What Is self-management, and how can you improve it?

February 15, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is self-management?

Why is self-management so important in an organization?

7 skills to increase your self-management capabilities

12 tips to sharpen your self-management skills

Final thoughts on self-management

Self-management is a critical workplace skill. This article explores a self-management definition, and tips to improve your self-management skills.

What is self-management?

Self-management is our ability to manage our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in a conscious and productive way. 

Someone with strong self-management skills knows what to do and how to act in different situations. For instance, they know how to control their anger when the umpire unfairly calls their child out at a little league game. They know how to avoid distractions while working from home, so they can maintain focus and stay productive. They know what they need to do to achieve their fitness goals — and they follow through.

Self-management means you understand your personal responsibility in different aspects of your life, and you do what you need to fulfill that responsibility.

Self-management and its relationship to emotional intelligence

This self-management definition has its roots in emotional intelligence theory, where this capability may also be referred to as self-regulation. Self-regulation is supported by our capacity for self-awareness, which helps us create conscious access to our thoughts, desires, and feelings. Only once we are aware of these things, can we begin to control and express them appropriately.

Those with well-developed self-awareness and self-regulation are well-positioned to develop a set of self-management skills that support them on their work and personal journeys.

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Why is self-management so important in an organization?

From an organizational perspective, the ability of team members to self-manage is critical to the effective functioning of an organization. Imagine an environment where the majority of those working within it were unable to stay on task, on strategy, and on schedule. That would make it very challenging to complete projects.

Self-management is even more important when we talk about empowering employees across the organization to be more innovative and resourceful. When every team member understands their responsibilities, goals, and what it takes to achieve them, they can make better decisions and do their part to achieve the team and organization objectives. Part of effective self-management with empowerment is that employees make good decisions about when to seek additional help or input. 

7 skills to increase your self-management capabilities

Do you ever catch yourself staying up late to watch one more episode of your favorite TV show, even when you know you have a busy workday ahead? Have you ever missed a deadline because you pushed off a big project for too long? Have you ever become frustrated at one of your direct reports for not completing a project according to your guidance?

These are all signals that you may need to work on your self-management capabilities. Self-management can be learned and refined by mastering these related skills:

  1. Role clarity. Those with role clarity know what our responsibilities are, who our work matters to and how we are measured. We also know who we are dependent on to get our work done. In short, we have a good sense of how we fit into the system and how our work serves the organization.

    Let’s follow the story of Ibrahim as an example. Ibrahim is a product manager for a software provider. He knows that his job is to develop product plans and strategies to address the needs of the market, and the products he creates affect the success of the sales team. He also knows that his team doesn’t build the products, so he is dependent on the development team to translate his functional requirements into products.
  2. Goal alignment: Organizational success relies upon team members working together to reach a common goal. In order for this to work with a team of self-managed individuals, each of us must understand the big picture, and align our own goals with those of the organization. This will allow us to stay on track and maintain sight of what we’re working toward.

    In our example, Ibrahim connects with his executive team and learns that the key strategy for the year is to move “upmarket” into the enterprise space and investment funding is to be focused on this new capability. Ibrahim then knows that he must understand the unique needs of that market and begin to develop a plan to create new functionality to address them.
  3. Strategic planning. The next skill in this progression, strategic planning, is the ability to understand what we need to do in order to support organizational goals. We work backward from the desired future state in order to determine what we need to do in order to get there.

    For example, Ibrahim creates plans to work with marketing to set up customer focus groups, assesses his team’s resourcing and skills for fit, and engages with technical architects to understand any scaling limitations within the platform.
  4. Priority-setting. Now that we know what we need to do, we need to set priorities so we can achieve our goals. This can help ensure we get to the most important tasks and projects, even as other demands on our time arise. In our example, Ibrahim sets his priorities and decides he needs one day each week for the next three months to get through the first phase of his plan. To accomplish this, he blocked off time on his calendar to work on this project, and he pushed out less important projects by communicating with stakeholders. 
  5. Self-awareness. The ability to consciously access our thoughts, desires, and feelings can help us control our behaviors. This, in turn, can have a direct impact on our performance, and how others perceive us. For example, as Ibrahim works through his plan, he begins to notice some anxious feelings within his body and finds himself ruminating at night. He begins to sense his “ego attachment” to the opportunity to succeed in the eyes of others and a sense of worry about whether he is the right person for this project. 
  6. Emotional regulation. Being self-aware of our feelings is a prerequisite to regulating them. For example, fear can be distressing and provoke a fight or flight-type reaction if we aren’t able to elevate it to our consciousness. Ibrahim’s self-awareness allows him to understand his fear that he may not be the right person for the task at hand. He’s able to overcome this emotion by thinking rationally about his strengths and how they apply to any market segment. This allows him to refocus on what he does best, and work through his discomfort.
  7. Self-care. The only person who can truly be responsible for our care is ourselves. Thriving as an individual starts with nurturing ourselves. Many of us carry ingrained beliefs that serving others is our calling, or self-sacrifice is noble, and thinking about ourselves is selfish. The fact is, we need to be at our best to do our best and if we don’t practice self-care, we begin to erode our capacity to contribute. How many of us have hit a “tough stretch” at work where we put in 80 hours a week for several weeks, only to find our clarity of thought and productivity declining?

