When I was in high school, I spent a summer as a busboy at a busy seaside restaurant—not fascinating work and pretty lousy pay. But I learned one of the most important lessons of my work life from the owner of the restaurant.
We all hated cleaning up at the end of the night. All we wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible, including the owner. One night I was standing near him cleaning up and he pointed to one of the waiters who was clearing a table. “Look at that,” he said, disgusted. “No system. Every table is different. Sometimes he starts with a glass, sometimes a plate. It’s going to take him all night doing it like that.” He grabbed a tray and a cloth from me. “Let me show you how to do it.”
He went around the table in one smooth action and picked up all of the plates. Next, with both hands, he picked up all of the glasses using his individual fingers and set them on the tray. He made a quick pass to grab the silverware, and then he wiped the table down. In a matter of seconds, the table in front of us was cleared and cleaned.
“That’s how you do it,” he said. “You’ve got to have a system if you want to be fast.”
I realize I’m describing bussing tables, but that lesson affected the rest of my life. In less than a minute, I learned how a system can change everything. From then on, for every project or task in front of me, I have asked, “How can I turn this into a duplicable system that will help me get it done faster next time.”
If you’re going to do anything big in life you’re going to need a system—a way to get things done efficiently, consistently, and well.
Winners use systems—or algorithms, as I sometimes call them—as a tool to increase productivity and focus. Don’t be scared off by the word algorithms just because you’ve heard it from computer programmers. It’s simply a process or method for making things happen or reaching a solution.
The owner of that restaurant hadn’t started out as the owner of a restaurant. To become as successful as he had in his industry, he had found ways to be more productive and more focused on the most important things. With systems, you don’t have to think about the minutia as much.
What algorithms are you missing in your life?
Consider these questions:
- Are you getting to the end of each week feeling like you should have accomplished more?
- Are you making slow progress toward your most important goals?
- Do you find yourself struggling with the same problem or set of problems over and over?
The best career advice I can offer is to start developing your own algorithms for overcoming obstacles. Start with these three questions.
1. What’s the problem?
Don’t confuse problems with symptoms. What is the real problem you’re facing? If you aren’t getting enough accomplished each week, what’s the hangup? Are you letting your schedule be overwhelmed by unimportant commitments? Are you setting clear goals each day and week? Do you have the right support? Are essential but less critical tasks taking up too much of your time?
2. What’s your current solution?
Once you identify your problem area, write down your current process—if you have one. If you think you lack clear goals, how do you set them? Do you head into the week with a general idea of what it is you’re trying to accomplish or do you write your goals down? If you’re schedule is overfull, what is your approach to time management? Are you letting things just land on your calendar?
3. What one new thing can you try immediately?
Algorithms don’t appear like bolts out of the blue. They come gradually, with experience, trial and error, or advice from a mentor. Don’t try to change everything. You won’t know what’s working. Instead, look at what you’re doing now and change one thing. If you need greater focus in your week, you could try setting one clear goal that will help you make progress. Or you could try using the always-useful daily or weekly to-do list. If you aren’t using your time strategically, you could integrate some time-blocking—block out an hour or two each day to focus on the most important activities and nothing else. Start with the big things—like the plates on the table. What are the big pieces of the project or task that you can make more efficient now?
4. Did things improve?
Try it out for a reasonable period of time. Did it help? If it did, keep doing it. And then try another improvement. If it didn’t, try something else.
Winners keep looking until they find the answers and solutions they need to make fast progress. They use algorithms to capture the constant improvements they make, which allows them to do bigger things over time. If you want to achieve bigger things too, continue to fine tune your approach in every area and you’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish.
Do you want to learn the most fundamental algorithm of winners? Check out my new book, Serial Winner, to discover the Cycle of Winning and how it can help you succeed consistently.