01/31/2012 07:19 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Time for Leadership: High-Impact Leaders Need to Re-organize Time

Innovative leaders are ferocious time managers. This may be the one insight to help you see what's holding you back from experiencing progress.

When I describe the work I do -- helping individuals make an impact through innovation -- a certain type of person gets all jazzed up. "That's exactly what I need!"

Yet, not all of them pursue this opportunity. Number one reason? "I don't have time to devote to this right now." The best part of that answer is that I know there is a leadership lesson buried in it. Let's unpack it.

Time to Sort and Filter

It's often the people who think they don't have time to get things done who have the most potential to get many things done. They know the importance, they just haven't lined up the necessary behavior and practices. When we unlock that potential, progress flows out. Here's how:

Experience tells me three characteristics stand out:

Focus -- the leader may not know the destination but he or she is clear about the direction and so they filter all incoming demands and requests by how they add to or subtract from this focus.

Prioritize -- the leader understands that there are always too many great ideas and actions to choose from to make progress. They learn how to make trade-offs. They monitor their activity through an "effort-impact" lens. Just because you are really busy doesn't mean you are creating your desired impact.

Protect -- demands on your time come from every direction. The leader views time as the ultimate precious resource -- they can't reclaim it. They are able to protect their time by declining, delegating, or re-shaping demands on their time from others.

Not so they can juggle more easily, but so that they can channel as much energy, time, and brainpower into making the right things happen.

Rather than give you the Top 10 Time Management Tips, let's get you started on the most important -- visualizing your current time takers. Here's how to get there:

1. Clarify your direction. You may have a clearly defined destination or vision. You may have a direction, and that might be less clear. You can give yourself breathing room by describing your direction or destination through a "More About, Less About" exercise. Sketch out two columns; label one "More About" and the other "Less About." Now start to describe your direction or destination. For example, under "More About" you may end up writing "helping students learn" and under "Less About," "helping teachers teach." Try to come up with at least five sets of these to help you set boundaries.

2. Use a stack of 3x5 index cards and write down each task, activity, project, anything that currently you spend time on in your professional life on a separate card. Be sure to include an action verb to describe what you are doing. For example, "draft strategic plan" versus "strategic plan." Don't be surprised if you have to take a break -- this is exhausting work to pull all of this together. And don't be surprised if you end up with close to 100 cards. Here's proof that you really are busy. If you're really into this, do the same for your personal life. All of these take your time.

3. Sort these cards by how well the task or activity feeds into making your direction or destination from Step 1 real and tangible. For example, your sorting categories might be "On Target," "Close," "Mandatory," or "Off Target."

4. Now sort the "Mandatory" and "Off Target" by the following categories "Decline," "Delegate," "Re-shape" to see where you have opportunities to free up time to devote to the higher priority items. Remember, just because you don't have direct reports you can delegate to doesn't mean you can't delegate to a peer. Your low priority task may be attractive to someone who wants to build experience in that area.

5. Step back and look at all these cards, laid out on a table, and see where your time goes. Are there tasks that are stealing your time? Is this acceptable to you? Can you challenge yourself to be more creative and courageous to off load time stealers?

It's time for leadership.

Brian Tolle is a partner in the Re-Wired Group, an innovation think tank. He is also the author of a book designed for high-impact leaders called Shortcut: Getting Through to People Who Slow You Down.