How to Manage Time and Systems Effectively

Published: October 27, 2021
Estimated reading time: 9 min


If you’re like most managers we know, it probably feels like stuff is constantly coming at you—emails, meetings, materials to review, people popping into your office (or inbox) with questions. This feeling of overwhelm is all too common—and it’s exacerbated when the world is on fire.

While much of the burnout and overwork we see in our sectors is beyond any individual person’s control (and outside the scope of this article—sorry!), we do have control over how we manage our time and systems so that we can achieve great results, avoid unnecessary chaos, and minimize fatigue. And as managers, we have influence over how we support our staff and contribute to a culture of sustainability.

This article covers personal practices that can help you and your team get your most important work done sustainably. This advice is based on what we’ve seen work many of our clients, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach or some magical, universal tool for keeping your work life organized (no matter how much you may swear by your favorite workflow app or to-do list!).

As you’re reading this article, keep in mind two core concepts for equitable management:

  1. Preferences, traditions, and requirements. Setting up systems that support you to accomplish what you set out to do is the requirement. How you do that should be up to you. At the same time, recognize that our preferences and traditions don’t exist in a vacuum—they are shaped and often reinforced by culture and experience. When our preferences or traditions rub up against dominant culture (in our organizations or in society at large), this can create tension or marginalization. On the other hand, when we have positional or cultural power, our preferences and traditions can become the default requirement for those we manage. Keep this in mind as you think about how you both manage your own time and systems and support your staff to manage theirs.
  2. Choice points. How you allocate your time, energy, and resources is a choice point, especially if you’re managing or working across lines of difference and power. Much of our advice encourages managers to discern what’s really important and weed out what’s not. As you declutter your calendar and email inbox, renegotiate meetings, reprioritize, and set boundaries, check for equity implications and problematic patterns. Inbox zero isn’t worth it if you got there by disregarding all emails from your most junior staff.

Managing priorities

1. Choose your big rocks.

A prioritization framework popularized by author Stephen Covey, “big rocks” are the things you must to accomplish to drive your work forward. Think about what parts of your job create the most impact and consider your comparative advantage. Also, consider Eisenhower’s urgency versus importance matrix and focus on importance and impact over volume or urgency. We recommend identifying 1-3 big rocks for each week and day. Put your big rocks somewhere (on a post-it, in your calendar, or in your check-in document) you can see them and encourage your staff to do the same.

2. Distinguish between gold star vs. good enough.

Getting clear on the degree of excellence that you expect helps you use your time wisely. Decide what needs to meet a gold-star standard (your strongest work or best efforts) and what can be good enough (solid work that hits the must-haves without going above and beyond). Using the language of gold star vs. good enough can help your team move away from perfectionism and toward strategy and sustainability.

3. Let go.

Every task is a commitment of your time and energy. The less you start with, the less you have to manage and organize. For managers, this means you need to:

  • Delegate more and make sure that your staff truly own their work. Make sure that you have transferred enough real responsibility to staff members so that they can make decisions and move work forward on their own. Where you truly do need to be involved, align on processes for your staff to make proposals, share updates, or get approval from you.
  • Make sure that your direct reports focus on what’s most important. Support them to assess their context and capacity and renegotiate or let go of things that are relatively less important. Get into the habit of letting go by asking yourself and your staff, “What can we/you adjust, pause, or cancel to make room for what’s most important?”

Managing email

1. Check email at defined periods.

Minimize email overwhelm by limiting its ability to interrupt you. Turn off your notifications and set aside work blocks for email checking (ideally putting those work blocks on your calendar and/or communicating with your team about them).

2. Use the “4D” method of email management.

  • Delete spam and unsolicited promotional emails immediately.
  • Do tasks if they’ll take you under two minutes.
  • Delegate tasks by forwarding emails to the relevant people.
  • And finally, if you can’t do any of the above, defer it (but designate a time and place for you to revisit it).

3. Pick up the phone.

Discourage people from using email to sort through complex issues that will require lots of back and forth. Don’t be shy about saying, “Can we jump on the phone to quickly hash this out?” Ask your team to structure emails so that they’re easy to respond to by following our tips about sending one-minute emails.

