Spend Your Time Wisely, Don’t Let Time Spend You

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During my second squadron commander tour, I was asked by a fellow squadron commander to teach a one-hour class on “Time and Task Management” at our local, base-level Flight Leadership course. As soon as I was asked, I replied with, “do you want me to teach an existing block within the curriculum, or can I develop my own material?” The latter was my preference, and luckily they trusted me to come up with material that would be engaging and not your run-of-the-mill tips on time management. The difference in my approach is that I believe an effective time management strategy is built with the team in mind, and not just as an afterthought. By communicating and creating your strategy with your personal and professional social circles, you’ll find that you can be successful without burning yourself down to the ground. Leaders aren’t successful because they can do everything themselves, but instead, know how to optimize their surroundings to deliver effective results.

My thoughts on time and task management are organized into six sections: Energy Preferences, Battle Rhythm, eCommunications, Family, Fuel, and Fitness. Each section has three supporting thoughts that guide the reader by developing a sufficient time and task management practice. One overarching strategy can’t apply to everyone; each approach must be tailored to both the individual and their surrounding team to be effective. Your mileage may vary when you use your strategy when joining a new team, so don’t be surprised if you need to adjust a little while still making positive progress. Let’s dive in!

Energy preferences. Are you an early bird that prefers to approach work in the quietude of the morning over a hot cup of coffee or tea? Or are you an afternoon bloomer, able to tackle complex issues after you’ve entirely woken up? Either version can work, you just need to recognize which version you lean towards and be conscious of it. By understanding your energy preferences, you can shape the ebb and flow of the day that best compliments your style of work output. Personally, I am an early bird. For most of my career, I’ve worked out in the morning, which leaves me energized when I hit the office to tackle the day.

Furthermore, you should share your energy preferences with your immediate staff so you can optimize your day. For example, I ask my team to give me a quiet solitude in my office until at least 0830. This allows me to get started on tasks of my choosing before the chaos of the day gets away from me. Preparing for upcoming meetings, finishing critical administrative tasks, and organizing scattered ideas in an uninterrupted thought-stream is essential to me. It allows me to hit the ground running. An important distinction I’ve developed over time is the ability to recognize quick, priority tasks that I can accomplish on my own. This is in contrast to longer projects that require additional teammates to complete.

A notable quote to remember is, “If everything is a priority task, none of them are.” As a leader at any level, you are expected to recognize which workloads you need to take immediate action on and which tasks you can triage until later. You’ll have to apply this calculus daily, so be sure to develop both your fast sprints and slower marathon speeds of work output. A second quote to remember is, “If you wait until the last minute, it will only take you a minute.” Placing time constraints on work output can remove some of your stress. Designate a timeframe (or use the timescale designated by your boss) and pour your energy into delivering your best work within that timeframe.

You’ll be surprised how often you think a task needs more time to be accomplished. Yet, a similar result can be achieved by only expending half the energy. The other half of the time is spent on second-guessing or focusing on an area that probably doesn’t need additional focus. This is not to say turn in half-baked work, far from it. Just realize that your credibility is based on what you deliver (or not) in the time allotted. Allocating time for critical reflection and task accomplishment can be achieved during the duty day, even a busy one. If you take the time to understand your energy preferences, communicate them to your teammates, and know the differences between sprint tasks and marathon projects.

Battle Rhythm. The rhythm of a team as large as a squadron requires deliberate thought and crafting to be effective. Your job as Commander will make those decisions that simultaneously benefit the organization and preserves your ability to remain agile to meet external demands. Spend some of your initial time, at least one quarter, analyzing the existing battle rhythm for both the squadron and the wing. Write down your understanding of the purpose (info, decision, or both), the audience (who is the principal/”head” and who is the moderator). Additionally, the in/outputs of every battle rhythm event (approvals, deferments, follow-up tasks). If you are unable to define these aspects clearly, chances are neither can the attendees. Hence, you have discovered an event in need of focus or elimination.

