Charlie’s Personal Productivity Problem

Ann, the executive who runs most of my businesses as well as my personal schedule, has so far refused all of my pleas to follow the ETR personal planning and productivity systems. She is very happy, she tells me, with her pad of lined paper and her scribbled notes (which even a pharmacist couldn’t decipher). Every important task I give her eventually gets done — but I find that I have to remind her of uncompleted jobs now and then. And I worry that something important might get lost in the back pages of her pad.

I am using Ann as an example today (ruthlessly hoping that this message will reach her and encourage her to mend her ways), but she isn’t alone. Of the eight or 10 people who report to me, at least half use this very common — and inadequate — “list” method. Problem is, using the scribble-scrabble list is a surefire way to ensure that your daily life will be an endless string of little emergencies and occasional catastrophes. And why people insist on doing this to themselves, I just can’t fathom.

Even when I tell them, “Look at how the ETR system works! See how much more control it gives you!” They smirk and go back to their slovenly ways. It’s enough to make a person pull his hair out. But, sometimes, I make a little progress. Like with Charlie Byrne, our senior staff writer. Charlie has been struggling to keep up with all the work we’ve been giving him. I know he’s more than capable of doing everything he’s asked to do and much more, but he’s swamped.

Last week, we talked about it, and he explained that he is interrupted frequently, that oftentimes the research he does takes much longer than he expected, etc. I asked him if he followed ETR’s goal-setting program. He admitted that he didn’t. “I know I should start,” he said, “but I’ve been so busy.” I encouraged him to give it a try, and he agreed to put together a weekly and a daily to-do list right away. A half-hour later, he came back — but with two almost identical lists. His weekly schedule had eight items on it, which he estimated would require 22 hours of work. His daily list had almost all the same ones.

Looking at these lists, it was clear to me why Charlie wasn’t making the progress he was capable of: He didn’t give himself enough to do. His weekly list should have been overflowing with tasks — 50 or 60 hours’ worth of them at least. His tasks were not prioritized. He was feeling pressured to get a certain big job done because it was overdue — so, he was spending most of his time on that job and neglecting tasks that were actually more crucial to the future of the business. His daily task list was almost the same as his weekly task list — and it wasn’t balanced. (A balanced list is one that ensures that every day you spend a certain amount of time on each important long-term goal.)

Instead of taking a little extra time to follow the ETR goal-setting program, Charlie and Ann (as well as most of the other people who work for me) organize their work by writing down lists of chores that others have asked them to do — not according to what they know they need to do to advance their personal objectives. That makes them slaves to those people instead of masters of their own time. As a result: They keep busy, but not doing what’s most important. They allow fate and circumstance to determine the course of their careers. But there’s a good chance that Charlie will be converted to planning his productivity.

We had a conversation earlier today that I believe was something of a breakthrough for him. He had brought me an idea for a story. He said he wanted to write about the Wright brothers — how, while other airplane designers kept themselves busy with various minor mechanical challenges, Orville and Wilbur tackled the most difficult problem first: perfecting the aircraft’s balance and stability.

When they figured that one out, all the other problems were quickly solved. “That’s exactly the way it is in business,” I told Charlie. “Entrepreneurs who attack and solve the biggest problem first — how to get sales going — are successful. But most do the opposite. They get busy on all the easier stuff — improving the product, setting up the office, printing up stationery, etc. — and use up all their best time and money on secondary things.” He smiled. I think he got it.

Once Charlie gets control of his priorities, he’ll quickly come up to speed in terms of what the ETR business needs him to do. He’ll soon be writing and editing good messages and managing a small staff of writers and research assistants. That will take a lot of weight off my shoulders. And when that happens, his career will take a big jump forward. He’ll have more job satisfaction, better financial compensation, and a feeling of personal power that he doesn’t even understand now.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]