7 Things The Smartest Leaders Always Make Time For


smart leaders

It’s difficult to find the time to do everything on your list at work, let alone in life.

And if you really drill down on it, there are at least 7 things in leadership most leaders feel there will never be enough time for…unless, of course, you make it.

These also happen to be 7 things all the smartest leaders always make time for.

It’s amazing to me, but when you talk to leaders who operate at the highest level, they seem to have time for exercise, family, vacation and the five other things on this list.

It’s easy to get mad at them and pretend they live in some artificial bubble, while you go back into your very real world and complain about how slammed you are.

I get it. My guess is that whenever you read this, you’re already feeling pinched for time and a bit overwhelmed.

Welcome to leadership. Welcome to life.

If you study the differences between great leaders and poor leaders (as I outlined here), many of the best leaders are pro-active. They refuse to make excuses and they have an abundance mindset (not a ridiculous mindset, just an abundance mindset).

Another key difference is that great leaders refuse to let their days get sucked up by meeting after useless meeting, email and being pulled into other people’s urgent priorities.

If you’ve ever made it to Friday and had a hard time answering the question “What did I accomplish this week?” it might be because you failed to make time for these 7 things for which great leaders always make time.

Too many leaders make it to Friday and can't answer the question What did I accomplish this week? Click To Tweet

So, if you really want to edge up your leadership and begin accomplishing something significant, start making time for these 7 things. And remember, read through the end for some free help on freeing up the time to do exactly that.

1. Investing in your best people

Guess who will monopolize your time if you’re not proactive?

Your most problematic people. Problem people will occupy your calendar unless you decide they won’t.

When volunteer X didn’t show up for the 5th time, most leaders will spend incredible time and effort trying to fix that. Or you’ll get yet another meeting request from person Y, who always seems to have some irresolvable crisis going on in his life.

And in the process, your best leaders will be ignored.

Your best people—the ones who show up on time, every time, prepared and ready to do an exceptional job—rarely ask to meet with you. They never call you. They never bother you.

A great leadership practice is to spend the majority of your one-on-one time with your best people.


It makes them better.

It makes you better.

It moves your mission forward faster.

And—let’s be honest—it’s not like the problem people really get better as a result of your meeting with them anyway. They continue to be problematic.

So, cut your losses and spend the bulk of your time with your best people.

Problem people will always occupy your calendar unless you decide they won't. Click To Tweet

2. Planning for the future

There’s never enough time to do an awesome job planning for the future.

But if you study top performers, you realize they do something many other leaders don’t: they spend significant amounts of time working on plans for the future.

Naturally, they execute as well, but having a carefully crafted and shared mission, vision, strategy and even a set of values can guide your organization beautifully into the future.

If you don’t plan for the future, the future will simply happen to you.

If you plan for it, you’ll shape it.

When was the last time you took a full day—or even a full week—to work on the future?

No one will ever ask you to do it, they’ll just criticize you if you don’t. So do it.

No one will ever ask you to plan for the future. They'll just criticize you if you don't. Click To Tweet

3. Your Highest Value Projects

If you broke what you do into categories from ‘lowest value’ to ‘highest value’, you’d learn something interesting.

You will naturally spend most of your time doing the things that provide the least value: answering email, going to meetings that went too long, didn’t need to happen or that you shouldn’t have attended, and answering questions that really didn’t move your mission forward.

Think about it this way: if you didn’t engage in any of the above for a week, what would truly be lost (other than having a full inbox to empty?).

But you also do things that provide exceptionally high value. While it will vary from leader to leader, for me, those things would be creating great sermon series, setting objectives for the months and years ahead and ensuring our senior leaders are healthy and on-mission. I know when I do those things well, our church does best.

If you consistently spend time on high-value projects, you will have a far greater legacy as a leader than leaders who don’t.

So what’s the greatest value you bring to your organization? Budget significant time for that.

Too many leaders spend most of their time on the things that provide the least value. Click To Tweet

4. Exercise

I avoided this for too long in my leadership. For the first decade in my time in leadership, I hardly exercised.

Ironically, I worked more hours and got less done.

While I’m not perfect in my exercise routine, exercise has been a bigger part of my life in the last five years than at any other point. So has proper sleep (see point 5, below).

Perhaps not coincidentally, in the window in which I’ve exercised the most and slept the best, our church has grown to the largest it’s ever been. I’ve also written 3 books, launched this blog and launched a leadership podcast.

This may not be a coincidence.

You’ll make time to go to the doctor if you suffer from obesity, diabetes or heart disease. So why not make time for exercise instead?

People who make no time for exercise will eventually have to make time to see the doctor. Click To Tweet

5. Adequate sleep

In the 80s and 90s leaders used to brag about how little sleep they got.

