Time wise and organized: Embracing enlightened efficiency
So many leaders have the efficiency equation half right. Take the business owner who’s enlightened but inefficient. He’s like the absent-minded preacher, late to the pulpit with lines of a great sermon running through his head — some written on scraps of paper in his pocket, the rest scattered around his office. His heartfelt attempts to inspire only confuse his flock.
Then there’s the unenlightened but efficient boss man. He’s more like the world-class surgeon with arctic bedside manners. His skill would save more lives if he didn’t submarine his patient’s will to live by describing the progression of her disease like it were a mutual fund chart.
A leader who’s both enlightened and efficient is like a trusted family friend. He deeply cares about the personal education and well-being of people under his watch, while tirelessly challenging them to be productive and disciplined. To his fans, he’s like a double shot of espresso.
Enlightened efficiency isn’t an end in itself. Without it, however, you stand little chance of achieving your goals and ultimately living out your mission. Steadily ratcheting up your efficiency lays the groundwork for handling future challenges. It’s the tipping point that can take you from frustration to fulfillment. As one of my favorite sayings goes: “The will to prepare to succeed is more important than the will to succeed.”
I can’t believe it’s not clutter
Shooting for efficiency without first getting organized is like trying to break the speed limit on a highway under construction. Potholes and roadblocks will fling you into a ditch before you get out of first gear.
Organization paves the way to enlightened efficiency and reaching your goals. Can you be productive with a messy desk and chaotic files? Sure, anything’s possible. But it’s easier to get it done without the clutter. Especially when you add a personal digital assistant (PDA) like a BlackBerry or Palm to the mix. They keep mission-critical data at your fingertips, conserving time and adrenaline.
I’d be lost without my BlackBerry. The wireless sync allows me and my office to update each other on the fly. I stay connected in an airport or doctor’s office through phone, Web access and e-mail. (Caveat: Prioritize people over PDAs when out with friends and family. I pocket my BlackBerry, otherwise I’d glance at it so often that I couldn’t follow a conversation. If you must check e-mail, take a trip to the rest room or step outside.)
I prefer a PDA to paper planners because it’s compact and reduces redundancy (plus, it’s a wireless wonder — when I update my calendar on my BlackBerry or PC, the other device automatically updates). But there are as many planning systems — digital and manual — as there are personalities. PDAs also help capture those firefly thoughts. A voice recorder or good old pen and paper also do the trick. Even if you’re driving, don’t let a good idea get away. In the car, paper and pencil are impractical (if not lethal), so I leave a voicemail for myself with my hands-free cell phone or pull over and tap on my BlackBerry.
Cleaning up the clutter begins from the inside out. Internal clarity naturally stirs desire for external clarity, and makes your personal and business life flow smoothly. Changes unfold subtly, but the day will come when you marvel at how a heady concept like enlightened efficiency has become as natural as breathing.
All the time in the world
It hurts to see people who have yet to balance efficiency with perspective. A few years ago, after a keynote address to Students in Free Enterprise, I judged a national student business competition. Later that day, I chatted with a supplier manning a convention booth. By coincidence, his daughter had given one of the 45-minute presentations I had judged. I asked how he’d enjoyed it. “Oh, I had to stay at my booth,” he said. “There’s business to get, you know.” My heart sank. You poor soul and your poor daughter, I thought. Here his daughter was competing in a national contest and he couldn’t spare 45 minutes? Imagine the message that sent her. What clouded his judgment and twisted his priorities?
Sorry to say it, but I know the answer — fear. In my lean early years, I was so scared about making payroll that I couldn’t slow down. Every meeting, every resignation, every sales dip — everything was a white-hot priority. Even when business clicked into place, I couldn’t part with the mindset. Any problem could whisk me back to the bad old days, and off to the races I’d go.
If 24 hours in a day seems to shortchange you, you’re not alone. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 80% of us describe our lives as busy, or busy to the point of discomfort. More telling: Surveyors had to call 31,407 phone numbers to find 2,001 Americans with enough time to answer their questions. The I-don’t-have-enough-time mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — you don’t have enough time because you never believed you would. Enlightened efficiency demands that you consciously choose to experience time differently. You replace the old mantra with a new one: I have all the time I need to do everything I need to do.
Something magical happens when you add purpose to your life by identifying your goals, breaking them into action plans, and building your schedule and to-do list around them. Time. Slows. Down. It’s easy to explain. The smarter you are with your time, the more of it you have. Still, no matter how sharp your focus, time-wasting traps lurk in every office. The Meeting, which can rank among the deepest black holes, was covered in the October issue. A few other time traps to avoid:
Trim the talk. Imagine. If you have 30 conversations daily, each running four minutes longer than necessary, you lose two hours a day. Zeroing in on the matter at hand and cutting just a little fat goes a long way toward reclaiming your schedule. Saving 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there ultimately frees you up for those times when people need you most. Three trimming tips:
• Push your purpose. Be cordial, of course, but clip the small talk. Prior to longer conversations, I list the questions I want to ask and the points I need to make. Just one minute of prep makes for a productive and punctual exchange.
