requests – not only for the rather impossible time lines imposed on the tasks – but I quickly realized that ‘urgent’ did not mean ‘important’ to him. When I would notice that some of his Urgent requests were not aligned with our company strategy, I would present him with options: "Should I continue doing A, which leads to our targets, or drop it and jump into B, which you have just expressed as being urgent?" His answer would invariably be for me to continue with the ‘important’ activity (A), instead of the new ‘urgent’ one (B).
What do we take home from this lesson? Before acting upon any task, you should always ask yourself: is it really important? Will it really put our company into the right track? Will it enhance our working environment? If you feel unsure about the answers or it’s a ‘no’ for any of them, then you might just have to say ‘no’ to the task itself.