Managing Time

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109


Important vs. Urgent

Concept description

Time management, or prioritization, is the way that one organizes and plans how long to spend on specific activities.

Management gurus have advanced myriad techniques to help people prioritize their professional time and resources.

Distinguishing important from urgent

One of the best known is the matrix (illustrated in the graphic) used by Steven Covey in his book First Things First to distinguish between importance and urgency.

Variations of this matrix can be found in the MindTools collection of Prioritization techniques that includes:

HBR’s recent productivity tips

Writing in the December 2015 Harvard Business Review (reference below) Ron Friedman outlines 9 Productivity Tips from People Who Write About Productivity:

  1. Own your time. Our most satisfying work comes about when we’re playing offense, working on projects that we ourselves initiate. Many of us know this intuitively yet continue allowing ourselves to spend the vast majority of our days playing defense, responding to other people’s requests.
  2. Recognize busyness as a lack of focus. There’s a satisfying rush we experience when there’s too much on our plate: we feel needed, challenged, even productive. And yet that pleasurable experience is an illusion. It robs us of our focus and prevents us from making progress on the work that matters most.
  3. Challenge the myth of the “ideal worker.” Far too many of us continue to believe that an “ideal worker” is one who works constantly, often at great expense to their personal life, but there’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Being productive requires recognizing that you can’t work for extended periods of time and maintain a high level of performance.
  4. Intentionally leave important tasks incomplete. We often race to finish assignments quickly so that we can move on to the next item on our list. [But, because of the Zeigarnick Effect…] If you start a project and leave it unfinished, you’re bound to think about it more frequently than after it’s done.
  5. Make a habit of stepping back. In a knowledge economy, productivity requires more than perseverance – it requires insight and problem-solving.
  6. Help others strategically. While giving can certainly help your succeed, … helping everyone with everything is a recipe for failure. …  Top performers … avoid saying yes to every helping opportunity. Instead, they specialize in one or two forms of helping that they genuinely enjoy and excel at uniquely.
  7. Have a plan for saying no. One method of counteracting priority dilution involves having a strategy in place for saying no in advance, so that you don’t have to stop and think about how to phrase your response each time you need to turn someone down. Create an email template, or write out a script that you can use when doing it in person.
  8. Make important behaviors measurable. To make progress toward any goal, it helps to track our behaviors. … “If you want to eat more healthily, keep a food journal. If you want to get more exercise, use a step counter. If you want to stick to a budget, track your spending.”
  9. Do things today that make more time tomorrow. A final theme to emerge is that top performers look for ways to automate or delegate activities that are not a good use of their time. [Ask] yourself, “How can I use my time today in ways that create more time tomorrow?” Evaluating your to-do list through this lens makes it easier to commit to activities that are not immediately enjoyable, like automating bill paying or creating a “how to” guide for other team members to help you delegate repetitive tasks more easily.

Some of these behaviours are implicit in observed habits of successful senior public managers. Richard Neustadt (reference below) has noted that when political officials and aides are beset routinely by far more demands than they can fill, managing time and prioritizing includes an operational skill he calls “corner cutting.”

According to Neustadt:

[Political officials and their aides] must withhold their best effort from most of their doings and give the rest less, down to least: the “brush-off”, the “walk through”, the “once over lightly”.


MindTools, Prioritization – Making Best Use of Your Time and Resources, at, accessed 16 February 2016.

Ron Friedman (2015), 9 Productivity Tips from People Who Write About Productivity, Harvard Business Review, 31 December 2015, at, accessed 7 March 2016.

Richard Neustadt (1971), Operational Skills, Note to Students in PP240, at, accessed 10 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Managing Oneself (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 7 March 2016.

Image: Asian Efficiency, at, accessed 16 February 2016.