Thursday, September 24, 2009

Focus Like an Entreprenuer: A Lesson from James K. Polk


My to-do list has 91 items. This is the result of a conscious effort in the last couple of months to reduce the list from about 150 items. Even now, if I knock off some of the wish-list stuff like “Climb Kilimanjaro"--the things that will happen on their own, or not--I’m down to maybe 75 items.

Some things are seasonal and appear as reminders once a year. So, they stay on the list but aren’t especially onerous. That gets me down to maybe 50.  I know, to a GTD disciple, 50 items is the subset of an uberlist—hardly a list at all. Still, 50 to-dos does seem like a lot.

Last summer I clipped a Peggy Noonan column, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” from the June 27/8 Wall Street Journal.  Advising President Obama, Noonan suggested that Clare Booth Luce had it right in 1962 when she told President Kennedy that “a great man is one sentence.”

“He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”

“He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.”

There’s no mistaking those.  Noonan went on to suggest that Obama was trying to do too much and, in the process, was missing “The Sentence.” (Her suggestion for Obama was: “He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror.”)


It all reminded me of the way Daniel Walker Howe portrayed President James Knox Polk in What Hath God Wrought. Now, there's a President you don’t think about every day--James K. Polk. But talk about focused and driven; he was a guy built for "The Sentence."

Upon being elected, Polk told his Secretary of the Navy that he would have "four great measures" of his administration: Settlement of Oregon with Britain, the acquisition of California, a reduction of the Tariff, and the permanent establishment of the Independent Treasury.

How did Polk do? Howe concludes, “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the United States ever had.” He picked two big foreign policy and two big domestic goals, stayed focused, and achieved them in one term.  Then he retired.

Polk’s extraordinary focus reminds me of the trick an old boss taught me, way back before every pocket had a smartphone. He would take a 3-by-5 card at the start of each fiscal quarter and write down his 3-6 goals for the quarter. Then he would leave it in the corner of his desk where he could see it constantly, or carry it in his pocket when he was traveling.  Every morning and evening he'd review the list to gauge if what he was doing contributed to one of those goals; if not, he’d stop and, as he said, get back to work.  

There is a story told about a time-management consultant who visited the Pentagon to address a gathering of generals.  He asked them how they organized their days.  The one answer that stood out: "I write down everything I need to do that day, maybe 25 items.  Then I start at the bottom and cross them out until I have only the top three left.  Then I go to work." 

Leaders of all kinds require extraordinary focus to be successful.  I don't know if James K. Polk had a 3-by-5 card, but I'm guessing he didn't have a to-do list with 91 items, either.

Maybe a lesson for you.  Certainly a lesson for me.