How Are You Spending Your Time?

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” – Benjamin Disraeli (speech, June 24, 1870)
I was looking at last month’s daily-task lists and was struck by how much of my time is spent prodding people rather than in other, more creative, activities. By memo, meeting, fax, e-mail, or phone, more than half of my working hours are dedicated to poking, urging, encouraging, bothering, badgering, and sometimes threatening perfectly good and competent business managers.Sixty to 70 percent of my time is spent in the unpleasant, sometimes odious, capacity of persuading others to act. And to think — I consider myself an idea man.

From a distance, the business world may look like a chessboard of clever ideas — but up close and personal, it’s a rugby field of getting things done.

Ideas are wonderful, and no one enjoys a few hours of unrestricted brainstorming more than I do. And when successful businessmen reflect on their careers, they are prone to talk about the big ideas and breakthroughs that changed things forever. But if you keep a tab of what is actually done and examine it with objectivity, you’ll probably discover, as I have, that the really effective big ideas are few and far between, and that the thing that moves a business forward is the actualization of smaller ideas.

I’m reminded of this today as I send out, for probably the 25th time, a memo on a multimillion-dollar idea that has been bandied about for three or four years now. It’s a big idea and a good one. Its implementation is, admittedly, complicated, but it’s an idea that can be (and should have been) effectuated. Because this particular idea is complicated (even messy), there has been a tendency to put it on hold, to incubate it. And that is a strategy that often makes sense — especially when the idea is fresh and poorly analyzed.

Often in the rush of a first thought, important considerations are overlooked. If you set aside brand-new ideas for a few weeks or months, you will often discover that they are not as good as you once thought — and so you don’t go forward with them. This keeps you from wasting time and money. Sometimes, a good new idea is set aside for a while and when it comes back on the table it has become a great idea. Like good Bordeaux, some ideas need aging.

Thinking over new ideas is a good thing. Thinking about them over and over again is not. You know my perspective on this. If you want a business that grows, follow the ready-fire-aim rule. Think it through to make sure it really works. Then test it out, as quickly and inexpensively as you can (so long as the test is reliable). Finally, if the market likes it, refine it (aim it) in degrees.

Imagine that you’ve been trying to get a project going for way too long. You’ve provided help, you’ve been patient, and you’ve volunteered to help some more. But nothing has actually happened. What should you do?

First, ask for a specific list of all the doubts and objections. Make this list available to a team of qualified people along with your suggestions on how to overcome them.

Next, make everyone understand the importance of momentum. The sooner you can get the idea moving, the faster you can fix the problems. Until the new idea is actually out in the market for a field test, all the problems and objections imagined are simply imaginary.

Then come up with an agreed-upon list of the specific tasks that need to be accomplished — if possible, with deadlines.

Finally, rotate this list through your monthly to-do file so that you can prod and push it forward ceaselessly.

This last part is the most important part. But it’s not difficult. Send a note. File and/or answer the reply. Next month, send another note. Respond politely to next month’s objections. Then make a note to send a third reminder in another 30 days.

As I said, most of my time these days is spent doing this kind of work. It is not stimulating or glamorous. It is rather stressful, to tell you the truth. But I don’t think for a moment that I’d do better if I spent more of my time “thinking.” I know from experience that an hour’s worth of good ideas each month is more than most businesses can handle.

Spend a few minutes today looking over your past task sheets and candidly assess your work. What are you spending most of your time doing?

1. Coming up with ideas?

2. Handling/solving problems?

3. Pushing people to make things happen?

You have to do some of each to succeed. But if you are spending most of your time brainstorming and/or solving problems, you are probably not making the progress you could be.

[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.]