• Bottom-line it. Our people had a gentle way of cutting off ramblers. We’d respectfully interject a phrase I learned from efficiency guru Edwin Bliss: “What’s the bottom line?” Without fail, the rambler cut to the quick (if a little sheepishly) and made his point. A softer variation sounds like this: “Sorry, I’d love to hear more, but I’ve got an appointment. Can you bottom-line it? Or can we talk later?” Remember that bottom-lining is a business move that works only if it’s caring rather than demanding. It is not a shortcut for personal matters.
• Do it digitally. Whenever possible, handle the matter via e-mail or text message. I send and receive dozens of messages a day to inquire, inform, and build consensus at lightning speed.
Get dialed in. The telephone is either your greatest ally (an alternative to writing letters and memos) or your worst enemy (a font of interruptions). Making cell-phone calls during out-of-office downtime with a hands-free headset, without sacrificing family time, is a good first step. Here are two more ways to avoid getting hung up in the phone zone.
• Appoint an auxiliary gatekeeper. My outgoing voicemail message was a trusted sentry at Tires Plus, unfailingly repeating: “Hi, this is Tom Gegax. Please leave a message detailing your needs and desires so either the appropriate person or I can get back to you in a more helpful way. Thanks for calling, and make it a great day.” The upbeat message worked because it prompted callers to say exactly what they needed. It stopped them from simply leaving their contact info, the first serve in a maddening game of telephone tennis. It also saved my executive assistant Dorie a ton of time.
• Leave precise instructions. When you can’t reach your contact, leave a thorough message and ask him to respond on your voicemail. Voilà! You’ve eliminated phone tag and done some business. It’s the same asymmetrical communication that made e-mail a business revolution. We don’t always need a two-way. When you do, say as much in your voicemail, detailing when and where you can be reached. Caveat: There are many times when reaching out to an employee or customer demands more high-touch than high-tech.
Be upfront, not uptight. For longer conversations, presentations and informal meetings, be clear about how much time you’ve got. Nothing forces people to condense their points better. A saleswoman once told me she needed an hour. I told her I could afford only 15 minutes and suggested she pack her points into three five-minute stages: sales pitch, questions, decision discussion. Recognizing that 15 minutes was better than zero, she talked fast, hit the high notes, and wrapped it up in a minute 15 — with an occasional gentle nudge when she drifted off course.
I was polite and friendly, but firm. Value your time and others will, too. Sound too tough? Would you rather miss your kid’s soccer game because you didn’t have time to complete that day’s priorities? I don’t think so. It’s easy to get consumed by whatever’s in front of you at the moment.
Keep reminding yourself to be mindful of whom you’re with, why you’re with them, and how the encounter fits into the larger picture of your day, your career, and your life.
Battling brush fires: The Six D’s
When’s the last day you didn’t have a high-priority phone call, an urgent e-mail, or a stressed-out colleague begging for attention? Getting pulled off course is in every entrepreneur’s job description.
I call my strategy for dealing with daily interruptions the Six D’s. When something pops up, rather than robotically just doing it, I start with the first option. If that doesn’t apply, I move to the second. I keep cruising down the list until I reach the appropriate action.
1) Don’t do it. Seriously, some things will simply go away if you ignore them. As you grow more focused you’ll also grow more resilient to the tug of minor things that try to pull you off your path.
2) Delay it. Some interruptions disappear if you simply delay them. Think of all those urgent voicemails, e-mails and memos you returned to after vacation. You never knew about them, yet they invariably cooled.
3) Deflect it. Some flare-ups only get hotter when they’re delayed. If something belongs outside your work group, don’t let it clutter up your desk. Pass it on.
4) Delegate it. Enlightened entrepreneurs don’t do things other people are paid to do. You’re not hiring the right people if you’re thinking, “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself.” Delegate whatever you can. Otherwise, mindless minutiae will slam the brakes on your professional development and career growth.
5) Do it imperfectly. Don’t automatically shift into perfectionist mode when you realize a task is something only you can do. You’ll burn huge chunks of your schedule and brainpower that belong to worthier enterprises.
6) Do it. Some brush fires demand your full, immediate attention. But it’s a lot easier to find the time and energy for big challenges when you’ve doused other flare-ups with the first five D’s.
This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. He grew it into 150 upscale stores in 10 states with $200 million in revenue. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.
In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.