Manage your time and energy like a virtuoso

Aspiring and existing leaders often look to luminaries like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Michael Hyatt for inspiration.  I’d like to propose someone who gets a little less attention in leadership circles, but who was no less of a leader.

Dizzy Gillespie.

Hopefully you know of him.  Among if not the greatest of jazz trumpeters.  Composer.  Cultural icon.  And, it turns out, thought leader.

That was my conclusion a while back when I stumbled across something he said about the evolution of his approach to music.  Here’s what he said, according to journalist Nat Hentoff:

“It took me all my life to know what notes not to play.”

The message?  It takes time to learn the ability to discriminate the music from the noise.

Put another way, the magic of having an impact is not just in what we do, but what we don’t.

What’s the leadership message here?  Leaders have many resources at their disposal.  All should be used judiciously, but few must be guarded as carefully as time and energy.  These resources will vanish if you don’t bring restraint and intention to your commitments.  Meanwhile, managing time and energy with intention will enable you to put impact where it matters most – for you and those around you.

The art of saying no

Developing the ability to say no to offers and requests for your time is a core leadership skill.  There will always be more to do than any one person can manage, and so you must hone your ability to zero in on the things that serve your goals while letting go of those that don’t.  And you’ll need to let go of the idea that doing so is selfish in any way.  It’s not.

This is really about what I call the “strategic yes,” which involves taking on projects and commitments that are truly worth your time.  You can’t embrace these opportunities if you’ve taken on too many tasks for the wrong reasons.  You need to develop the ability to say no if you are going to use the strategic yes.

I learned another way of thinking about this from consultant and author Leo Hopf, who taught me the idea that “You can’t say “Yes!” with an exclamation point unless you learn to say “No” with a period.”  Leo is an expert in strategic thinking and other key organizational leadership capabilities.  As he says, it’s about being able to say an enthusiastic “ ‘Yes!’ to something that matters by saying ‘No.’ to the things which have less value.”

When you learn to say no, you gain control over your time and energy – and hopefully end up with a calendar and work plan that better reflects your priorities.  But you also demonstrate some key leadership competencies to your team and your colleagues, including:

  • the ability to discriminate between what’s important and what’s not
  • A clear focus on key priorities
  • the bandwidth to follow through on commitments
  • modeling of wise time and energy management for those you lead

What Dizzie Gillespie knew was that everything gets muddy if you play to many notes in a minute.  But if you play the notes that really matter and move the music forward from a place of deep creativity?  That’s magic.

Refining your calendar – and your craft

If you bring this thinking to your own time and energy management, what does this look like?  How do you refine your commitments, so you play only the notes that matter?

Never say yes in the moment:  For a variety of reasons, many of us are primed to say yes reflexively.  Maybe we have a personality that leads us to want to please others.  Maybe we established a pattern of saying yes early in our careers, thinking it would help us advance.  Maybe we think setting boundaries at work is risky in uncertain times.  Although any offer that comes our way might be worth considering, we need to insert a pause and ensure that if we say yes, it’s for the right reasons.  Just ask for time to consider and then follow up after you’ve done so.

Ask yourself some key questions:  You need a set of filters for examining opportunities.  Here are some I like:

  • What can I do (meaning, what am I capable of)?
  • What should I do?
  • What would I like to do?
  • What would I like to say no to?
  • Why am I the best person for this task?

When a request comes your way, apply these filters.  Where does the request land?  If it’s something you should do (perhaps because it’s important to your boss), then maybe you land on a “yes.”  It might be a strategic yes that will serve you in the future.  Meanwhile, if it’s something you would like to say no to?  That is your lens, and so then you examine whether you can say no … and how you will do so.

Also, consider that as a smart and capable person, a lot of requests might come your way because you have a reputation for being effective and efficient.  That doesn’t mean you are the only person who can take on a project.  Being someone’s first choice does not make you their only choice.

Wherever you land, you need to ensure your answer ties back to your goals.  I talk a lot with clients about determining what matters most to them because the list they generate serves as a touchstone for the decisions they make.  The commitments you accept should somehow further your own list of what matters to you.  The result is a schedule that aligns with your personal and professional goals – and greater harmony in your work-life integration.

Say no in a way that serves you.  Saying no can be uncomfortable for many of us, and so it helps to have some strategies for doing so.  Some examples:

  • I’m interested but unable to take this on at this time. Would you ask me again in 3 to 6 months?  I’d like to consider this opportunity when I have the bandwidth to do it right.
  • I’m not in a position to do this now, but I know of some other people who would be perfectly suited to take this on. Can I facilitate an introduction for you?

Whatever you say, make it clear that you are making a choice that respects both the opportunity and your own time.  You are not a victim of your calendar or the person asking for your time.  You are a professional with finite resources and the ability to make strategic decisions about how you use them.

Composing the life that works for you

When you learn to manage request for your time in this way — and to play only the notes that make the music sing — people learn that you are discriminating, and that you can be trusted with projects that have impact.  You will spend less time playing too many notes and burning out and more time composing a satisfying life and legacy.

And if you want to know what that sounds like?  Check out Dizzy Gillespie and his Big Band in this live recording of ‘Round About Midnight.  It’s one of my favorites among his works.

How do you manage requests for your time?

I bet some of you have developed strategies for saying no.  Please feel free to drop your favorites in the comments or share on social!

Last updated November 3, 2020

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