Managing calendars

Consider what’s important for you to track (e.g., deadlines, priorities, time off, etc.) and what you need to communicate to your colleagues about your priorities, deadlines, and boundaries (if it’s an organizational practice to share calendars).

1. Use work blocks.

Also called “time blocking,” this means focusing on a single priority within a set timeframe. Figure out what times you have the most focus and energy and hold those times sacred so that your best thinking can be applied to your most important work. Set aside at least 45 minutes on a task or goal and minimize all distractions during that time (turn off your email, mute your phone, and close your excess browser tabs). Encourage your staff to set work blocks—and make sure you honor them by not scheduling over them.

2. Add breathing room.

Your calendar isn’t just for scheduling meetings and tracking deadlines. It’s also a tool for maintaining balance. Schedule time off, set working hours, calendar your lunch or times to walk the dog, and mark when you won’t be available for meetings. If possible, include buffer time between meetings so that you can catch a breath, prepare, or jot down follow-up notes.

3. Audit (and declutter!) your calendar.

Periodically review your calendar and ask yourself: Do I need to be at that meeting? Are my recurring meetings still useful? Are there upcoming deadlines that I haven’t set aside time to meet? Do I have enough breaks or breathing room in between meetings? Calendar audits can be a self-reflection activity that you do once or twice a month. They’re also a management tool—try a calendar audit at your next check-in where you review an upcoming week with an eye toward helping your staff member prioritize and declutter.

Handling meeting overload

1. Be picky.

Before you accept a meeting invite, first ask yourself, “Does this meeting help me or my team advance our biggest priorities, strengthen relationships, or coordinate to get to better results?” Then ask yourself, “Am I the one who needs to be there?” If the answer is no, give yourself permission not to attend (and respectfully explain why to the meeting organizer). If you feel uneasy about taking yourself out of the loop, you can give input ahead of time and/or review notes after the meeting. (Note of caution: This doesn’t apply to check-ins with staff members, which are a key part of managing people well.)

2. Beware of unhelpful meeting traditions and defaults.

Are hour-long meetings necessary or can you condense your meeting to 45 minutes? Do all of your check-ins have to be on video? Can you switch to phone calls to combat Zoom fatigue and maybe even go for a walk and get your body moving (we call these walkie-talkies!)?

3. Capture next steps and follow up.

Meetings that don’t move the work forward are time sucks. Whether in the meeting itself or in a 30-minute block after the meeting, make time to follow up on tasks or send repeat-back emails.

Managing boundaries

Ideally, an effective organizational system helps you manage and accomplish your priorities in a sustainable way. If your to-do list, calendar, or email inbox are perpetually overstuffed, no amount of color-coding will help you feel less overwhelmed. Boundaries are the glue that hold your systems together.

For managers, supporting your staff to set and assert boundaries is one of the most important management moves you can make to increase equity, sustainability, and results. The people on our teams most likely to overextend themselves and accommodate others are those who feel they need to “earn” their place—usually our newest, most junior, and most marginalized team members. While boundary setting is an individual act, it is always easier to do in a team or organizational culture that normalizes (and even celebrates) it.

1. Share the why behind the “no.”

“To make sure I can deliver on X, I can’t do Y right now.” Or, “I’d really like to support, but XYZ is happening, and I need to focus on that.” When you’re saying no to someone you don’t work with closely or who has less positional power than you, sharing the rationale is more than a simple matter of courtesy. A task, meeting, or request may not be at the top of your priority list, but it might be their big rock. Communicating your “no” with a rationale demonstrates respect and consideration for the other person’s time and priorities.

2. Make proposals.

For requests that need to be deferred or rescheduled, communicate your context, make a proposal, and check in. “I’m coming up on an important deadline this week that’s taking more time than I expected. I’d like to push back our meeting by two weeks. How does that sound to you?”

3. Mind the impact of your “no.”

The more power that you have within your organization, the more important it is to understand how your actions impact others. While we encourage setting boundaries to protect your time and energy, the reality is that when the work is matrixed, interdependent, or collaborative, our “no” can create more work or barriers for others (often those with less power than us). The way you allocate your time and resources is a choice point, so check for patterns in who you say no to (or whom you make exceptions for).

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