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Reprinted from the February 19, 2014, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper
How To Rise Above The Chaos of Work
by Scott Morgan
If there’s one lesson Connie Whitman wants young professionals to learn, it’s this: all things are possible, but you have to know your schedule for getting things done.
Whitman, a business coach, speaker, and owner of Whitman Associates in Holmdel, sees young professionals drowning in their own chaos on a daily basis. Not because they’re lazy or unmotivated or unintelligent. They know they need to get organized, they know they need to get things done. They just don’t know how to get them done without their worlds piling up around them.
Whitman will speak on scheduling, work/life balance, and the importance of making plans as part of the Middlesex Chamber’s Young Professionals Leadership Summit on Friday, February 21, at 8:30 a.m. at the Heldrich in New Brunswick. She will join Sarah Cirelli of WithumSmith + Brown; Thomas Weatherall of Make-A-Wish New Jersey; Veronica Smith of Johnson & Johnson; Jennifer Smith of Growth Potential Consulting; Christopher Smith of TD Bank; Kathleen Cashman of Cashman Consulting; and author A.J. Borowsky. Cost: $60. Visit www.mcrcc.org.
At age 52, Whitman acknowledges that she is not a millennial. But as a longtime banking executive, entrepreneur, and mother of two teenage boys, she knows what she did to get her so far into a life she loves, personally and professionally.
Part of the issue young workers have is that the young often focus their ideas on living for right now. The only time 20-somethings look into the future as it regards their careers is to fear being stuck in some dead-end job past the age where they could get a new career launched.
Living for now is fine, Whitman says. In fact, she doesn’t want to know what things will be like in 20 years, she would rather enjoy what she has while she has it. But between now and then, stuff’s gotta get done. And the only way to get stuff done is to take a look at the near future and build a plan for it.
Zoom out, zoom in. Millennials, those 20-somethings in your office, are tied to handheld technology as if it were an IV drip. The technology is wondrous, sure. It brings information immediately, and it has taught young professionals how to find answers and solve problems for pretty much any process. But it has, Whitman says, robbed young professionals of their ability to look at the next few months and plan accordingly.
“You need to zoom out so you can see the big picture,” Whitman says. “Then you can zoom in again to see how to get things done.” Whitman often is the focus of jibes from younger workers because of her paper date planner calendar. But this planner, she says, gives her the ability to take what she knows she needs to get done and schedule her life accordingly, month-by-month, week-by-week, day-by-day.
For example, Whitman started taking yoga last year. She knows when the classes are and can plan her time around this fixed, recurring engagement. And if that sounds eye-rollingly obvious, that’s her point — making your life work more easily, getting things done, meeting your responsibilities, and still having a life takes a little planning, but it’s hardly the mystical answer many people (young or not) expect. Those frustrated sighs about where your time is going? Or about why it seems you can never catch up? Those are because you haven’t stopped think about what you’re doing.
“I schedule everything,” she says. “I’m a control freak. But you have to schedule it because if you don’t, you’ll never re-schedule it. It’ll just disappear. People have to think before they do, but they do before they think. That’s dangerous.”
Someone else’s time. Prisoners have a saying — never do anyone else’s time. In the business world, Whitman finds too many professionals ignoring that rule. It starts with E-mail and it typically goes like this: You check E-mail first, then answer everyone. Then answer their answers. Then eventually you get going on your own work, only to realize that what could and should have been done by 10 is still not done at 2:30.
But time is a lot like a budget. People don’t realize why there’s always less than there should be. “Can you put more hours in your time account?” Whitman asks. “I know I can’t.” But like a budget of X dollars for rent and Y dollars for shopping, people are often only aware of certain major commitments. They know they have to be at work at nine and they know they have to be at the station by 5:17 to catch the train home.
But they don’t realize that these little time suckers like checking E-mail every 10 minutes or stopping work to answer a co-worker’s question eat up time the way running back to the store for a couple more things or going out with a few friends two or three times a week eats away at your budget. “When you do that, you’re working on someone else’s schedule, not yours,” Whitman says.
Routine, repetition, and training others. In addition to scheduling, the way to a more harmonious work/life balance is based in creating a certain routine. Other people, after all, take your time because you let them. You need to make sure people know not to bother you while you’re working on something important, Whitman says.
“I use my stapler,” she says. “When the stapler’s on top of my cubicle, I’m working. If it’s really urgent, you can come get me, but otherwise, I’m working.”
The secret to that kind of thing working is twofold, Whitman says. First, you have to tell people what your “I’m working, leave me alone” signal is. Second, you have to give it time to work. “People say to me ‘I tried, the stapler thing doesn’t work.’ But they only tried it one or two times. You need to be consistent. It takes 30 to 35 days to build a habit.”
Habit is an important word for Whitman. It is the foundation of getting things done. If you’re in the habit of scheduling and sticking to your plans and deadlines, you’ll take the actions — another of her favorite words — that will get you where you need to go. Without consistent behaviors and actions, you will get a lot of exasperated sighs about where the time is going.
The How. Most people, young professionals included, know they need to get organized in order to get better control of their lives, from work to family to exercise. But all they typically hear is “You need to get organized,” not any concrete ideas for how to do it.
Whitman once counseled a young lady whose desk was legendary for its mess. After a brief talk, the woman admitted she needed to get organized and said she would get on it. Whitman said: “Tell me how you’re going to get organized.” And the woman stared helplessly.
Whitman brought her a set of baskets to organize her papers and showed her how to organize her drawers. She also taught her the simple art of not procrastinating. Look at the to-do list, realize what can be done now and what needs to get done sooner, and do it. Then organize into little compartments — baskets, if you will — and keep things filed properly. Again, a painfully simple, obvious solution. But not one that people teach often enough.
Whitman was ground in the importance of scheduled order from an early age. At age 20, her father, a career construction worker, immigrated from Italy and devoted his time to learning English at night school and bringing his sisters and parents to the United States. “Can you imagine a 20-year-old doing that?” Whitman asks. “He never really had a childhood.”
But the lessons of needing to work for what you want and following a path to get there sunk in. Whitman, who grew up in Newark, earned her bachelor’s in business administration from Rutgers and her MBA from Monmouth, which served her well as a senior banking vice president for 13 years in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, like so many in corporate America, Whitman was downsized after a merger.
“I told my husband to give me six months,” she says. “I had always wanted to get into motivational speaking, public speaking, and such. I said if I didn’t get somewhere in six months, I’ll go get a job.” That was 13 years ago, “and I’ve never looked back.”
Then again, why would she? Her entire approach to success is based on balancing the now with an eye toward the future. “Young people need to plan for the future,” she says. “And I’m not preachy, this isn’t about preaching. It’s about the tactics and logistics that build success.”