Make Time Management a Strategic Endeavor

Time is always of the essence, especially in business. This is even truer for the CEO and other C-suite positions. At such a level, time management isn’t just a productivity monitor; it’s an organization’s strategic driver. If the CEO isn’t spending his or her time wisely, it could potentially disrupt the strategic direction of an entire company.

This is why many industry experts consider time management a strategic priority. Peter Bregman, CEO of management consulting firm Bregman Partners Inc. and author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, is one of them.

He said strategic time management is an area where organizations could use a boost. It’s not just the CEO who is an important player in strategic time management. Line leaders need be keen to the concept, too.

Bregman promotes a six-box to-do list, a tool that aims to enable talent managers and executives to visualize and prioritize strategic time management more efficiently.

Talent Management spoke with Bregman on the concept. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

What are the biggest problems companies have with time management?
Ultimately, the biggest problem is that people in organizations spend their time in the wrong places. And, in effect, the wrong things get done or the right things aren’t getting done. People have strategic plans, and we might all know what those strategic plans are, but ultimately are we spending our time doing things that are moving those strategic plans forward? That’s a big black hole for a lot of organizations. We don’t actually know in many ways where people are spending their time, and if where they’re spending their time is aligned with what we want to accomplish.

Describe this six-box principle approach to time management.
The six-box to-do list basically says [that] everybody should be focused on five major things. And if you’re focused on more than five things, you’re probably going to be overburdening yourself and diluting your efforts. So my to-do list is broken out into six boxes (just draw a line in the middle of a page, two lines like double tic-tac toe, and you’ve got six boxes). And the first five boxes are labeled with your top five areas of focus — the top five things you want to get done. And the sixth box is called “the other 5 percent.”

Now, these aren’t just goals; they’re areas of focus. They’re places you want to spend your time — which means that the tasks on your to-do list should fit in these boxes. … It [also] depends where you are in the organization. So the CEO might have the boxes of “long-term growth” and “developing a culture of quality” and “really developing robust talent management” and “improving margins for the organization,” “fostering cross-functional collaboration.”

That might be the CEO’s top five. Everyone else in the organization should have their top five funnel into at least one of those top five. If not, then the objectives that the CEO has are not being played out by the rest of the organization.

So if you’re in sales, for example, you might say, “clarify and refine the sales strategy for higher margins,” “speak and write to spread work to higher margin clients.” The CEO has improved margins as one of his or her top five; if the CEO has improved margins as one of his top five, then for someone in sales probably most of their top five will focus on ways to further the organization’s results with high-margin clients. Otherwise, the CEO is not going to achieve that objective.

They are big enough areas that you can focus on them and you want to make sure that everything is flowing through. And what works well with the six-box to-do list is that it is literally a strategy plan and a day-to-day plan. So if I’ve got my top five things I want to focus on, if I’m writing every to-do that I need to accomplish in those five boxes, at any point I can look at it [and] I can say, “Am I moving forward in the areas that are most important? Am I doing the right things?”

How do you know what not to do, even if it may fall into one of the strategic boxes?
First of all, there are a lot of things that don’t fit in — you may need to make a choice as an organization: Are you going to focus on revenue? Or are you going to focus on margin? It doesn’t mean you ignore revenue, but it means that you’re not going to take extra revenue and lose margin if your focus is really on margin.

So, yes, you could build these big enough that it covers everything that the organization could possibly do. But the art of the six-box to-do list is to pick the right kind of foci, the right things to fit in each of the right top areas of focus for each of these five areas. It’s not a catch-all for everything — you’re not just saying, “Run a great business with perfect clients” and then everything fits into that. You’re making choices about where you’re going to spend that focus.

What is HR or talent management’s role?
First of all, the game of time management is that you have the right people doing the right things with the right other people. It’s all a game of leveraging and using someone’s best talents in ways that will leverage them to the success of the organization.

So one of the things you have to do with the five boxes of the six-box to-do list — the top five boxes — is you need to make sure that someone is spending their time in areas that align with their top strengths and don’t require them to develop a tremendous number of weaknesses.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at