Smarter, Not Harder

“I grew up in New England. I think I was brought up with the Puritan ethic: That if you worked really hard in life, then good would come to you. The harder you work, the luckier you get. I’ve come to believe that it’s the smarter you work, the better.” —Ken Blanchard

As I creep ever closer to being “older,” I have determined that at this stage of my (professional) work life it is not about working harder, but rather, working smarter. I can proudly say that I no longer labor within a 65-hour workweek, and can categorically state that my work productivity, efficiencies, and income have not suffered one lick. In fact, things have never been better.

Over the years we have discussed with our producers in several of our monthly sales meetings and during our weekly Growth and Development calls, that working smarter, not harder, is all about the need to identify and prioritize the demands on our time, and to develop a schedule that reflects our business plan. Key takeaways revolved around use of the LTC One Card, developing the requisite self-discipline, and the use of an accountability coach/partner. There is no such thing as “time management.” We all receive the same finite allocation of 168 hours per week and can only magnify our productivity by employing these tools.

In preparing this article, I thought about how I have done these things in the various professional careers that I have enjoyed, to wit: Army officer, attorney-at-law, LTCI advocate, sales leader, and author. I thought about the behavior-focused strategies available for one to improve his/her self-management. The alpha and omega are goal planning.

This was an interesting exercise, and I ranked the strategies in the following manner: Self-set goals, positive self-talk and rehearsal, management of cues, self-observation and exploration, and finally self-reward and punishment. The most important strategy for me has always been setting and achieving goals. Because the brain is truly a goal-seeking mechanism that deals in absolutes, not distinguishing between positive and negative, I always have my long term and short term goal lists, and my daily to-do list with which to attain the former. I am equally convinced that the best goals truly are characterized by the acronym SMART, and this is what I attempt to always convey to my followers.

For many years, I always utilized my ride into the office to rehearse my day and to organize myself. The most concrete example of positive self-talk that I use to teach this principle involved my preparation for taking my Series 24 FINRA exam. There were two possible scenarios: The first, in which I failed the exam (like many of my peers had done) and had to take it again, or the second, where I passed the exam, and then attended our national agent conference down in Orlando, FL, and was literally toasted each night at dinner as news of my successful completion of the exam spread throughout the organization. The desire to achieve this positive outcome was enough to motivate me to continue to plod on through all the practice examinations and review sessions while continuing to travel extensively and to simultaneously build a new house and relocate my family. The actual celebration of my accomplishment exceeded my expectations and reinforced for me the power and importance of positive self-talk.

I am also always reassessing what I do and how I do it, to be better tomorrow than I am today. I like the use of positive and visual reminders and will often provide like items for my followers to in turn motivate and inspire them to achieve their own dreams and desires. While maintaining a large regional office in Cincinnati years ago, I had a well-equipped phone center in which several of my agents would spend regular time. As I determined what their individual hot buttons were, e.g., the sailboat, the Corvette, the lake cabin, I would post pictures of these things in their respective phone carrels so that they could stare at these hot button motivators and work hard to achieve their individual goals.

Finally, I am a big believer that (positive) self-reward is a better modus operandi for me than the utilization of punishment. One of my followers in Virginia liked to call me for authorization to indulge his sweet tooth at Dairy Queen whenever he was successful while with clients. The phone calls “authorizing” these indulgences were an opportunity to hear him critique himself, and for me to provide coaching and feedback. Over time, the calls were not necessary to drive his success, but we continued them as just a means of communicating and maintaining accountability. All of this notwithstanding, I have had to learn how to celebrate my achievements and to realize that the end of one race does not immediately have to mean the start of the next one. I even shocked my wife a few years ago when I opted to “celebrate” and bask in the glow of simply completing one of my CLF courses rather than immediately jumping into the next. There may just be something to this celebration thing!

I for one do not believe in coincidence. While some people chalk these incidents up to karma or fate, timing is everything. Just as I had thought that this article was complete as a first draft, I received a phone call from a peer who wanted to talk about this very topic! During our 45-minute conversation we compiled the top ten things that have worked for us over the years as we both endeavored to truly work smarter, not harder.

