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People have looked to the military for lessons in productivity for a long time. When the stakes are life or death, the necessity for efficacy is as high as it can be. It’s safe to assume that by now, the militaries of the world have figured out what works and what doesn’t. As such, uniform clothing has been implemented in nearly every conceivable institution, and many of the internet’s productivity gurus tout the importance of making your bed every morning. One lesson that has been wildly underemphasized, however, lies in the structural chain of command itself that is native to all militaries. I’ve found that an easy way to think about this lesson is through the metaphor “the soldier vs. the general.”
In my early days of being an entrepreneur, I loved to tell people “I’m my own boss.” I thought it was just a clever way of saying that I didn’t have a boss. It turns out that I have indeed always had a boss, just not a good one. To be an entrepreneur is not simply to work without a boss, it is to function as both the employee and the boss. This is a distinction that I failed to fully grasp for years; I was a bad employee but a worse boss. I became much more productive and disciplined in my work life when I started thinking about my role in terms of military positions.
Soldiers follow orders, or people die. There is much more mutual discourse within a conventional employment relationship than within the military. When I was an employee, I could argue with my boss, ask them to assist me with a given task and even sometimes convince them to change directives entirely. Soldiers cannot do this. The power hierarchy within the military is absolute and distinctly segmented. Soldiers do not strategize, because they are too busy taking action on the orders that have been given to them, and action is what wins battles.
Generals are not the boots on the ground that get tangible results but they are indeed the reason why soldiers are so effective. The purpose of a general is to do all of the critical thinking for soldiers so that the soldiers can focus on action. Generals know that the time spent strategizing is time that cannot be spent executing, and vice versa, thus it is the duty of a general to relieve soldiers of the burden of strategizing. On the battlefield, latency and ambiguity cost lives. If a general fails to deliver well-thought-out orders, the lives of soldiers are wasted.
The biggest productivity hack that I learned from the military is that the roles of soldiers and generals (action and strategy) have always been very clearly segmented from one another. As an entrepreneur, I am often an army of one. Entrepreneurs don’t always have teams of people to help with completing tasks, which means I must wear multiple hats, so to speak. I realized that at any given time during my work day, I function as either a soldier, a general or some murky combination of the two. It turns out that it is very easy to unknowingly start blending these two roles. Failing to definitively segment them was the biggest inhibitor to my productivity as a young entrepreneur.
Every time I started to reevaluate my plans while still in the midst of executing said plans, I failed to finish things promptly. Trying to take action while simultaneously trying to strategize is counterproductive, and it yields friction and latency. The most productive entrepreneurs are those who have clear boundaries set between the two roles. What this translates to in practice is having firm time blocks in place for each role. This is not to say that the secret to enhancing my productivity was simply to make a schedule (though that was definitely a prerequisite). It was more than that. The secret was to completely sever all executive decision-making from the portion of myself that was responsible for completing a given task. This is to say, the secret was actually to minimize the total amount of time that I was allowed to think.
I realized that if I could reduce the time spent thinking, I effectively created more time for action. What this primarily meant is that I needed to quit switching from the soldier to the general sporadically in the middle of the day; latency was killing me. I determined that routines and habitual schedules were key. Furthermore, I realized that as a soldier, I needed to start obeying the orders of the general in totality, without exception; if I started something I needed to finish it, without question.
I did this by only allowing myself to function as the general for one hour per day right before bed. During this hour I would map out all of the orders for myself the following day, along with priorities so that I knew exactly which task to switch to after I completed one. I started laying out my outfits for the next day and planned my meals. The goal was to eliminate any uncertainty; I needed to always know what was to come next.
The moment I started segmenting my responsibilities as definitively as military positions was the moment my whole career changed. I began achieving in a day what used to take almost a week. Things that felt difficult became the new standard. If ever I felt unproductive, I would first identify whether the soldier or the general was to blame, and that helped me resolve issues much faster than usual. The militaries of the world have shown us that the secret to being effective isn’t to be a one-man army, it’s to know your role.