Jocko Willink On Prioritizing and Executing Tasks

Jocko Willink is a former navy seals commander. Willink was the commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi. Jocko along with Leif Babin wrote a book called Extreme Ownership, which is about the leadership principles the two men learned during their service and how they found these principles to be universal and adaptable to everyday life.

In one instance, Jocko and his team found themselves in an awful position. Exposed on a wide open rooftop with no cover, completely surrounded by higher, tactically superior positioned enemy in the heart of the enemy controlled area. The enemy were free, they were moving and they knew where the SEAL unit was. On top of all of this, there were two matters where time was of utmost importance. One was the explosive charge that would set off the IED blast and the other was an injured SEAL member who needed urgent care but could not be reached at the moment.

The pressure, the stress, the flood of incoming thoughts, all of which can break an incompetent leader but a competent one can overcome it. Jocko followed one of his principles of leadership: Prioritize and Execute.

Even the greatest of battlefield leaders could not handle an array of challenges simultaneously without being overwhelmed. That risked failing at them all. I had to remain calm, step back from my immediate emotional reaction, and determine the greatest priority for the team. Then, rapidly direct the team to attack that priority. Once the wheels were in motion and the full resources of the team were engaged in that highest priority effort, I could then determine the next priority, focus the team’s effort there, and then move on to the next priority. I could not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I had to relax, look around, and make a call. That was what Prioritize and Execute was all about.

The highest priority for the SEAL team was security, to defend themselves. After that came, getting off the rooftop and getting to the injured SEAL. The third priority was a head count to make sure everyone was out of the building. One after the other the tasks were completed. Once focused they could accomplish the task due to the expertise and training of the SEAL members.

Prioritize and Execute principle is verbalized simply by the SEALs:

Relax, look around, make a call.

Another important factor to using this principle is understanding what might disrupt your plan.

A particularly effective means to help Prioritize and Execute under pressure is to stay at least a step or two ahead of real-time problems. Through careful contingency planning, a leader can anticipate likely challenges that could arise during execution and map out an effective response to those challenges before they happen.

I found this similar to a stoic principle of preparing for the worst. That whatever you hope or plan for, the complete opposite can happen and it might happen so one needs to understand this concept, plan for it and accept it so, in the instance it does happen, you can react without irrational emotions.

Prioritize and Execute principle really stuck with me after reading the book. Not because I find myself in a war like situations being shot at while being in a vulnerable situation. But rather like everyone, I have a life, I have problems that arise at random, some that don’t go away, other issues that come and go. All of these disrupt the flow of progress, productivity towards my goals. Things I wish to do with my writing, things I need to do with my studying, the goals I have for my health and relationships. The pressure or stresses of these are of course not comparable to what the SEAL team had to deal with but the principle they used is the same principle anyone can use in order to improve their own situation.

Depending on the times, one has to put certain tasks in front of others. You have to choose what is the most important thing to do right now. You might have to sacrifice time from other tasks you wish to do in order to handle your priority. The main message I took away from Jocko’s situation was that one cannot focus on multiple tasks and expect to excel at them all. You have to focus on one thing, execute your plan towards that one thing and then turn all your focus on the next task. In that way, you can expect the most to be accomplished.

Focus is what gets the job done but in order to focus you have to remain calm. So, if you ever find yourself overwhelmed whether it is being your life is in danger or if work/relationship pressure building up, just remember to relax, look around, make a call.