How to Help an Employee Who Struggles with Time Management

If you have direct report struggling with time management, it can be challenging to know how to address the issue. Fortunately, there are ways that you, as their manager, can help. Before you get frustrated or deliver a harsh feedback in an unproductive way, first consider yourself. Identify the emotions you’re feeling and why, and assess where there might be times you’ve contributed to the problem. Then, pinpoint the stress and communicate your needs to your direct report in a calm manner. Help them prioritize work, setting milestones, requesting daily updates, and so on. Be sure to celebrate progress — especially at the beginning. Finally, if it looks like they need it, consider getting them outside support from a coach.

The tell-tale signs are there: Tasks done at the last minute, completed late, or even forgotten. Tardiness at meetings. No response to e-mails or replies at weird times, like 2 a.m. And more explanation of why items aren’t done than action to finish them.

You’ve got a direct report struggling with time management. As a manager, it can be challenging to know how to address the issue. On the one hand, you need them to get things done, and your natural tendency can be to respond in obvious annoyance at the lack of follow through or even to consider writing them up. On the other hand, you want to develop your team members. You may have truly brilliant individuals who you know have the potential to be exceptional contributors if they could only figure out how to use their time effectively.

As a time management coach, I talk with people who struggle in this area every day. I know how their brains work, and I help them to move into a place of higher levels of productivity.

If you’re a manager unsure of how to help, here are some practical steps you can take to improve the situation, starting today.

Acknowledge your own emotions.

If you’ve been managing this person for a long time, you’ve likely experienced a broad range of emotions ranging from mild irritation to outright infuriation. Your feelings will vary depending on how severe the issues have been, the stakes involved, your personality, your expectations, and your stress levels.

Before you give feedback to your employee, acknowledge your own emotions. Write out anything you might be thinking or feeling in a free-flow manner. Do not share your raw thoughts (via email or otherwise) with your colleague. This exercise is so you can become aware of your own internal state.

Process what you’re feeling on your own or with a trusted person and honestly assess why you’re so upset. Is it a lack of control? Fear? Embarrassment? Stress?

This process helps you to release pent up negative emotions before you give feedback so that you’re not overly harsh with your direct report and do more harm than good.

Assess your part.

Your direct report may very well have poor time management. But you might want to consider whether you also have poor time management skills and in which ways, if any, you’re contributing to the problem.

If you send over assignments last minute, don’t give clear direction, refuse to set priorities, have no follow-up system, or forget to give feedback, then your actions could be playing a role in the situation. If you also expect your employees to be constantly available through email, chat, or other channels, so they can’t set boundaries to complete focused work, you’re also partially at fault for the struggles they face.

By identifying these issues in advance of the feedback conversation, you can go in acknowledging where you could also have done better.

Pinpoint the stress.

Earlier this year, I had a situation I found very stressful with an outside contractor. There was a large project that I needed them to complete, and they were very delayed. One day as I was thinking about it, I realized that within the larger project, there were just a couple of distinct items that mattered most. Once those were done, my stress would dramatically decrease, and the other parts could take more time.

By clarifying my most important needs, I felt much less stressed and could communicate what I needed to get back most urgently, even if the whole project wasn’t done.

Take the time to think through exactly what’s causing issues for you with your direct report’s lack of time management: Do you not have what you need for important update meetings or presentations? Are you experiencing stress from them asking you to review things last minute? Are their actions costing you time or money? Do you feel anxious when there’s not good communication on status? Once you know this, it will help focus your feedback discussions.

Communicate what you need.

Once you know exactly what’s bothering you, calmly communicate exactly what you need, when you need it, and why you need it. You can also ask them what they need from you to help them be successful.

Although you may feel tempted to unload all of your frustration on your direct report about the stress they’ve caused you and the issues they’ve had, a harsh approach will typically backfire. They’ll be so overwhelmed by your anger and shut down or become defensive and stonewall. Take deep breathes, and try to remember that they likely mean well but simply struggle in this area.

Help at the start.

In some situations, simply giving feedback about what you need or want can improve the situation. But in others, you’ll need to do more to help things move forward.

To get your direct report started, consider taking these actions with them:

  • Work with them to prioritize the work
  • Brainstorm the direction to take
  • Talk through the smaller parts
  • Set up intermediate milestones
  • Do some of the work with them in a meeting
  • Team them up with colleagues
  • Request daily updates on what they planned to do and what they’ve accomplished

Structuring the situation so that they can get and keep momentum can make a world of difference.

Appreciate progress.

When you start noticing movement in the right direction, show appreciation for each step forward. You may feel concerned that giving positive feedback too quickly when they haven’t done everything yet will cause them to slack off. But the opposite is usually true. Positive feedback helps to build their confidence, positivity, and motivation and can propel them toward better and better outcomes.

Your direct report likely knows they have really bad time management and may feel worse about it than you do. Laying into them is counterproductive; increased negative emotions about their work usually causes more delays, not less. Remember that you’re on the same team. Instead of tearing them down, build them up each step of the way.

Get outside support.

Sometimes you’re too close to a situation. No matter how hard you try, you can’t provide objective, calm feedback. Or your direct report may not be able to be honest with you about what’s truly going on, such as wasting hours each day scrolling on their phone or a situation at home that may be distracting them.

In these situations, it can be helpful to connect your employee with outside resources such as time management training, an internal coach, or an external coach who can help them to develop these skills. Someone with experience in helping people overcome these challenges and who is more emotionally distant from the situation can often be more effective than someone with a history of frustration.

As a manager, you can’t force anyone to improve their time management. But your communication and actions can make a huge difference in your direct report’s ability to overcome their struggles and increase their productivity.