Don’t tell me you haven’t got time – 5 steps to getting more (important) things done

By Andy Burrows

One of the first things I teach my coaching clients is personal effectiveness.

Personal effectiveness – if you want a rough informal definition – is the ability to get important things done.

A big part of that is what has been called “time management”. I’ll come back to why I think that terminology is unhelpful in a minute.

But first, the reason I teach this first is because of the number of people who would drop out of coaching groups because they “weren’t getting time to make use of the learning and coaching opportunities”. In order to help people get the career benefits, and to help them to improve their impact in their workplace, I had to first enable them to open up time to learn and change.

And on top of that I would hear people saying they didn’t have time to join  my coaching group to get the CFO skills, the business-focused Finance skills, to level up their impact in their business and become more confident in their career progress.

I hear people complain they don’t have time to do Finance business partnering, because they’re stuck doing reports, analysis, budgets, and sitting in meetings.

So, let me take you through a number of reflections, revelations and recommendations that give you the bare bones of my approach to this. And then I’ll summarise by giving you five steps to improving your ability to get more important things done.

You can’t manage time

The first point is that “time management” is a misnomer. You can’t manage time any more than you can manage the distance between New York and Sydney Harbour. Time is a dimension. It just is.

But before you write this off as an obvious point, it really does have profound implications for your mindset.

If we’re not managing time, what are we managing? We’re managing how we spend the 24 hours in the day and the seven days in the week.

It’s about what we do and how we do it.

And that’s why, as the great Stephen Covey pointed out in his amazing book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s about self-management.

The thing that makes it profound is the realisation that you have freedom of choice in what you do with the 24 hours in the day and the seven days in the week.

It’s a question of priorities, not time

My second reflection is that it’s not a question of having time. It’s a question of priorities.

If something is important enough then you’ll find the time to do it.

Just think, if someone came into your office and told you that a tow-truck was about to hook up your car and impound it because you’d forgotten to pay for parking, you’d drop everything and run out of the building to sort it out. It may take you 30 minutes.

You couldn’t spare 30 minutes to learn a new skill or progress an automation project. But you could spare 30 minutes to sort out your car.

And that’s because, sorting out your car (or avoiding financial penalties and wasting more time) is more important to you than the new skill or the automation project.

How you spend your time reveals your priorities

So, logically, if you look at how you spend your time, it will indicate what is important to you – in practice.

If you spend 15 hours a day at work and no time with your children, it shows the relative importance. Likewise, if you spend 8 hours at work, 12 hours in bed and 4 hours playing on the Xbox, that also says something. Doesn’t it?

My point is that very often our priorities in practice are not what we want them to be, when we sit and think about it.

So why not sit and think about it before you do things, rather than afterwards?!

Schedule your priorities

What I’m talking about is being intentional about the way you spend your time, rather than allowing yourself to be carried along.

Stephen Covey calls it scheduling your priorities, rather than prioritising your schedule.

The difference is your starting point. He’s saying that it’s not a matter of taking everything on your to-do list and putting it in priority order. You must start with knowing your priorities for the week and schedule time to take action towards those goals.

Delegating, automating and learning

Just a quick digression. I’ve seen many times, and faced it myself, when you’re stuck in the “catch 22” situation. You need to delegate, but you “don’t have time” to recruit someone or train them. You need to automate something (by the way, that’s another form of delegation), but you “don’t have time” to do the analysis and programming. Or you need to learn something that will help you do something better, but you “don’t have time” for whatever it might take.

Stephen Covey says that highly effective people maintain their effectiveness by intentionally balancing what he calls production and production capability (“P/PC”).

That means you have a balance between doing the work (production) and improving your ability to do the work (production capability). It’s like a lumberjack “sharpening the saw”. It may take an hour to cut down a tree with a blunt saw. But it might take 20 minutes if they spent 20 minutes sharpening the saw first.

So, taking the time to take care of ourselves (body, mind, heart and spirit), to learn, to delegate and to automate, should be included in our list of important goals.

