It took me a while to learn that good time management isn’t about cramming tasks into my day–it’s about applying high quality time to my most important work. And that the best way to make this happen is with small habits.
Habits make it easy to tackle routine work consistently. They also enhance the quality of my non-routine work. And they help me make the best use of a team’s time.
Habits are powerful, but also a little tricky. Good habits are hard to build and bad habits are hard to break. The secret is to keep things simple and to put them in place carefully over time.
Steve Jobs famously wore a black turtleneck every day because it was one less decision to make–what to wear today. This left him more time and brain power for innovation each day.
I use this example to inspire me to take small opportunities seriously. These small opportunities are what help me make big goals specific and actionable. I can take a vague goal like “read more books” and translate it into “read 10 pages a day.” If I can make that small action a habit, I will reach the big goal.
Small habits can also be stacked together. I can tie “read 10 pages” to other habits like “meditate for 5 minutes,” “drink a fruit smoothie,” and “write a list of the top 3 tasks to get done today,” to make a strong morning routine. This strategy can be used throughout the workday.
As a consultant, I would always type up my notes after a meeting. A meeting’s end became a cue for that task. Finishing the notes became a cue to email them out to attendees. Feedback received became the cue to edit the final version of the notes.
This routine helped my productivity and effectiveness tremendously. My notes were always complete, accurate, and timely. I could move to the next topic or client confidently, easily and then manage that interaction in the same way.
I have used a similar approach for all sorts of things like reports, standing meetings, proposal writing, operational reviews, and more. It takes work and commitment to build them up. But once they are formed, these routines and habits become like super powers, because they get things done efficiently and make space for higher level thinking and strategizing. The same can be done for teams.
Teams, by their very nature, end up with a clash of individual time management techniques. But the leader can build team routines around certain anchor points, like deadlines.
Most professionals have trained themselves to meet deadlines in one way or another. Building on that, I will usually create additional deadlines that work up to the big one–checkpoint meetings, draft report due dates, and other deliverables. These serve as momentum builders and help build a habit of iterating.
Team members get in the habit of providing drafts, reviewing each other’s work, and the cadence of incremental steps we use to build up to the final deadline. This helps us to be more organized, deliver higher quality work, and make better use of our time overall. There is less scrambling and cramming, activities that tend to waste time and energy while also producing inferior results.
Whether it is a meeting agenda, meeting minutes, or a report format, I build in as much consistency as I can. I aim to create cues and link habits together so that team members can learn what is expected and get in the habit of delivering it. By making the process routine, we are able to focus more time and energy on strategic issues.
Taking this a step further, we can build a habit of questioning our assumptions, our approach, and honestly evaluating our work product as part of the process. For instance, if I meet with a group of managers in a standing weekly meeting to discuss projects, operations, and organizational politics, then that forum can take shape over time. If I build in cues about raising issues, establish a routine for how we discuss them, and provide support, this all gets habitualized over time. Eventually, we end up with a safe space to openly discuss issues, ideas, and organizational insights. We end up with a powerful forum to do our best work together.
All this habit building means taking the long view–investing in small changes that will add up over time. It’s well worth it. Because building the right small habits helps build the routines, approaches, and team culture that make the best use of time in the long run.