Battle rhythm events should last for a maximum of one hour. The time limit is a hard rule you must enforce for squadron battle rhythm events as much as possible. By respecting the meeting time, you are also recognizing the time of your teammates. This act is meant to be as efficient as possible, which requires pre-planning. Achieving a healthy balance of discussion and action within a constrained time frame forces all attendees to be prepared accordingly. They know the purpose of the event, who will be in attendance, and how to influence decisions to be reached quickly. As the overall battle rhythm for the squadron begins to take shape, move more discussions to these events to reducing crowding schedules. Instead of scheduling a new meeting to discuss a single topic, find which battle rhythm event makes sense to hold the conversation. Chances are the event’s assigned audience will also benefit from the talks, thus creating additional connectivity and transparency throughout the squadron. By you thinking, “we have an event for that,” you will gain more efficiencies for all parties involved.

One technique I really enjoyed is having two separate squadron leadership meetings: an “Operations Huddle” and the “Squadron Staff Meeting.” Both meetings involve the Squadron Superintendent, Director of Operations (if your squadron has one), the First Sergeant, all Flight Commanders, and all Flight Superintendents. Additional personnel can be added, but the core list of leadership previously mentioned is always present. The Operations Huddle is where we discuss work-related issues. Typically, this is a 30-day timeframe as captured in the monthly Operations Directive or your designated location/product to track near-term priorities. Any immediate tasks (aka “go-do’s”) given by leadership are also discussed through resolution. Additional attendees for this event can include the Unit Deployment Manager and other operations related personnel.

The staff meeting is where we discuss administrative tasks recurring in nature and required across all squadrons. Think of functions such as those performed by your Commander’s Support Staff, financial updates from your Resource Advisor, and other additional duties such as Unit Fitness Program Manager or Security Manager that can rotate weekly. I highly recommend a squadron event calendar to keep all significant events on the radar, as well as a leadership leave schedule, so everyone knows who “has the stick” during the week. As Commander, you can define the frequency of when you and squadron leadership review this crucial administrative information. Most importantly, both of these meetings aren’t designed to brief you as the Commander but instead brief each other as teammates focused on similar goals.

External to the squadron, you, as the Commander, must have a firm understanding of the wing-level battle rhythm and your role within them. There are mandatory events where you will represent the squadron to deliver specific information. As well as others where you are more in a participatory role to offer supplemental inputs if required. Regardless of the reason for your attendance, it is imperative to know which events are designated to obtain wing commander approval decisions. Knowing when these events occur allows you to reverse engineer a preparation plan to get approval on your ideas within an event that already exists. If you are aiming for an approval decision, be sure to send appropriate readahead materials, so your wing commander is not caught off guard. Your job is to prepare your leadership to make informed decisions…so do your job! Use higher-level meetings for their intended purpose and deliver purposeful actions and/or resolutions for leadership.

e-Communications. The advent of constant and mobile communications have brought significant advantages and disadvantages to working productivity. We can share information quickly and dynamically in both visual and audio forms. The constant barrage of inputs to your attention span dulls our ability to focus. This blunts our tendencies to utilize the benefits of in-person interactions. E-mail is a prime example of a tool that is easily abused. Unless deliberate actions are taken to shape our use of e-mail, the instrument of information can overwhelm your day. E-mail can be seen as a “ball and chain” to either your desk or wherever your mobile device can access the service. E-mail does remain a necessity in today’s world. Still, there are small changes you can make to minimize their disruption and maximize their utility.

The first change is to turn off all delivery pop-up notifications on your devices. Notice I say delivery, not event reminders, notifications, keep those on, so you aren’t late! Turning off the delivery notifications will remove the mini-windows from popping up on your desktop and on your mobile device. These pop-up notifications will literally move your eyes away from the task you are currently focusing on. Also, turn off the audible notifications that usually accompany the pop-ups. These actions are distractions that will consistently ruin your productivity and prevent you from staying on task.

One notification that you can enable to assist your productivity is to change the color of any e-mails. This helps with focusing on the important ones received from your group or wing commander (and potentially their respective Executive Officers). By assigning specific colors to these accounts, you can easily spot e-mails from them and prioritize your attention towards those messages above the rest of your inbox. These simple techniques that purposefully shape the visual chaos of your e-mail can reduce distractions and improve productivity. These configurations can be easily searched for through the Help function of your e-mail client, such as Outlook. Your productivity will benefit over the long run by spending a little time minimizing your distractions upfront.

