Several times throughout my career, people have queried of me, “How do you manage to get so much done?” I think there are a few factors, working in concert, that have enabled me to get more done, often with less, and for less. Much of what I have done and done well, I give credit to my mentors throughout my life. Many of them did not know the high regard in which they were held by me, and others. True leaders do not do it for the praise, they do it because it is inherent to their character. If you need to get more accomplished, the following things I have learned through the years may help you to up your game too.
Early to bed, early to rise…
If we could all be Marines, it wouldn’t be the Marines. But we all can learn some good lessons from the Marines. Back in the 1980s, there was a TV commercial for the Marines that stated, “We get more done by 9:00am than most people accomplish in an entire day.” Marines often start their day about 0430 (that is 4:30am for the civilian types). Some days we would start earlier, occasionally we start later (typically on Sundays). Though I ended my active duty service 20 years ago, I still wake up at 4:30am. Even if I fail to set my alarm, my ‘body clock’ still wakes me within minutes of this time.
Waking at this time gives me a little more time to get things done, often without interruption. It is also a great time for exercise, like we did regularly in the Marines, rain or shine or snow. Though, instead of leading a unit of the world’s finest fighting force, now I run with my faithful four-legged friend. His body clock is set for this time also. If I should hit the snooze button, his wet nose will surely wake me. Getting up early enables me to exercise to get my blood circulating and endorphins flowing to face the day with a positive outlook. By exercising each morning, if I have an opportunity to be active later in the day, that’s a bonus. But at least I met my daily requirement at the start of the day. It also gives me time to eat breakfast, make my bed and clean up around the house. I find it more mentally relaxing to live in clean surroundings. It gives me time to check my email, pay bills, read, and even run some errands (post office, grocery shopping, fueling my car, etc). It provides me the opportunity to organise and prioritise what I need to get done each day. Turns out Ben Franklin was right.
Okay, that’s the motto for the United States Coast Guard, but it is still good advice. In the business world, being prepared today started with preparing yesterday. Earlier in my career, as the owner of a successful executive search franchise, it was standard operating procedure in our office to prepare and print your call plan for the next day before you shut down and go home. This ensured that the next morning, if for any reason you could not access your files online, you could still do your job. As fate would have it, a few times each year, we would have a power outage, or construction in our building, and our servers or the internet would be inaccessible. We also maintained a clean desk policy. You are ready to leave when your work for the day is done, activity recorded, call plan printed and your daily ‘To Do' list was updated, so the next morning, when you came to work, you were ready to work…to be productive. A clean desk policy also gives one peace of mind that when you go home, there is not the leftover burden of today waiting for you in addition to what you need to do tomorrow. This also helps you to face the new workday with a positive attitude that what needs to be done today is achievable. This discipline enabled our franchise to be ranked among the top 10 of more than 220 Global Recruiters Network franchises worldwide.
'To Do' lists
Making a ‘To Do' list was a habit I started in my teenage years and I still do it today. I found it was a way to bring focus to my life, both short-term and long-term. It enabled me to make the most of the time I have available to me each day, each week, and each year. I even went so far as to write down the things I want to do, be or accomplish in my life, and updated this list each year. On a personal level, I maintain focus on my weekly ‘To Do' lists by limiting them to what can comfortably fit on a 3x5 index card. This size also enables me to keep it in my wallet. My daily ‘To Do' list is broken down to specific tasks that need to be done for larger items that may take days or weeks to accomplish. This ensures progress is made every day…even the yucky or mundane things I want to postpone.
I decided to manage my life this way as a result of mentoring I received from a lifelong friend and mentor, Jack Crabtree. Jack was the head of Campus Life, a division of Youth for Christ International on Long Island. As a youth minister, Jack helped to shape, even transform, the lives of countless young people as they wrestled with the challenges of growing up during their turbulent high school years. Long before ‘time management’ was in vogue business school speak, Jack was teaching legions of youth how to make better and more complete use of their time.
