Often, the response I get to a leadership article about planning is along the lines of, “That sounds great, but I never have time for it.” I feel that too. But my response would have to be, “You don’t have time not to. It only gets worse.”

So, if you’re feeling stuck on the hamster wheel, unable to find time to escape the grind cycle, here’s a roadmap you can follow. I know it works. I use it often, and I’ve coached dozens of leaders through it too.

Step One: Track your time for a week.

I’ll pause for the long sigh or eye roll. That’s ok. Just don’t stop reading. Curse if you need to. I get it. If there’s one recommendation that’s universally hated, it’s this one. Most people abhor the idea of tracking their time. You don’t have to like it, but you gotta do it. And you can survive anything for a week, right?

Keep it simple. Print off this pdf and just fill in the half-hour increments as you go through the week. If you miss a few blocks, that’s ok. Just pick back up where you left off.

And if you have a team, ask them to do the same exercise. They may roll their eyes too, but when you explain that you’re doing the same thing, they’ll respect it. You might even share that this is part of a larger effort to get a handle on the overwhelming workload. (Who doesn’t want to enjoy the long Thanksgiving weekend without thinking about how behind we’re getting with work?)

You can start with any day of the week. If you’re reading this on a Tuesday, start tomorrow, and fill in the first few days of next week. The goal of this step is to get a snapshot of a week’s worth of work and commitments. If you feel like your weeks are very different, then track a few more to have a larger sample.

Ready? Here’s that pdf again.

Step Two: Identify all of your key projects.

Once you’ve finished the first step, this is usually pretty easy. You just look back through your timesheet and make note of everything you’ve worked on. Or that you have your team working on.

Now, pause for a few moments and think about the things you want to be working on, but don’t have time for. Look back at your job description, last evaluation, or New Years resolutions if you need some prompts.

Once you have your project list, divide a landscape piece of paper into three sections:
– Project description
– Status
– Next action needed

Fill in at least the first two columns. Or fill in the third column with who you need to ask to find out about the status.

Step Three: Think about each of your team members and their areas of responsibility.

Looking through their timesheets, think about who should “own” each project. By ownership, this doesn’t mean completing each step of the project, this means being responsible for the project management – awareness of project deadlines and next steps, and communicating when those are critical.

I find that most people can manage three simultaneous projects well. Five would be an outer limit. With this in mind, go through your project list and assign each of them to a team member (or yourself) with this limit in mind.

If you find that there’s too many projects, it’s likely time to clarify priorities. This is often another sticking point. At first glance, it doesn’t feel like anything can wait, but let’s explore that a bit. Do you want to do 10 things poorly or 3 things well? If you focus on 3 things each quarter, you’ll accomplish 12 things each year. And thinking back to how long these projects have been ongoing, could you have already completed them if you were able to focus?

Step Four: Revisit your schedule to carve out blocks of project time.

Eventually, I recommend creating a schedule template for yourself – and for each of your team members. This article explains step-by-step how to do that.

For now, let’s focus on identifying four, two-hour blocks of time. That’s the equivalent of one focused day a week. Or, four early mornings.

One of those blocks is for thinking and planning, and the other three are for your key projects. Go ahead and put those on your calendar now for next week. Label them with the focus for that block. Treat them like a meeting. The commitment is firm. It’s simply a meeting with yourself. (To get started with your planning block, you could use this agenda for a weekly review.)

Now, work with each of your team members to go through the same exercise to find four, two-hour blocks. One common way to achieve this is to make one day a week “No Meeting Day.” If everyone on the team understands that Tuesdays (or whatever day) are for planning and projects, there’s no pressure and everyone has time to focus. (Since you’re the leader, you can make that happen and make everyone’s life better. Trust me. They’ll cheer!)

At the end of this step, you should have focus time for next week carved out on the calendar, and an understanding with your team on each person’s priorities and the need for uninterrupted time.

Step Five: Protect your focus blocks.

Getting them on the calendar is a good offense. Now it’s time to play a bit of defense.

First, let’s make a list of all the potential interruptions that could invade our focus time. Email, colleagues stopping by our phone, notifications from our phone, etc. The key is to address each one. Close your email. Turn off your cell phone, and direct the office line right to voicemail. And put a sign on the door that you’ll be available again in two hours. (Unless you perform life saving surgery, I’m betting anything can wait two hours.)

Next, let’s try to prevent some of those interruptions proactively. How about a 15-minute Stand Up meeting (or conference call) twice daily where folks can ask questions of each other and coordinate? As the team thinks of questions between Stand Ups, write them down. Then, they’ll be answered in batches twice a day. I’ll bet that two things will happen. One, your team-related email will slow to a trickle. And, two, people will learn to think ahead to get their questions answered in advance.

Why does this matter?

At first glance, this may seem like a lot of work for just 8 hours a week. In fairness, it probably is. But if those eight hours allow you to shift from living reactively to leading proactively, it’s absolutely worth it. Now you can look ahead to take advantage of opportunities or identify threats before they’re knocking at the doorstep.

And I believe that we, as leaders, have a duty to do just that. If we’re not looking out for our team and organizations, who will?

photo credit: flickr/Dan Derrett