How Should You Be Spending Your Time?


Some people in construction and heavy civil wear the number of hours they work like a badge of honor, and they expect their crews to do the same. Maybe your crews are putting in long hours, spending weeks away from home, or working seven days a week.

While they're doing that, what are you doing? You're slogging it out and working just as many hours as they are, if not more. That's just the reality. As leadership expert Jocko Willink puts it, "If you're in charge of a bunch of stuff, you're going to be working overtime." 

But keeping yourself—or your crews—busy isn’t the same thing as being productive. It’s critical to prioritize both your own work and that of everyone on your crew. When your work is clearly prioritized, it reduces the stress of leadership.

So how do you decide which tasks are most important for you? In other words, how exactly should you spend your time?

Focus on the big picture

Leaders and workers have different roles.

A worker's role is to put their part of the puzzle in place. They do their job, and it links up with what the next guy is doing and the next guy and on down the line.

The leader's job is to make sure that big picture comes together properly. Jocko sums it up as, “You want to be looking up and out.”

He offers an example from his days as a Navy SEAL commander: “If I am holding security down a hallway with my weapon, I can only do that for about three seconds before one of my guys comes up and says, ‘Hey, boss, I got this.’"

Why does Jocko's subordinate kick him off the security detail? 

"They don't want me holding security," he continues. "They want me figuring out where the enemy is, figuring out where friendly forces are, getting the intel report from the aircraft overhead. That's what they want me doing. And that's what I should be doing."

As a leader, Jocko's role was to see what was ahead, how it would affect his team, and how he could help them get where they needed to go. And it's the same for you. On a construction site, as in a SEAL mission, each person on the team has a specific job to do. The sum of those jobs is a finished project or a battle won.

Your job is to spend your time figuring out, Does everyone else have what they need to do their jobs? How can we get them what they need? Are things getting done on time and on budget? Is anything coming down the pipeline that could slow us down or cause problems?

You may realize two crews need an excavator this week. Or that a supply delay could throw a wrench in the schedule. Maybe high employee turnover is going to leave you shorthanded when you start a big project in three months. So how can you fix those things?

When you're looking at the big picture, you can answer that question.  

Don't try to pitch in with your workers

You're in charge for a reason: to lead. You can't dig your hands into every task, because you need to be able to step outside those individual tasks and assess potential gaps or changes of direction. 

On top of that, your crew members don't want you trying to do it all. They want you to do your job, not theirs.

Jocko says, “[If I'm a worker] I want you to actually be out there finding our next job or signing a new contract. That's what I want you doing. I don't want you down here pouring concrete with me. That's not what we need. I'm pouring concrete. You go find me more concrete to pour." 

If you're a foreman or field supervisor, it can be hard to step back from trying to be a hands-on leader. But what happens when you step out of your role as the foreman?

Suddenly you look up, and you're in a trench with a shovel while five guys stand around doing nothing. That's not good leadership. It's just a good way to fall off schedule. Your crew needs you looking at the project plans, ordering supplies, and lining up what work they need to do each day. That's how you succeed.

If you're in executive or office leadership, this will probably look different. Maybe you own the business and you're still trying to set your spend limits for every line in the budget, even though you have a CFO. Maybe you're still trying to interview every job candidate, even though your HR manager is perfectly capable of doing that. 

Think about all the things you have your hands in, and think about who else could be doing those things. (If the answer is "nobody," then it's time to find yourself a second-in-command.)


Jocko says, “I don't think it's surprising when the leadership of an organization is working really hard to try to build, grow, find the next place that we're going to go into.” As a leader, you should be working hard. You just need to make sure you're working hard at the right things.

A leader’s role is to look up and out:

  • What's going on in the company?
  • What's coming down the pipeline that could affect the work?
  • How can you keep the company moving forward?

That's where you should be spending your time. There are plenty of people to pour concrete, hire workers, and hold security while you lead the business.

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