“Time is everything; five minutes make the difference between victory and defeat.” – Admiral Nelson

We’ve all heard the speech. Some leaders live it, others just say the words: “Families are important. Make the most of the duty day. Get home at a decent hour. Have dinner with your kids.” Etcetera, etcetera. I’ve said the same words; most of us have. Time is precious commodity and you only get one chance to make good use of it.

In the same vein, most of us have worked for a Time Bandit – someone whose poor use of time, inability to plan in advance, and general lack of organization ultimately wastes everyone else’s time. We also work in a culture where many people equate time spent at the office as a measure of success – the longer you stay at your desk after everyone else leaves, the better. I worked for one of those people, a battalion commander who would habitually watch the parking lot out his office window after 1700, looking to see who dared to leave for the day before him. If it was a company commander, first sergeant, or primary staff officer, he would call them to his office and badger them about “due outs” – tasks he’d given them that weren’t yet complete – or emails they hadn’t yet answered. Then he’d send them back to work, tails between their legs.

Subduing the Time Bandit is easier said than done. You can only control so much in life, and the average Time Bandit is rarely someone within your sphere of influence. What you can do, however, is take the steps necessary to keep the Time Bandit at bat, to “stay ahead of the power curve.” In other words, leverage work habits that give you power over the Time Bandit.

That is, unless he’s watching the parking lot.

Find a battle rhythm. As much as you can, structure your day in a way that makes you more productive: when you get up, when you exercise, when you start the work day, when and what you eat, and – if you can – when you close up shop for the day. A good battle rhythm is the essence of a productivity system.

Take the initiative. I don’t particularly like to be told what to do, so I always tried to do what I thought needed to be done before someone could tell me. As a friend recently said to me, “Shape your environment before it shapes you.” Get out in front of tasks you know will come your way; accomplish them in a way that works best for you. A little initiative goes a long way.

Work smarter, not harder. That may sound trite, but those four words are essential to understanding the difference between productivity and busyness. You want to be productive, not fill your day with meaningless tasks that don’t contribute toward what’s truly important. Getting more from the time you have doesn’t necessarily mean doing more things. Productivity is about doing the important things in less time.

Use a to-do list. My old green notebooks are filled with to-do lists representing the goals, objectives, and milestones for specific projects or initiatives I was working at the time. Each week, I would highlight a few tasks from those lists and create to-do lists for each day prioritizing 3-4 key tasks. Those to-do lists ensured that I remained focused on what was important while chipping away at much bigger projects.

Eliminate distractions. Whether you admit it or not, they’re getting in the way of your productivity. Choose a time to answer email. Turn off social media notifications. Close your door when the office storyfeller makes his rounds. Set aside the non-essential tasks. The more distractions you eliminate, the easier it will be for you to focus and work on what matters.

Press on. There are always days when you just can’t get focused. You head or your heart just isn’t in it. Don’t let one unproductive day sidetrack you. If you find yourself “off the rails” don’t waste time lamenting: get back to your battle rhythm. Review your to-do lists. Refocus. Persevere. But don’t allow yourself a second unproductive day. Good work habits take time to develop and can be broken in just a few days.

Work hard, play hard. Find joy in what you do. Celebrate your accomplishments. Have fun. Hard work and productivity bring a different kind of happiness – the reward of knowing that you’re making a difference and building a legacy. Achieving your goals brings a satisfaction few other things in life will. And once you get started, nothing can stop you.

All of this doesn’t mean the Time Bandit won’t come calling. It won’t stop your boss from filling your email inbox at 1800. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get called back to the office because you foolishly thought you might actually be able to go home while the sun was still shining. What it does mean is that you can take a good part of the power and control away from the Time Bandit. And, when your productivity keeps you “on the leading edge of the bow wave,” time will work for you, not against you. When it comes to subduing the Time Bandit, those little victories matter.

Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.