Thinking Small: One Big Key To Success

By almost any account, you can’t call my schedule balanced. Most of it’s self-imposed I admit, waking up at 5am every day, not heading to sleep until the wee hours of the night, and getting involved in a large variety of different activities, both at the law school and outside of the law school, not to mention at business school, despite not stepping foot on campus as a student yet. But recently, after the insanely difficult 1L finals period of law school, I’ve found myself less effective at balancing my unbalanced schedule, and recently it’s a lot more difficult to get things done.

Nowadays, it feels like it takes a herculean effort to manage my Gmail list, write newsletters for my organizations, makes trips to Kellogg from the city to attend meetings, manage my website, network with employers, maintain connections with my close friends and family, and keep an eye on my longer term goals.  And I haven’t even begun working yet, which will be a significant time commitment. What I’m learning is that when you have so much to do, it takes a different type of focus, and you have to have to learn how to actually finish things, which in law school is not something we practice.

In law school, your final grade in a class is the result of your cumulative work from the entire semester. You read legal cases, meet in study teams, go to office hours, and outline over the course of a four month semester, all of which comes to an end, in a three hour final exam.  So you’re always building toward a final product. And so in that environment, you work to build stamina, learn to focus on things for hours and hours at a time, become adept at cutting through information, and learn to work in a way that is cumulative. On the other hand, it’s not always the best setting for those who need to manage chaotic and overbooked schedules.

For many people, this means that you have to be more aware – being sure to finish uncompleted tasks, understanding how much time to allocate to competing priorities, crossing things off your to-do lists, and then moving on to the next ones.  This is especially important for people like me, who always default to focusing on the bigger picture, have a high number of seemingly disconnected interests, and overbook their schedules with zeal and optimism of changing the world, often leaving lots of work to finish during the midnight hours and limited time to finish it.

The good news for me, though, is that my jam-packed schedule isn’t for lack of focus and most of my activities are part of organizations and activities that I want to be part of, not only for career or networking opportunities but also for the skill building and because I want to have impact n those arenas. Also, because some activities are similar, there are some economies of scale which I can take advantage of. So I don’t mind burning the midnight oil in most cases, because I’ve got a few very specific things I’m doing, and very specific goals in mind.

In my view, the more specific you are about what you want to do, the more likely it is that you’ll accomplish it.  Sure, part of that is establishing relationships with people and with organizations, both of which I love doing.  On the other hand, though, it is also about achieving results and getting things done.  And striking that balance, when you have a lot of things on your plate and a lot of things at stake is hard. So for me, I’ve recently learned that to be successful, sometimes you have to think small, quickly move from the macro to the micro-level, have a laser-like focus on the results, and cross as many things off your list as possible.

Because modern leaders know that in an age of increased global complexity and too much information, that identifying your priorities and consistently achieving results is vital. And those who can both identify where and how (thinking small) to do that will be better poised to lead people, teams, and organizations in the future.

Monday, May 24th, 2010 Leadership

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.

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