And therefore, we should schedule time to do them for the sake of our long-term effectiveness.

Do you know what’s important?

One of the critical questions, though, is what is important.

How can you schedule time for important work if you don’t know what’s important?!

I think one of the reasons many of us flounder and allow ourselves to get overrun with busyness is because we haven’t spent time thinking about what’s important to us. Perhaps we’re too scared to think about it? Perhaps it’s too overwhelming to think about.

And I think that comes from the tendency to list our activities and tasks and then try to prioritise them. And there are so many things to be done. So how can we prioritise them? How can we know what’s more important than something else?

Well, here’s the way to simplify the issue.

The definition of an important activity is that it is an activity that takes you towards one of your long-term goals.

And that makes a big difference.

For instance, if your long-term goal is to be a CFO, then you’ll want to put some time into activities that will build your CFO skills. And so, that answers any uncertainty in your mind about whether to spend time learning SQL or Python or even IFRS! After a certain stage in your career, those things aren’t going to make you a CFO.

Roles and goals

There is one more step.

Your long-term goals derive from a personal mission. And your personal mission must recognise that you have various roles in life.

This is probably the most common thing that my coaching clients say has had a huge impact on them.

You’re not only a worker. You may also be a husband, a mother, a daughter, a friend, a church leader, a volunteer worker, a sports coach, a musician.

Your personal mission is what you want to be and to achieve in your life. Your goals should be set to enable you to achieve that mission, balancing all your roles.

And thinking this through should help you to avoid ploughing on your life in the wrong direction. As Covey says, "It's incredibly easy to get caught in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it's leaning against the wrong wall."

Five steps to a more coherent and consistent life

When you develop a personal mission, a consciousness of what you want to be and to do in your life, you can then set long-term goals that will help you to be and to do those things. The goals will be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound).

And then each week, you sit down and schedule your time. And you ask yourself, what are my priorities this week? What must I get done this week in order to move towards those long-term goals?

And then you ask yourself, in order to get those things done, what action must I take and when should I schedule time to take that action?

It gives you a coherence and satisfaction, knowing that the vast majority of your time is spent on helping you move towards what you want to be and to do in life.

To sum up, these are the basic steps to personal effectiveness:

  1. Develop your personal mission – what you want to be known for in life?
  2. State some long-term SMART goals you can work towards that will fit your life’s mission.
  3. At the start of every week, decide what action you will take to keep progress going towards that goals – these are you priorities for the week.
  4. Put time in your calendar when you will take the necessary actions. Make sure you will have access to the resources and environment you need at the right times.
  5. Stick to your plan every week (as far as possible – because sometimes unexpected things happen and we’re not perfect anyway!).

Two more things

Just two more things in closing:

  1. It is possible to be overambitious and still end up with not enough time to do everything. The great thing about setting your mission and goals intentionally is that you can decide what to focus on. And if turns out to be too much, then you have something manageable (rather than a long to-do list) to go back and review.
  2. Small incremental progress adds up. For example, I’ve only ever written books as a sideline. I’ve squeezed working on them into evenings, mornings, time in hospital waiting rooms, etc. And sometimes it’s felt painfully slow work. But I’ve always completed them eventually. Sometimes we give up because of the slow progress, not realising that if we just persevered, little by little we can achieve what we want.

Do more, live better

If you’re struggling, not getting things done that you want/need to do, then schedule some time to think through the points in this article.

Related Posts

If you want to be a CFO, develop these three skills

The best Finance leaders choose important over urgent

Free ebook available

This little book normally sells on Amazon. But you can have it free as a pdf download:

An Introduction to Personal Effectiveness for CFOs and Finance Professionals

About the Author

Andy Burrows is a popular writer and speaker on a wide range of topics in Business Finance and Accounting. He provides online training and coaching, and was named as one of the top voices on LinkedIn in 2019 in Finance, Accounting and FP&A.

Qualified as a chartered accountant, Andy has worked in many senior Finance roles over the last 20 years, including Finance Director at one stage, across many different sectors in a variety of companies.

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