Strategy planning is a key function for middle market leaders. The process requires them not only to develop goals, but also to align their organizations around strategic priorities. They need to focus on sustaining and growing their company's long-term profitability, and that requires engagement from every part of the business. However, they can't spend all their time focusing on one thing. Effective leaders must put their effort where it's most needed, whether that means getting departments on board with change or analyzing where to develop the business next. While this sounds simple in theory, it's maddeningly difficult in practice because leaders often get bogged down in day-to-day complexities.

Leaders often find that poorly budgeted time is the biggest blocker for strategy planning.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company prepared a report showing that many leaders are deeply dissatisfied with the way they spend their time. Those surveyed said that they're not allocating their time with their top strategic priorities. The corresponding McKinsey Quarterly article summarized the challenges: "The impact of always-on communications, the growing complexity of global organizations and the pressures imposed by profound economic uncertainty have all added to a feeling among executives that there are simply not enough hours in the day to get things done." Most of these leaders found a significant gap between their priorities and the actual use of their time. "Executives are usually surprised to see the output from time-analysis exercises, for it generally reveals how little of their activity is aligned with the company's stated priorities. If intimacy with customers is a goal, for example, how much time are the organization's leaders devoting to activities that encourage it? Most can't answer this question."

So how can leaders better manage their schedules? One way is to begin tracking and budgeting time as if it were money. A leader's time is a limited resource and should be invested only in activities that enhance strategic value. Here are four more ideas for better planning around key priorities:

  1. Identify no more than five strategic priorities for your company. Discuss with your leadership team which ones are most important and which require the most time. Rank these key strategic drivers and then allocate parts of your schedule to each one based on importance. It's an age-old business maxim: the activities that get monitored and measured — and incentivized — get done. Set up a budgeting system that allows you to identify priorities, define time goals for each and then track how you're actually spending your time against the budget. With this system in place, you can make corrections if you're misaligned.
  2. Ask questions before dedicating time. First, is the issue in question a key strategic priority? If so, can the leader's time positively impact the issue? Could someone else handle it just as well as, or better than, the leader? If you answer "yes" to this third question, delegate the task. Finally, does the leader need to act immediately? If more groundwork is needed, then delegate it and invest your time only when the issue is ripe. Time management is a battle of determining when and when not to act. Don't step in unless you can make the biggest impact possible in the shortest amount of time.
  3. Clearly define what is strategic and what isn't, and keep reminding yourself. Building relationships with key external stakeholders, such as investors and industry regulators, is strategic. Creating a program to retain your key talent is strategic, especially in service-based companies. Visiting with potential customers and acquiring new business is strategic because these clients keep your organization moving forward. However, things like planning company functions when coordinators fall through are not priorities. Constantly keep in mind the things you deem strategic as well as those you don't. This reduces the risk of focusing on things that don't need your time.
  4. Don't be afraid to say no. When you have a time budget in place, be ready to stick to it at all costs. This will often require you to turn down other things. As author and time coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review, you need to reaffirm "where not to spend your time. Given that you have a limited time budget, you will not have the ability to do everything you would like to do regardless of your efficiency. The moment you embrace that truth, you instantly reduce your stress and feelings of inadequacy." By turning down nonstrategic time investments, you'll retain your most valuable resource so it's available for the most strategic activities.

People often have trouble saying no due to guilt or a sense of responsibility. How do you motivate yourself to turn down a request, especially during strategy planning sessions? Tell us by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.