To continue our Saturday night theme, using the book The Seven habits of highly effective people and how the ideas might be applied to the current situation, this week we are covering putting first things first.

About 15 years ago I was in a meeting with a couple who I acted for at the time (now both sadly passed away).

Their business was doing well but they were telling me how hard life was and how the business was completely consuming them. They knew that the company could easily pick up much more highly profitable work, but they simply didn’t have the time to do the things that would get them those extra contracts. 

We talked about a typical day for each of them and the wife of the couple who dealt with all the finances mentioned that she went to the bank to pay cheques in, the post office if they needed stamps and the local Co-op to pick up milk, coffee etc. 

I asked her why she had to do this and she told me a story about how they had been visited by the directors of a national company who were looking at giving them a major contract and could only offer them a choice of black tea or water to drink because they had run out of coffee and milk.

“Yes but why do you have to do it?” I said looking out their boardroom window at the four members of staff in the office all of whom looked to the untrained eye perfectly capable of walking to the shops and undertaking a few errands.

“Because none of them ever do it” was the answer. 

“Ok”, I said “the problem is that no-one has ever been given responsibility for that task. Who’s your most junior member of staff?”

I seem to recall that the office junior was called Louise but I may be wrong. The important part of the story is that in that meeting we drafted out a job description for Louise which set out all her responsibilities as Office Assistant. 

Louise was a pleasant enough girl and quite happy to take on those tasks. We added a few other things as well and explained the importance of making sure that the offices looked professional so that any visitors would always be left with the impression that this was a well-organised business.  

The biggest plans often start with a simple step. The thing you need to do before you do the thing you need to do before you do the really big thing. 

As one of our trainees said to me once “there’s only one thing you can do next”. Quite right and very wise. And I would add to that “so you better choose the right thing”

But we sometimes get so consumed with the day to day work that we lose sight of what the first thing should be.

An Aussie friend of mine called Mark Cottle wrote an article about the feeling of Overwhelm. I’d never thought of overwhelm as a thing, only as a verb. 

But we all know that feeling. When an ordinary day starts to spiral off in all directions and you can no longer cope with it all at once. I know you have all felt that at some point in the past six weeks. 

When I was a recently qualified accountant, I worked for the most disorganised human being on the planet. If you disagree, we need to talk and swap stories because I have many to tell. Not of the disorganisation itself but of the consequences, hilarious now all these years later but not funny at the time. 

He must have had that feeling of Overwhelm most days. His office was a mass of files, unfinished work and scribbled notes. Once when he was on holiday a colleague and I had to go through those piles of paperwork in search of information about an unfortunate client who was standing in his house with his family and all his possessions in a removal van having just been told by his mortgage company that his accountant still hadn’t provided the mortgage reference so they wouldn’t release the funds. 

I vowed never to find myself in that situation. Since the practice opened in 1995, I have always had one job I do every weekend which is update my “to do” list. No matter how busy I am, I always know on a Monday morning what my first job will be.

I’ve also learnt to fall back on the “to do” list when I get a visit from Overwhelm. Stop. Open the “to do” list, update it with everything I have to do, rationalise, put it in the right order. Do.

Sometimes, when you do that you realise that certain “urgent” things are only urgent because of a deadline imposed by a third party that can be moved. First thing on the “to do” list might be to call HMRC and ask for a week’s extension to a deadline for a response to a letter. 

Tick. Now I can delegate that reply to a colleague knowing they can do 80% of the work for me and get it back to me well before the new deadline so I can do the last 20%. Tick.

Sometimes you realise that the urgency has been imposed by yourself. Or maybe that irrational 4am version of yourself that I talked about last week.

I know “to do” lists are not everyone’s thing and you all have your own method. 

I once bumped into a client of mine in a truckers café that I’d stopped at to get some lunch on my way back from another meeting. “This is my sanctuary” he explained. When things got on top of him, he just got up walked out of his office and popped down the café for half an hour. By the time he returned his mind was ordered and he knew what to do next.

I’ve heard that word “sanctuary” used by a number of clients over the years. It might be a place in your house, the road you walk the dog along, the drive to and from work, your favourite corner of the pub. The place where you order your thoughts and plans.

Before the current crisis began, I’d read a lot about teenagers and early twenties generation suffering with anxiety. It didn’t seem to be a massive problem for my generation when we were their age.

Could it be that life in the 80s was much simpler? Sure there was pressure to pass the exam, to get the job, to get the girl or boy but it wasn’t as relentless as it is now in this digitised world. The pressure of constantly being in touch and being required to be in touch, to be seen to be in touch not to mention to have the image in person and online is not something I had to deal with. All I was worried about was whether I looked old enough to get served by the landlord of the Royal Oak!

Perhaps young people need that sanctuary as much as owner-managers do. An hour with that phone turned off. Just a thought.

I know some of you are ridiculously busy at the moment whilst others have a lot more family and thinking time whilst your businesses are in hibernation. 

Whatever your situation, here are my best tips for ensuring you put first things first:

  1. Don’t focus on barriers, think of them as hurdles. Focus on what you need to do to get over that hurdles not the hurdle itself
  2. Ignore the things you can do nothing about
  3. In the current climate, don’t plan too far ahead. Focus on today
  4. Work backwards. What’s your biggest problem? What do you need to happen to solve that problem? What do you need to do to make that happen? What’s going to stop you from making that happen? How do you fix that?

And finally, just remember the best tip from one of the training sessions we run for our team once they’ve been with us for about six months:

Question – How do you eat an elephant?

Answer – One bite at a time

Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Read our next article in our the Seven habits of highly effective people series: Importance of win-win mindset (and even a lose-win mindset)

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Malcolm Palmer


Managing Partner

01474 853856

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