I bought that line of thinking until it almost killed me.

Chronic lack of sleep was a major factor in the personal burnout I went through almost a decade ago (I outline 7 painful truths about burnout and leadership here).

Today, I don’t cheat sleep anymore. In fact, I believe getting a full night’s sleep and even taking naps is a secret weapon most leaders miss.

You think more clearly and are simply nicer to be around when you’re rested. Everyone is. And those are two key characteristics of effective leaders.

Everyone will ask you to stay up later to get things done.


Go to bed on time. You’ll actually get more done—refreshed and alive in the morning.

Leaders who go to bed on time get more–not less–done, than leaders who cheat sleep. Click To Tweet

6. Family

Everyone wants you to have a great family life as a leader, but then they’ll ask you to please attend their event next Saturday (which happens to be your family day).

What do you do?

Too many leaders cave and say yes to the event.

Every time you say yes to an event on your day off, you’re saying no to your family.

Every time you say yes to an evening out, you’re saying no to your family.

Every time you say yes to a project you can’t adequately manage, you’re saying no to your family.

Every time you say yes to an event on your day off, you're saying no to your family. Click To Tweet

Two things can help with this.

First, pre-determine what your family time will be. Then, when people ask you whether you’re free, you can simply say “I’m sorry, I have a commitment”. If all you have is a blank space in your calendar, you’ll end up saying yes. So write “FAMILY” into your calendar as a commitment.

Second, you need to learn how to say no nicely. I show you why that’s so important and how to do it in the second free training video below.

One day you will retire from leadership. You will never retire from your family.

One day you will retire from leadership. You will never retire from your family. Click To Tweet

7. Thinking

Every leader needs time to think.

If your life is a series of long meetings, administration and endless texts and emails, you will never take time to truly think. Add to that the constant digital disruption you carry in your pocket or purse and you’ll almost never have time to think—unless you make it.

Innovation never arises from leaders who just want to get it done. Innovation comes from leaders who question what ‘it’ should be.

Again, you can carve white space out on your calendar just to think. Go for a long car ride with the windows down. Find a coffee shop to linger in. Take a walk in the woods. Hop on your bike. Or lock your office door, shut your laptop and grab and pen and paper.

You can actually develop some strategies to become a better thinker (I outline mine here), but first, you need to simply create the space and time to think!

Innovation never arises from leaders who just want to get it done. Innovation comes from leaders who question what 'it' should be. Click To Tweet

What Are You Learning?

What do you wish you had more time for in leadership?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

7 Things The Smartest Leaders Always Make Time For


  1. Dan Donaldson on July 30, 2021 at 10:57 am

    Great post today! Totally agree with the comments regarding sleep and exercise! Several years ago an anesthesiologist was part of a small group at my house. I will never forget one thing he said one night. “4 factors determine health way more than anything else. #5 is a distant #5. They are… diet, exercise, heredity, and sleep.”

  2. Chuck on July 30, 2021 at 5:21 am

    8. Community

    I have always felt that any pastor with a small group ministry in the church should dive into a group where he has no leadership role or responsibility. (Sure if there’s a problem or issue, that’s a different entry…). Preachers need to be fed and ministered to and loved on as well. When I have had leadership roles in any small group ministry,I’ve typically encouraged the pastor I served to try that route — to take time “off” and be a sheep instead of the shepherd for a little while. I’ve seen too many preachers in my past who if they are not in charge of an activity or project, they’re out / they don’t get involved. That’s unhealthy for multiple reasons. Take the night off and be fed by the right group, you’ll be glad you did.

  3. Ron on January 19, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    Carey, great post!
    I recall being that exact person and believing (the lie) that being always oh so busy w a full inbox equaled productivity… most leadership books seem to promote tools that lead to that work-lifestyle, wow did I ever experience freedom, such a deeper & authentic relationship with Christ when I just trusted him (making a silent bet similar to my first major tithe, saying ok Jesus) to the effect if I take this month long mission trip away from work without my cell in Global mode etc. then I’ll trust you to have business handled upon return. Sounds crazy now but I did and that was just the start to so much more success, I think I see clearly now that He was simply wanting me to trust in His will for me not mine, by cutting loose of my 14hr days and being everyone’s problem solver. Wow….In just the last year I’ve traveled in mission local & abroud for around 3 months (8 countries) sharing the good news taking time during the day for family, community and Christ and guess what… it all works out and those emails which use to be hundreds are now the last thought, because the team is handling them. Once I broke the ice and just trusted the lord by taking time away (un-plugging), it led to more & more and now a business that is set to do millions for the kingdom versus the world, we have such a good father I’m so glad he’s gifted you with being able to bridge the gap between Ministry and Business world, it seems more than ever the two are intertwined. I really feel we’re in the business for the Kingdom against the world and must use the tools of the world along with wisdom which is gained through time alone, asking Lord what would you have me do today, I’m just in awe while reflecting on where my working mind was a year ago not missing a day or cutting out before dark now having plenty of time for the important things in life!
    His purpose for me, not my own…. your daily emails, post, materials and Book “Didn’t see it Coming” have been very helpful.