A better method of quickly sharing information is to use online collaboration platforms. Products such as SharePoint, Trello, or Slack allow dynamic inputs from multiple parties in a centralized location. These products contain built-in collaboration tools to organize information in various forms, such as file/folder or chronological, that can enhance action and contributions from teams connected through the internet. This method has an advantage over e-mail. It can be taken simultaneously in a shared workspace versus serially through inboxes that are often cluttered with other subject matter.

Having a dedicated workspace for a specified project or subject matter helps shed erroneous attention distractors, which helps reduce the “noise of the e-mail inbox.” Everything in the designated collaboration space should be there for a reason; the administrator of the area is responsible for enforcing this rule. Access rules and file-naming conventions are crucial to keeping everyone on the same page, which again is the administrator’s role to organize. Collaboration sites can be formed to become a powerful tool to manage not only your time but also the time of everyone on the team.

My final recommendation under e-Communications is to designate a priority line of communication and ensure your peers and leadership know how to use this track. The most common choice is the most simple one: a phone call. Designate which phone will receive priority communication. Ensure your wing and group commanders know that you will answer that phone line when called upon or return the call as soon as possible. If the conversation is not a priority, e-mails should be used to share information that is not time-sensitive.

Text messages are in the gray zone, and you should talk with your leadership to see if that line of communication is ok/preferred for certain types of information exchanges. Again, make it clear that text messages are in the communication group as e-mail, meaning they are not priority lines of communication. These same rules should apply to your immediate staff and flight leadership. By managing expectations early, you can clarify with your most important and most common co-workers how to reach you for priority issues. However, a word of caution: the term “priority” can mean different things between people, so you should have conversations that further define what that means. For example, the death or injury of an Airman or one of their family members should be an immediate phone call. Checking to see the status of a common administrative task is probably not. The back and forth conversation between yourself and your teammate will assist in developing expectations that can be managed and met. By removing the unknowns of e-communications, you will be able to focus on your given task at hand. This will lead to not be in a constant state of worry or distraction because you have established agreed-upon rules of engagement.

Family. Beyond the usual subjects in time management that revolve around timing and communication, the family is a factor that must be deliberately considered to shape a sufficient time and energy management strategy. Even if you are a single service member, my recommendations will still apply to your individual well-being. This section applies to all of us for those fortunate enough to still have immediate or extended family members alive. At the core of the idea of family is understanding that you will hang up the uniform at some point. If you deliberately care for and make time for your family within your career, you will emerge with a much healthier relationship. This will allow for more enjoyable times together when you decide to separate or retire.

Don’t wait until you are out of the service to spend quality time with your family. A quick way to ensure this happens is to not bring your work home. There will be exceptions to this rule, but you need to be very clear with yourself and with your family members if you carry any work home. The time spent with your family is just as crucial as other appointments on your calendar. For some, the few hours a day when everyone is out of school and work is the only time to catch up and stay connected. I’m a staunch fan of family dinners, where conversations keep everyone’s schedules synchronized. This is the time of the day when you can gather intel to share the load of family life. It allows for the penciling in any essential events within their schedule into yours.

For example, my daughter told me she won “student of the quarter” at her elementary school. She was going to be recognized at a ceremony while being presented with a certificate. She asked me, “you’re going to be there, right, Dad?” Pro tip: that wasn’t really a question she was asking me. She was telling me I needed to be there for her big moment. When I returned to the office (again, don’t bring your work home!), I entered the mid-day event and kept to the appointment. I shared with my staff and my supervisor that I would be attending the event. Everyone was happy to see that I was taking deliberate time to spend with my family. At the ceremony, I was the proudest and loudest cheerleader when they announced my daughter’s name. Some, like my daughter, may call it embarrassing, but I loved every minute of it. I was able to share in her proud moment and show my support by merely being there.