  1. Start the day with a regular routine. Review your list of things to do, assign priorities, and get to it. Clear email, and then get away from the computer. It can be the single largest distraction. For me it truly has been an “on your mark, get set, and go!”
  2. Maintain a daily list of things to be accomplished. Mine is titled ST2D—Silly Things To Do. I will often also assign priorities to the individual tasks using a simple assignment of A-B-C. I know that I always feel good when I clear the list! There is no greater feeling of satisfaction than when I can line through the task when it is complete. As an added incentive, I will boldface the task while it is in progress. If it is a glass ball that I can not afford to drop, I will highlight in yellow.
  3. Do not let others steal your time. Avoid email—it is the number one time stealer. As much as possible, I clear email twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon and avoid it the rest of the day. This especially applies to social media prompts such as Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms that invite you to see what you are missing. This is the dreaded FOMO—fear of missing out. Do not fall prey to it.
  4. Leave time at the end of the day to review what you did accomplish and what you need to rollover to the next day as a priority. What did you get accomplished? What was a miss? Establish the list for the next day before you leave your desk for the final time. I will often create a “Week at a Glance” of as many of the daily tasks, appointments, and must-dos that are on that week’s agenda.
  5. Have a plan and work the plan. One of my top president’s club producers utilized four colors to control his calendar and designated personal time, family time, phone time, appointment time, and he did not allow anyone to upset the color scheme.
  6. Good meetings start and end on time. There is no greater time drain than meetings. Do not have meetings for the sake of having a meeting, and when a meeting is necessary, start it on time and end it on time or even a few minutes early. No one will ever complain about getting a few minutes back for their own use.
  7. Take a break. Partially to give myself a break mentally, but also to preserve the health of my neck and back, get out of your seat at least hourly and spend five or ten minutes walking, stretching, and recharging. I have found that this simple modification has served to make me far more productive than any other change implemented in the past ten years.
  8. Avoid the trap of multitasking. For as much as I used to pride myself on being able to multitask, I have learned from many years of trial and error that focusing on one task at a time and clearing it from the list is the more efficient way to work.
  9. Fool Yourself. I know that my energy builds as I see more of the list disappear as the day goes on. As a result, I will often start the day with some easy, “C” level tasks, just so that I can line through them. It is a psychological game I have played with myself for years. For the same reason, “eat that frog” early. A task that you do not want to complete is going to loom larger and larger as the day goes on. Just address it head on and eat that frog before it gets too big to swallow.
  10. Avoid touching it twice. I have always prided myself on being efficient and using no more than a single in-box, out-box, and hold-box on my desk. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my predecessor as the Squadron Adjutant in one of my military assignments had no less than sixteen such boxes with inane labels as “hot monkeys,” “jumping monkeys,” and “screaming monkeys.” The first thing that happened after he left the office for the final time was that thirteen of the boxes disappeared. My goal has always been to take whatever piece of paper from the in-box, action it, and if possible, put it in the out-box. It would only go to the hold-box if it warranted further action in the future.

So, bottom line: Are you happy where you are at in your sales career? If you are…that is incredible… and congratulations. But if you are not, I offer you a simple challenge.

No one can change their business life overnight, but if someone will work hard each day to make it better, well it could be life changing. Six weeks to being a superstar!

Choose five things (from the list of ten) on the list above and commit to implementing them for one week. This is not a trick. Simply pick the five things that would be easiest for you to integrate into your daily process.

If you like the results of the first week, add one additional point for week two, one more for week three, an additional one for week four, another in week five, and the last one for week six. Again, you choose the point that you add each week.

I have never professed to have all the answers. I just know that as things continue to speed up, time is our most precious commodity. As an attorney it was my stock and trade. It is no different now as a sales leader or producer. It really is all about working smarter, not harder, and taking advantage of available technology, processes, and work practices, and using them all collectively as a force multiplier.

Don Levin, JD, MPA, CLF, CSA, LTCP, CLTC, is chairman of the board of the National Long Term Care Network and the managing general agent of PNW Insurance Services, a national brokerage which offers long term care insurance, short term recovery care, life insurance and annuities to the general public across the country. The long term care planning specialists and staff of PNWIS are proud to offer comprehensive individualized planning solutions to their clients while also working through a strategic alliance of financial planners, estate planning and elder law attorneys, CPAs, and other businesses and organizations.

Levin has been in the long term care industry since 1999, during which time he has been an award-winning agent, district manager, regional sales manager, marketing director, associate general agent, general agent, and divisional vice president. Levin is also a former practicing Attorney-at-Law, court-appointed arbitrator and is a retired U.S. Army officer.

In addition to his various law and life and health insurance licenses, and the above designations, Levin has also earned Green Belt certification through GE’s Six Sigma program, and is a graduate of GAMA International’s Essentials of Leadership and Management. He has also taught Managing Goal Achievement®, Integrity Selling® and The Way to Wealth® to hundreds of leaders and salespeople over the past fifteen years. He previously possessed FINRA Series 7, 24, and 66 licenses.

Levin earned his Juris Doctor from The John Marshall Law School, his MPA, from the University of Oklahoma, and his BA from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the Defense Strategy Course, U.S. Army War College.

He is a published author of nine books in a wide range of genre.

Levin may be reached via telephone at (509) 348-0206. Email: dlevin@pnwis.com.