  4. Josh on January 18, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    This is gold! I used to be one of those leaders who would read about other leaders and how productive they were. Then, I would judge them thinking that they did not have the slammed schedule that I do. Well, they did and just made better use of their time than I did and focused on the main objectives.

    Thanks for this post, Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 19, 2019 at 7:21 am

      Thanks for the honesty Josh. It’s crazy, the same rules apply to all of us!

      • Ryan Riggins on July 31, 2021 at 7:40 am

        This is a God thing for me right now. Not only is it applicable in my life, but I’m presenting on this very thing at our company’s Exec Retreat in September. This article has helped spell out some of what I felt and wanted to communicate but haven’t figured out how to say! THANK YOU, Sir!

  5. Scott on January 18, 2019 at 8:19 pm

    ”Problematic people’ are people, too. They need more help and time (=love). We can strike a better balance with them, but to think of them in terms of ‘cutting our losses’ is too easy. Although there is something about not casting our pearls before swine… hmm… leaders who love people *have* to delegate the hard, dirty work of loving people to others??? Am I totally taking this point the wrong way? Delegate someone to answer this comment… Anyway…*all* the other points are very, very helpful. Thank you, Carey.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 19, 2019 at 7:22 am

      Hey Scott…thanks for this. You could be right…I think it really depends on the personality and heart of the person leading. In my experience, too many ministry leaders linger too long (sometimes forever) with ‘problematic people’ and it jeopardizes the mission. So that’s why my angle is the way it is in this post. Hope this helps!

      • Scott on January 19, 2019 at 7:44 am

        Thank you for the reply, Carey. Point well taken.

    • david fernandes on January 27, 2019 at 8:47 pm

      what we do at calvary worship centre is “recognise our own limitations to HELP PROBLEMETIC PEOPLE… and send them to professional counsellors who have the “competencies to help them: Pastors must be honest in admitting we DONT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS… THAT TAKES HUMILITY … sometimes an “outside voice is better because they say the same thing we would say —

  6. Steve on January 17, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Very Interesting. The High Impact Leader calendar is very similar to the “Typical Week” calendar that I developed for myself a while back in MS Excel. I block out times for devotionals, meals (my wife and I share the cooking), workouts, work, bedtime reading, and family/errand times. I work two jobs and have 3 busy kids, so it really helps to keep the typical week schedule to see the bigger picture. As my seasons change, I will make tweaks to the typical week calendar, which I keep in my Excel workbook, along with all my Goals (Achievement & Habit, Michael Hyatt) that I am working on. In my MS Outlook calendar, I will schedule more detailed items, workouts, and work items/meetings, then set myself reminders for each, which pop up on my iPhone and iPad. Really helps with efficiency.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 19, 2019 at 7:23 am

      That’s an awesome thing you did Steve. Way to go!

  7. Chris Hearn on January 17, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Super post! Praise God!

    Just being busy all of the time may be work and may look productive to others, but as you wisely pointed out, that isn’t always the case.

    I especially like the last 3 points. I have found that I need that alone time to just be with the Lord and think. If used correctly (not being lazy), one can honestly say that it is “work.” God has given me some needed advice during times when I would just get away and be with Him.

    Hopefully church boards and congregations will let their pastors and staff follow the above rules and not just be hamsters running on a wheel all day long.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 19, 2019 at 7:24 am

      Chris…thanks! I think church boards and congregations buy in when they see results…better messages, clearer leadership, momentum and such. All of this is a means to an end, which is better leadership AND life.

      • Chris Hearn on January 19, 2019 at 3:10 pm

        Right. That makes sense. Hopefully the same will give leadership the permission to do these things first, realizing that at first the calendar is not going to look as full as it used to be.

  8. Fred Tham on January 17, 2019 at 10:11 am

    Thanks for the posting, Carey. You are always so practical. My reason for commenting is that I feel it would be helpful to add one more thing. After more than 2 decades of full-time vocational ministry (as a pastor), I found that the greatest daily action that ensured “productivity” is an unhurried time of reading scripture; meditating upon it; journalling; and prayer. For me, it is usually around 3-5 am (when the house is quiet!). Nothing beats God setting my agenda daily. I make plans, of course, but my daily time with the Lord acknowledges that He has sovereignty over my plans!

    With Thanks,

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 19, 2019 at 7:24 am

      Fred…truth truth truth. Thanks!

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