So let’s start with a 24-hour day…and break it down in 15-minute increments. We can devote eight hours each day to sleeping…leaving us with 16 hours per day of useable time. Let’s say we need to make and eat three meals each day for one hour per meal…that leaves us with 13 hours in the day. Subtract another one hour each day for exercise…and we have 12 hours left each day. For working adults, we can subtract another eight hours each day…for five days a week. Each of those eight hours at work should have productive activities assigned against them. That still leaves four hours each weekday as “free time”. Maybe twice a week you volunteer your time, or go to the dog park, or practice golf at the driving range. By adding a certain degree of structure to your life, every day, you will soon find you have the time needed to do more than those who have no structure in their lives. Conversely, for those who are unemployed, follow this same methodology and you will find employment sooner than those who do not maximise their job search time each day.
Back to the basics
As we grow in our careers and advance, in some cases, into management positions, we can at times become content and complacent, slowly separated from the day-to-day hard work of what it takes each day to deliver the desired results. Even worse is when people are promoted to positions with responsibility for managing people for whom they have no first-hand knowledge of the roles of everyone reporting to them.
Recalling my training as a US Marine, everyone is cross-trained to be able to perform the roles of others on the team. The gun crews in my M198 howitzer battery would routinely practice by switching roles to ensure we could effectively accomplish our mission if circumstances prevented us from having a full crew, or if manpower shortages required us to consolidate. As officers, we too performed every role too. Having been an enlisted Marine before I became an officer earned me the respect of the Marines I had the honour to lead. They knew without question, that I knew what it was like to be one of them. As Marine officers, we are cross-trained in the same manner so we can perform the roles of those serving under us, as well as those serving alongside of us.
Later in my career, when I owned a successful executive search franchise, not every day, week or month was smooth. It was about as smooth as chunky peanut butter. During those times when things are going well, it is easy to get a little lazy and not do some of the things that are tedious, mundane, time-consuming, or otherwise undesirable. But that is like ignoring the requirement to change the oil in your car. When conducting performance reviews, there would be times when my top performers would find themselves going from being ‘in the groove’ to being ‘in a rut’. After discussing the individual circumstances, I would pose this question to them: “Are you doing now what you did when you were most successful?” After some discussion and introspection on their part, they came to the honest self-admission that the answer was clearly, “no”. Getting back to the basics was needed. But this time, I reinforced for them the need to stay on top of the basics. As an owner-manager, I also worked a full recruiting desk, and used my performance each day to lead by example.
Everything cannot be a #1 priority
While this relates to making a 'To Do' list, it differs in that the 'To Do' list normally does not prioritise what needs to get done. When it comes to business, being able to properly prioritise is an essential skill. You cannot get everything done just by sheer force of will. Some activities have dependencies, so getting things done in sequence is essential. When building a home, you don’t pour the foundation before you lay the pipes.
One challenge in this regard is when it comes to marketing. For some strange reason, most companies for whom I worked or consulted invariably want to focus, unknowingly, on the high expense/low ROI tactical marketing initiatives. They focus incessantly on the tactical and tangible forms of marketing because they can see it and touch it and therefore feel they can measure it. Often these ‘results’ can be achieved in a relatively short time, which is also attractive. While there is some truth to this premise, the unfortunate truth is the ROI will be lower than other forms of marketing that cost less, and because of their intangible nature they can be harder to measure, and often take longer to see a result.
Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, uses a 2x2 graph to aid in prioritising activities. I will not go into it at length here as he rightly spent an entire chapter to the topic…and says it far better than I ever will. But to focus on the ‘Important and Urgent’ activities and putting everything into that category is non-stop fire fighting. Similarly, focusing a disproportionate effort on ‘Urgent and Not Important’ activities is to get mired in busy work that adds no value but creates the illusion of progress. Focus more time on activities that are: ‘Important and Not Urgent’ for higher ROI and greater business value. If you have a lot of activities in the ‘Not Urgent and Not Important’ box, then you need to question the role itself and how it is valued by the company.
Be a voracious learner
Having reviewed several thousand resumes in my career, it would seem the older we get, the better we were. But high performers know they must always improve. Learning is constant. They embrace learning and do not fear trying new things. Sir Richard Branson is a great role model in this regard. Try new things. Meet new people. Travel to different places…truly different. By exposing yourself to new things, you will see new opportunities and approaches. You won’t always be right. But that’s okay. When leaders stumble and fall…they fall forward.