How to Be on Top of Everything

Since January, I’ve been writing a series of essays in ETR intended to give you tools to help you “master plan” your life. As you put this master plan into action, you will find that you will be able to accomplish more than you ever have before. Much more.

People will notice how much you’re getting done. And, as a result, some of them will come to you for help. Or advice. Or simply to give you more work because you have become your company’s go-to person.

This is all good and fine. It gives you more power. And more options. And more opportunities to advance in your career. But unless you have a system for managing all that extra work, you will soon be overwhelmed. And if you become overwhelmed, the happy movie you have been making about yourself in your head will turn into a horror story. People will be disappointed in you. Then angry at you. Before you know it, they’ll be planning to get rid of you.

You don’t want that. You want to be in charge of how much work you do. And you want to keep track of that work as well as all the work you delegate to other people. Keep in mind that the higher up you go in your business, the more delegating you’ll be doing.

As you get busier, you want to get better too. In particular, you want to:

  • Be prepared for all the meetings you go to.
  • Meet all your deadlines.
  • Answer all the questions you’ve agreed to answer.

I am not, by nature, interested in details. I have always prided myself on being a “big picture” sort of person. I am pretty good at figuring out possible causes for problems and coming up with solutions. And I can push to have them implemented. But I don’t like keeping track of things.

I am also, by nature, a gregarious person. If someone asks me to do something, I like to comply. But I have found that my natural proclivity to please inclines me to take on more than I should. And that – in the past – often led to forgetfulness and missed deadlines, which led to disappointment and frustration.

Years ago, I realized that if I wanted to be able to run a company and lead smart, independent people, I would have to get better at keeping up with what they were doing. I could not afford the foolish luxury of excusing my insufficiencies in this area by crowning myself as a big-picture person. I had to adopt techniques and learn skills that would allow me to maintain control of the critical details of my business.

Since I had no natural inclination for organization, I was not able to conjure up any clever systems on my own. The organizational system that I started to follow then – and continue to follow now – is a composite of what I learned from several of my past mentors.

I’ve described my goal-setting, task-setting program in previous ETR essays. It’s based on establishing yearly goals, monthly objectives, and weekly and daily task lists, and then organizing those task lists in terms of priorities. The lion’s share of my progress in personal productivity has come from using this program, and I can honestly say it has revolutionized my life.

What the program itself does not do is give me a way to keep track of the many details I need to be aware of in order to implement all those tasks effectively. Take a look at the illustration in my article on using daily task lists to accomplish your goals and you’ll see what I mean.

To keep track of the details, I use a very simple manual system consisting of two file folders. Here is how it works:

Documenting the Details

Let’s say one of my goals for the year is to publish a book of some sort. To do what I personally have to do to get that done (write the book and approve the final layout and publicity), all I have to do is make the book a goal for the year… insert the appropriate monthly objectives… and then, based on that, put together my weekly and daily task lists.

But what about all the other work involved in getting the book published – the work I’m not going to do myself? What about finding someone to edit the book? What about the proofreading? What about getting a marketing team together and making sure they follow up with their plans? All of these necessary activities will be coordinated by my publisher. And since I won’t be there during those discussions, I ask for a summary of the details to be sent to me by e-mail.

Filing the Details for Future Reference

When I receive that e-mailed summary, I usually skim it, just to remind myself of what it is about. Then I scribble some note at the top (such as “Ideas about publicity for new book”) and I file it in a folder I keep beside my desk. The folder has 12 pockets, one for each month of the year. I put the document in the appropriate one. If, for example, the first marketing meeting for the book will take place in April, I put the meeting notes in the pocket marked April.

When April arrives, I take those notes out of the folder (along with all the other documents stored in the April pocket) and insert them into another folder. This one has 31 pockets, one for each day of the month. I put the meeting notes where I think I’ll need them. Maybe the day of the meeting. Or maybe a day or two beforehand so I will have time to review them and prepare.

Out of the Folder and Into My Brain

Each night before I leave the office, I make up my task list for the following day. To make that list, I review any tasks from the previous day that did not get completed, as well as my weekly task list for tasks not yet assigned. I also take out the following day’s documents from the daily folder (the one with 31 pockets), and look at each item to reacquaint myself with the project it refers to.

Sometimes a quick review is all I need to bring myself up to speed. Sometimes I have to schedule some time the next day to study it. (Thirty minutes to an hour is usually more than enough.) Then, when it comes time for the meeting, I am equipped not only with the original notes in hand but with some fresh ideas stimulated by my preparation.

I use this system to keep track of just about everything. Projects I delegate to other people, projects I take on myself, and even correspondence I intend to answer later on. When I come across (or have sent to me) articles of interest, I often put them in the daily folder and bring them out to read one at a time.

It’s a very simple system, but it has been a big help to me. And it allows me to see, very plainly, when I can’t take on any new projects – because the monthly folder is overstuffed!

I am sure there are plenty of computerized programs that approximate what I do with these two folders, but those I’ve tried so far have proved to be cumbersome and time consuming. I prefer to do it manually.

As the master plan I’m helping you build with this series of articles starts to change your life, you will begin to take on more responsibility than ever before. Don’t count on your memory or natural intelligence to keep you on top of important details. Use this simple filing system.

[Ed. Note: You truly can change your life and accomplish all your goals with simple strategies like Michael’s filing system. For dozens more ways to achieve your dreams – plus tons of goal-setting tools and motivation to get going – sign up for ETR’s Total Success Achievement Program] [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.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. 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.