    For Ibrahim, he had been through this before. Big work assignments had created an imbalance in his life before, so he knew going in that he had to create a structure for himself by planning time for exercise, and to use proven techniques for him to be able to leave open tasks at work in order to allow time for family. He replaced “selfish” with “self-ish”.

12 tips to sharpen your self-management skills

Even those with strong self-management capabilities can falter now and then. Perhaps you didn’t get much sleep last night, and let your emotions get the better of you at a team meeting. Or maybe you got so bogged down in urgent tasks, that you lost sight of what was truly important. It happens to the best of us.

Here are some ways you can sharpen your skills and improve how you self-manage.

  1. Keep your promises. There are two parts to keeping your promises. First, do what you said you would do (DWYSYWD). It creates trust with others and within yourself. Second, be careful what you say yes to. Your job is not to be a hero. It is to stay focused on your role and to work to your strengths. Know your boundaries, but apply compassion as you hold them.
  2. Align to the right level of engagement. Appropriate engagement varies from the executive table to individual contributors. There is a continuum from strategy to execution that moves from “why” to “what” to “how”. Keep your focus on the right point for your role. As a middle manager, for example, your job is to translate the “why” of strategy into the “what” of discreet projects. It isn’t your job to figure out how to do those projects.
  3. Focus on what you can control. No matter how good the plan we make, we are not in control of, or responsible for, everything that happens around us. What we are in control of is how we respond to the impact of these circumstances. Fred Kofman, the author of Conscious Business, likes to ask “how are you response-able?” What is the best action you can take right now?
  4. Be a player, not a victim. If you begin to feel things like “this isn’t fair” or “why didn’t they meet the deadline?” you are likely seeing yourself as a victim. How can you move from victim to player? A player works with intention rather than being controlled by external events. They can often find themselves engaged more productively by evoking a coaching stance, being creative to propose solutions, or respectfully challenging the status quo.
  5. Know who you are (and who you aren’t). Keep an inventory of your strengths in mind, and as you plan your work, assign yourself work that fits these strengths. The corollary here is that you also know what you aren’t good at, which means finding others who are. For example, I’m aware that I am strong in looking at the new requirements and building solutions to address them. I am poor at (and disinterested in) fixing things already in use, so I always look to have a trouble-shooter around me.
  6. First things first. If we have a good plan we know the critical items we have to get done. We also know that there will be many demands/requests for our time helping others meet their objectives. We need to stake out time on our calendars for our work first, while still allowing enough time to be supportive of others and to stay in tune with the organization. By doing this, you control which items of lesser priority get your time.
  7. Meetings with yourself. Make time for yourself to stay on plan. At a minimum, set time aside for a one-hour weekly meeting where you take stock of progress, catalog problems, notice opportunities, and update your plans for the next week, month, or quarter. If taking work home with you is a problem, you might do this daily to “check out” of the office so you know where to pick up in the morning.
  8. Nurture yourself. You can’t do your best if you aren’t at your best. Know that you will be most effective if you eat well, focus on physical wellbeing, and get at least seven hours of sleep daily.
  9. Take breaks. It is very easy to get caught up in work, and being tied to your desk is counterproductive. Taking breaks allows time to release stress and recharge. Get creative: visit a colleague, get some water, go out for a walk in nature, or call your partner. Just get away from work for a few minutes several times a day.
  10. Practice mindfulness. Introduce the habit of mindfulness and meditation into your day. When we enter a state of meditation, it is just as helpful to our brains and bodies as sleep. Spending 5-10 minutes, a couple of times each day, can create new energy for us.
  11. Avoid “coveting.” Coveting is defined as a yearning to possess or have something. When we do this, we attach our happiness to future outcomes which can provoke feelings of stress in the present about achieving those outcomes. Keep your energy in the present, knowing that good work now leads to good outcomes later.
  12. Don’t multitask. The idea of multi-tasking has somehow been given a badge of honor. The fact is that human minds don’t work that way. We are wired to do one thing, and then switch tasks. Switching tasks requires energy to refocus, so the more we do it the more time and energy we waste.

Final thoughts on self-management

Self-management is a critical workplace skill that we can all improve. We’re only human, after all. Take some time to consider in what ways you excel at self-management, and where you might improve. 

Stay conscious of your thoughts, desires, and feelings as you go through your day, and take note of those you need to work on. Acknowledging the need for improvement is a big step toward attaining it.

Lead in: Self-management is a critical workplace skill. This article explores a self-management definition, and tips to improve your self-management skills.

Abstract: Self-management is a critical workplace skill that can—and should—be developed. Learn what it is, and how to improve your own self-management skills.

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Published February 15, 2021

Ian Munro

BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC

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