My daughter still invites me to her award ceremonies. She tries to advise me on etiquette that will prevent any embarrassment in heading her way. I usually tell her “noted,” and she knows that any further advisement given to me will result in exponential levels of embarrassing and outlandish behavior. The conversations always go back to her first award ceremony, and we wouldn’t be able to laugh about it if I wasn’t there. You will rarely get any “do-overs” in your family’s story, so take advantage of them while you can. You will be setting the right example for others to mimic as well. You need to set the standard of keeping your family prioritized within your time and task management. This strategy will pay dividends in the delicate work/life balance of the personnel in your squadron.

The military family is an excellent example of a team with strong bonds that can overcome great distances from one another and the numerous challenges that are unique to service members. However, the only person within that family with a defined role (and rank) is the service member. Long have we surpassed the roles and responsibilities that were placed on the generations before us. In my opinion, the “commander’s spouse” is no longer an expected role for your spouse to automatically assume. I’ve found the best approach is if your spouse chooses to assume the mantle on their own. Similar to your strategy as the Commander, your spouse must exhibit genuine interest and authenticity in having an active role in the squadron. If those key elements aren’t there, further participation in the unit could actually damage the established team dynamic.

Your spouse must understand they are not you. They do not have any rank or any other additional authority over anyone, sponsor or dependent, in the squadron. A practical approach for your spouse would be to first seek to understand the roles within the squadron and understand the local challenges within the unit. Not every unit in the Air Force is built the same, so taking the time to learn and listen will help build initial credibility. If you are single, asking for volunteers (again, not a mandatory job!) for someone to serve in the role can significantly assist you and the squadron if executed well. Both combinations will require consistent communication to be effective. Incorporate the spouse into the overall battle rhythm of the unit and seek their advice and inputs for any blind spots or areas of concern within the squadron. The key takeaway is that this role should be one-hundred percent voluntary and only fulfilled by a spouse that has a genuine interest in serving in the role. Remember, you are the service member, and your performance evaluation is based on your performance, not that of your family.

Fuel. Nutrition and sleep are two factors not commonly discussed concerning time and task management. Yet they are vital to your productivity and ability to stay in the fight day-in and day-out. When you do not manage how you fuel and rest your body, you are putting your responsibility as a squadron commander at risk. This is the ability to make sound decisions. Meal preparation on the weekends can assist you during the workweek by removing decision fatigue and choosing the smart choices closest to you. Your meals should be well balanced with the majority of healthy food choices. To be honest, the subject of nutrition is beyond this book, so just strive for making “good enough” nutrition decisions.

In addition to your meals, surround yourself with smart snack decisions as well. Make sure you maintain even energy levels and bring your snacks to any meetings that coincide with you’re hungry. Seriously, it is not your fault that a meeting was scheduled during your snack time. Your body won’t fuel itself, and keeping your energy levels is ultimately your responsibility. Don’t choose obnoxiously loud or foul-smelling snacks, as those will draw unnecessary attention to you. By thinking ahead and keeping smarter food decisions within reach, you can make important decisions instead of wondering where to grab a quick fix.

An unofficial statement I’ve heard is that we spend one-third of our lives in bed. This assumes that everyone can sleep for eight hours. This is eight hours of actual sleep. This is not eight hours that involves you diving deep into the rabbit hole of social media and streaming video. Eight hours sounds ideal but is probably a far-fetched dream for the many versus a commonality. To obtain eight or any set hours of sleep, you must develop a consistent and non-compromising routine that will quickly lead you to dreamland. Although not a subject in this article, you need to curate your own individual routine. Still, I will highlight that you need to configure your routine to obtain maximum sleep.

Resting your physical and mental state is extremely important to your tenure’s longevity and endurance during squadron command. The most efficient method for reaching this state is to research and develop a personal sleep routine that can be efficiently and successfully repeated. Turn off all electronics 30 minutes before sleep, while limiting any caffeine or sugar intake 1 hour-ish before sleep. Next, adjust the room temperature to a degree you feel most comfortable. However, ensure you have mitigated any effects with any beds you share with loved ones. Multiple factors define your optimal sleep routine, all of which need to be explored and maximized as much as possible.

