Time Management for the Military Leader
By Col. Timothy Monroe and 1st Lt. Oswald Brown Jr.
25th Attack Group
Time and space. These are not just buzz words used by our newly formed U.S. Space Force but also valued, bounded commodities for oneself, especially today's military leader. The global pandemic has altered or broken countless paradigms once held true; among these is how the military leader manages time and decision space.
Today's military leaders need to be laser-focused, yet agile to respond to current and future global demands. Our military's continued asymmetric advantage rests on our ability to execute the "OODA loop" faster and more accurately than our adversaries. Col. John Boyd, the creator of the OODA loop, first explains the OODA loop in his 1986 Patterns of Conflict presentation, "in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries—or, better yet, get inside adversary's Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop." Put in the context of time management, military leaders must have the time to observe and orient and the space to make decisions and act upon them to maintain an advantage over adversaries. Said differently, military leaders succeed, or fail, by their schedules.
Budgeting time is an essential task for any leader to ensure they are spending time and effort on the right priorities, and a regular review of where one spends their time and space highlights the need to be deliberate. Leaders are inundated with competing demands ranging from personal and professional obligations, balanced against remaining fit-to-fight and spending time with family and friends. In addition to the big picture demands, contemporary schedules can fall victim to "meeting creep," where a one-time meeting becomes recurring, or a 30-minute session extends to an hour-long, leading to full schedules and very little spare time and decision space.
COVID-19 provided an enormous shock to the global environment, and certainly to the military community, forcing all organizations to re-examine day-to-day operations. The pandemic also pressed military leaders to reconsider how they invest their time. At one point, near the outset of the pandemic, up to 4 million DoD personnel were teleworking. The immediate change to the work/life balance demanded a revised time management approach. What follows are some techniques to cement agile, yet deliberate time management techniques to one's schedule.
Ruthlessly Prioritize. Not everything can be your number one priority. A great metaphor to reiterate this point is the classroom experiment of adding rocks, gravel, and sand to a jar. When placed in the jar, smallest first (sand, gravel, rocks), it becomes increasingly hard to make it all fit. When reversed (rocks, gravel, sand), the objects' decreasing size allows everything to fit together neatly. Contemporary application requires the leader to identify their big priorities, delegate midsized ones, and trust subordinates to manage the smallest issues at their level. Mixing up priorities, or trying to do it all, diminishes the leader's value and ability to offer sharp, timely decisions, much less make it all fit on the schedule.
Manage Fluidity. In close company with prioritization is methodically adjusting to the fluidity of one's environment. The military has the daunting responsibility of continuously monitoring the strategic environment, which, by its character, is constantly evolving. President Dwight Eisenhower's matrix, otherwise known as “The Urgent-Important Matrix,” (see Figure 1) provides a way for senior leaders to manage this energy. A leader must determine what is important and what is not, because rarely is a schedule a static series of events. Naturally, some leaders struggle to determine what is urgent and less urgent because individual perception and bias tend to drive personal preferences; this is the area where the leader needs to rely on their team, and implement concepts, such as clear delegation and empowerment of deputy leaders, to permit the leader time and space to remain strategic.
Also, empowering executive support teams to give honest feedback on schedule structure that may be out of line with priorities, will drive more efficient time management. To do this, a great leader will listen first, confront reality, clarify expectations, and extend trust to their team. If executed properly, these concepts will build a habitual methodology to manage the fluidity of a rapidly changing environment.
Assess and Refine. According to Thomas Oppong's article, "The daily habits of great minds: Lessons from Nietzsche, Kant, Tesla, Darwin, Einstein, and Hemingway," history's most significant leaders regularly refined their daily schedules to maintain the highest level of efficiency for their lives. Their time management practices were their secret weapon. Deliberate routines establish time and space to make revolutionary decisions. However, the leaders did not merely set a schedule and keep it for life. Every once in a while, these leaders scrutinized their daily plans to remain effective, keeping what works and eliminating what didn’t.
Great leaders also ensured they incorporated time for thought. As Oppong describes, prolific leaders such as Kant, Darwin and Einstein, deliberately blocked daily time for reflection to formulate their world-changing ideas and theories.
The trusted responsibility of the military leader is to remain focused,; to do this, one must be afforded the time and space to think, decide and act. Highly effective military leaders must also establish a balance of being in-tune with the external and internal factors affecting the organization's direction and ultimate outcomes. Therefore, the leader, and their teams, need to deliberately schedule time based on factors of priority, fluidity, and routine assessment to maximize their effectiveness. Mastering these skills requires self-awareness, strong team dynamics and a bit of foresight. It is these skills, if mastered, that will aid in maintaining the asymmetrical advantage over than our adversaries.
Figure 1. Urgent vs. Important matrix