White House
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March 10, 2015 12:01 AM EDT
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We all have big decisions to make and deadlines to meet. And sometimes it can feel overwhelming.

This got me wondering: How do the most powerful people get things done?

When lives are on the line, literally trillions of dollars are at stake and the world is watching … how do people handle those situations? There have to be things we can learn from them.

So I called my friend James Waters.

James was deputy director of scheduling at the White House and served in government for 10 years. (I’ve interviewed him before about his experiences as a Navy SEAL platoon commander.)

James had some tremendous insights about how they do things at the White House that line up with a lot of what the formal research is telling us.

Now if you’re looking for Republicans-this, Democrats-that, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m not interested in partisan debate; this is about how people making very high-stakes decisions in a fast-paced environment get things accomplished, and what we can learn from them.

Let’s get to it.

Be Responsive

It ain’t like an episode of The West Wing.

Watching that show, you might think that five people get everything done. In reality, between the (actual) West Wing, the East Wing, the Cabinet and the Executive Office of the President, thousands of people work at the White House.

How do you make insanely big decisions with such a huge number of people involved? Everyone has to be responsive and engaged so that input can be given, approvals made and action accomplished.

We all know people who have 1,000 unread emails in their inbox or don’t pick up their phone. This doesn’t fly at the White House. Here’s James:

Maybe you’re saying, “I can’t respond to everything that fast!” Since you’re not at the White House, that’s O.K. But you do need to ask yourself what’s important and urgent? That’s what matters, and that gets your attention ASAP.

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

As technology visionary Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload; it’s filter failure.”

Your attention is limited and valuable. You need good filters. A good first step is to set up an email filter so priority emails (from your boss or key stakeholders) get attention immediately.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

(For more on what the most organized people do every day, click here.)

So you know what’s important, and you’re making sure that gets to you immediately. But how can you get these vital things done right and get them done quickly?

Don’t Overanalyze. Make a Decision.

The modern world provides us with tons of information. All that data often makes simple decisions easy. But it can also make complex decisions feel impossible. How can we wade through all this info? It’s paralyzing.

At the White House, decisions need to be made quickly because lives could be on the line. Paralysis isn’t an option. Here’s James:

And the research backs James up. When I spoke to Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz here’s what he had to say:

So what should we do when we need to decide quickly?

In my interview with Duke professor Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) he advised that you’re more likely to do the right thing if you take the “outside perspective” — in other words, if you ask yourself, “What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”:

(For more on what astronauts, samurai and Navy SEALs can teach you about critical decisionmaking, click here.)

So you have a shortcut for when decisions need to be made quickly. But not every decision is going to work out. Even with tons of data, we all make mistakes sometimes.

How differently do you think your workplace would handle challenges if every single decision they made were featured prominently on CNN and your bosses knew for a fact that if things weren’t going well, they would be fired in four years?

That level of accountability changes how you work. So how do you cope with that? You have to keep getting better.

Always Be Learning

At the White House and in your own life, making the same mistake more than once can be disastrous. You need a system that isn’t merely focused on getting things done but also on improving. Here’s James:

How do they do that? One way is through a strong belief in informal mentorship. If the old pros don’t teach the young bucks, the same mistakes are going to get made over and over with every new hire. Here’s James:

And when best-selling author Shane Snow dug through the research, he saw the same thing James did.

Turns out formal mentors don’t help. Why? Mentors need to care about you. Here’s Shane:

(More on how to find the best mentor for you here.)

How else did A-players at the White House create a culture of improvement?

The top people James worked with were always reading. They knew their areas inside and out, but they also knew about the other priorities of the Administration and anything related to work they’d be involved in.

Nobody showed up unprepared. Here’s James:

And what do you have to do to make sure you’re continuously improving? Best-selling author Dan Coyle told me that experts commit to the long term.

Asking someone “How long are you going to be doing this?” was the best predictor of how skilled that person would end up being. Here’s Dan:

Commit to the long haul. It even works for mice:

(For more on how to get better at getting better, click here.)

Be responsive all the time, make decisions and really strive to improve your processes? At this point you’re probably saying, “That’s a lot.” How do White House staffers find that level of motivation? It ain’t about the money.

Have Passion

If you don’t care, you won’t make it in a place like the White House. The hours are too long, the stakes too high and for the caliber of talent there, the pay is too low. That’s why you need to believe in what you’re doing. Here’s James:

Scott Barry Kaufman looked at the research and saw that passion really does make a big difference.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

Studies show the top career regret is being too focused on money. Wharton professor Adam Grant’s research shows we’re more motivated when we see how our work positively affects others.

James agrees:

And when we do things because of passion, not money, the quality is higher.

Via Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

(For more on how to love your job, click here.)

O.K., we’ve learned a lot. Let’s pull it all together into something you can use.

Sum Up

Here’s what James says you can learn from the White House:

  1. Be Responsive. Know what’s important, and make sure you’re on top of it.
  2. Don’t Overanalyze. Make a Decision. Information is great, but often we can’t wait for perfect answers. “A good decision now is better than a perfect decision in two days.”
  3. Always Be Learning. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. Keep reading and commit to the long term to become an expert.
  4. Have Passion. Focusing too much on money is the No. 1 career regret. When we care, our work is better and we’re more satisfied.

No, the fate of the world is not resting on your shoulders.

But only you can be the Commander in Chief of your life. Time to act like it.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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