The typical energy stresses of reality (i.e., children, dinner choices, episodes of your favorite TV show) will not always allow you to achieve this routine. You need to be able to recognize those moments where you can control the elements of your sleep routine and prioritize them. Stick to your routine as much as possible so you can wake up on time; set the alarm, and seize the day! Wash, rinse, repeat. You will feel the difference when your energy levels are affected by a lack of quality sleep. This means you need to reshuffle the activities of your next 12 hours to get back on track. Similar to nutrition, do not leave your rest to chance. Determine solutions that work for you and work even harder to stick to them. You aren’t perfect, but you have more control than you think over your fueling options to lead to better time and task management.

Last but not least, Fitness is the final component within a comprehensive time and task management strategy. Not only is fitness inherent to the readiness required for the profession of arms, but fitness can be a unifying element that brings teams together through a shared understanding and purpose. If you are “about that fitness life,” you already know how the borderline obsession with working out can overtake your life. Indeed, the fitness element can drown out all other aspects of your strategy if not adequately managed. Point being is that fitness should have a prominent, yet not overwhelming, place within your time and task management strategy to complement your overall performance.

Your fitness program should be designed to maximize strengths and minimize any weaknesses that have developed over time. Whether you have an initial strength or cardio bias, be sure to incorporate a fitness regime that prepares you for the full spectrum of military operations. First, treat your workouts like mandatory appointments. You go to staff meetings to sit and stare at PowerPoint slides. However, you also need to go to a gym and physically move for an hour or so to counterbalance. By plugging your gym time as an appointment, you fence off the time from being usurped from potential distractions or wastes of time. Like all other meetings on your schedule, your “meeting” at the gym should be considered mandatory.

 Your squadron should require a battle rhythm to allow for organized unit Physical Training (PT) sessions. As the Commander, your most important responsibility is to simply show up. Understandably this can’t be achieved one-hundred percent of the time. Still, all efforts should be made to be physically seen by the personnel within your squadron. As Commander, you must lead by example, no matter what shape you happen to be in or any injuries you are nursing. There is high value to your squadron seeing you work hard to maintain your fitness level. While the current fitness assessment models take age and gender into consideration in adjusting scoring scales, your rank and position are not. You have the same 1.5-mile distance to run and test against like everyone else.

Your squadron seeing you dedicate your time and energy towards maintaining a level of physical readiness towards the established standards is extremely important. Give credit to yourself and to others who aren’t afraid of working to achieve a goal. The military accepts people of all shapes and sizes from around the country, each with varying levels of basic fitness. Regardless, we all have the personal responsibility to maintain physical health standards as determined by our military leadership. Your responsibility as a squadron commander is to demonstrate this responsibility through actions, not just words.

Additionally, fill in the rest of your weekly fitness regime by sticking to a strategy that is aligned to your preferences. Similar to knowing if you are an “early bird” or “night owl,” understand if you are most likely to work out on your own or within a group. Ultimately, your fitness and physical readiness is your personal responsibility. The discipline needed to maintain this level of preparedness need not be traveled alone if you choose. If your level of control requires external motivation and accountability, group classes are a great way to keep your fitness goals on track. On top of the social aspect that can benefit you, group classes can be included as another mandatory appointment within your work schedule. Outsourcing this portion of your day can save you the time of coming up with your own routines.

If you prefer the alone time of running or lifting weights on your own, you must hold yourself accountable to these appointments and don’t waste your time. Again, your fitness and physical readiness is your personal responsibility, and you must enable a strategy that sets you up for success. Your approach must be shaped around your strengths and weaknesses, so you can be as consistent as possible. There will be times where your fitness regime will have to be compromised due to mission requirements, but all this means is you need to find time to stay on track. You don’t always need an entire hour to perform a workout. Stay consistent, and fitness will become a regular part of your routine. A well-rounded time and task management strategy require a physical engine to power through everything. That engine is yours to tune.

When utilized efficiently, the components of energy preferences, battle rhythm, eCommunications, family, fuel, and fitness work best as an integrated time and task management strategy. Leaders will never have enough time or resources to accomplish everything perfectly. You must learn to balance your resources. However, you can manage your time and resources wisely and still deliver amazing results. A final word of advice on this subject: If you don’t align your actions to your values, you are wasting your time. Spend your time wisely, don’t let time spend you.