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.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Small Things Considered: Broken Telephone Poles & Stuck Bolts


A Little Thing Close In

The power went out this Saturday morning, not an uncommon occurrence in our town during winter storms, but uncommon enough on a sunny fall morning. 

Loss of electricity for any length of time can be traumatic in a small town where fresh water comes from private wells. No electricity, no water. No drinking. No showers. Each toilet is good for precisely two flushes once the clock on the microwave oven begins flashing.

Right behind the water crisis, of course, is the FIOS and cable crisis, the wireless and web crisis, and the TV and microwave crisis. Followed, of course, by the can’t-see-at-night crisis.

I’m reminding you of things you already know because, as I went for my run that morning, I discovered two utility trucks and a policeman directing traffic around a snapped utility pole. Someone, somehow, on a sunny, dry morning--on a road marked at 35 miles per hour--managed to smack into the pole and turn the attached electronics and cables into a mid-air rat’s nest.

Utility poles are a 19th-century technology, designed originally to carry telegraph lines.  The average pole is made of Yellow Southern Pine and stands about 34 feet above the ground.  Whack them with one of our modern vehicles and they break like a toothpick. 

Said more poetically, when the 20th century runs into the 19th century, the 21st century suffers.

A Little Thing Far Out


Last week NASA reported that the Hubble Space telescope was sending back stunning images of exploding stars, stellar nurseries and colliding galaxies, thanks to its repair and refurbishment by astronauts in a series of tense spacewalks earlier this year. One image, of Planetary Nebula NGC 6302, shows what our universe will look like four billion years from now.

You may remember that work on the Hubble was almost scuttled when astronauts had a protracted struggle with a stuck bolt. It was the kind of thing that you or I might work on for an hour on a Saturday, give up, and go watch a football game. 

In this case, one little bolt stood in the way of activating the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which has now shown us what we might look like in 4 billion years.

In and Far

As I was running by the utility trucks and the police car, trying to think how this could possibly have happened, I pictured the guy passing me on the highway earlier this week, going about 95 miles per hour—texting. 

And the woman who didn’t see the green light (and got a chorus of honks) because she was applying her make-up in the rear view mirror. 

And then there was the person watching a movie on a laptop as she rolled through the tolls on the Maine Turnpike.

In a world of endless incoming and frantic multitasking, it's good to remember the upright telephone poles and freed bolts that keep our fragile world from falling apart.