The old adage “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy” or the better known Mike Tyson corollary “No plan survives past the first punch” are a bit off the mark. They tend to give the impression that operating as an ad hoc cowboy, adapting and adjusting everything as we go, is the way of the elite; that’s a little misleading. Another popular expression “Those that fail to plan, plan to fail” is actually more accurate. For everything we do on the SEAL Teams, there is a plan, a brief, and rehearsals before executing the evolution or mission.
Developing such plans is crucial to reducing anxiety and fear. In combat, if you lose focus and default to daydreaming and awfulizing, you may wind up in a state of extreme debilitating fear. Planning and preparation decrease fear by keeping you in the present rather than awfulizing about the future. Planning is actually taking action, and taking action gives you confidence in your success and addresses the fearful unknowns. SEALs come up with detailed plans so that on a mission, when we are cold, wet, tired, scared, and something goes wrong, we know what to do. When the pressure is highest and our executive brains are shut down, we don’t rely on innovation—we fall back on our plan.
Our mission planning, operations planning, and decision-making planning processes could fill many books. I will condense it down to the processes we use that will best fit the needs in your personal and professional lives.
The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.
—JOHN F. KENNEDY
We have three main elements that come into play for every mission, every operation, everything we do; I call it the fight triangle. The triangle consists of surprise, speed, and violence of action. Whether you are assaulting a target or planning a project, these three elements, taken together, are essential to success. In the SEAL world, if we lose one of these elements during a mission, the danger increases and our probability of success reduces.
It’s not hard to understand that the best time to attack is when the enemy doesn’t expect it; you catch them by surprise before they can prepare or react. Some of the best missions I’ve led were ones in which the enemy had no idea we were coming. Often, we would catch them asleep; sometimes they didn’t wake up until we were standing over them in their beds. The element of surprise is about taking the initiative and going on the offensive.
In BUD/S there is a concept I call the “leadership effect.” Although the students are in the best shape of their lives, the instructors can beat them badly at most events just by taking the initiative.
Here’s what I mean. During the rucksack marches, on which we carried 45-pound packs for 12 miles, mostly at a run, I used to crush the students, even though they were in their prime. They had to stay within a few feet behind me and could neither pass me nor fall behind. If they did, they would find themselves in a remediation session. I controlled the pace, and they had to forfeit their control to me. The group produced a “slinky effect”: when I sped up without warning, the group spread out. They had no idea how much fuel I had in my tank or how long I could maintain the speed. They just had to endure in the unknown, which took away their ability to build a strategy. The back of the slinky had it worse because the adjustments were more pronounced.
Owning the element of surprise—the initiative—gave me “superhuman” strength versus the students who had no control over the situation. Taking the initiative gives you control, puts you on the offensive, and puts everyone else on the defensive. They must respond to you, not the other way around. In any organization, especially one characterized by a lack of communication, the further away from the decisions you are, the more at the back of the slinky you are. You feel less con-trol, more jerked around, and less able to plan. I think most of us can relate to how decisions at the top jerk people at the bottom around. Whenever you can, take the initiative!
While assaulting a target it’s crucial to move with speed so that the opponent doesn’t have time to regroup and adjust. In the corporate world, time is not your friend either. The imperative for change can be crushing. If something is critical or essential, it’s important now!
Speed is important, and it has led, surprisingly, to one of the more important decisions I make at the beginning of certain missions: what size pack do I take? If I take too big a pack, I will fill it up, and it will slow me down. If I take too small a pack, I’ll carry less and travel faster, but the saying “Go light; freeze at night” rattles through my head. This phrase, and others like it, helps us to prioritize correctly and take only what’s essential for the mission.
It’s easy to fill our professional and personal lives with things that aren’t important, but if we want to create a sense of urgency to go faster and build momentum, we must take less time to do what needs to be done. Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” With this in mind, you can force yourself to create speed and momentum by restricting the time allowed to complete a task. This sense of urgency is contagious and creates followers around you.
When the use of force becomes necessary, it’s best to give it everything you have to overwhelm the enemy, so they have no opportunity to maneuver, adjust, or even figure out what’s going on. This momentum in any attack is priceless; it can and will decide the outcome. Bold and overwhelming action is critical.
If you have watched a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight, you’ll notice that it’s very different from conventional boxing. In boxing, if you knock down your opponent, you must wait 10 seconds to resume the attack, giving the opponent time to recover and regroup. In MMA if a fighter is knocked down, the other fighter jumps on his downed opponent immediately, overwhelming him with punches and violence of action. It’s not uncommon for the underdog to win an MMA fight because, with the use of violence of action, the “better” fighter never gets an opportunity to regroup and adjust.
In work and life, attack a project with full force. Immerse yourself, commit, obsess—and do! Momentum is difficult to create, but when you gain it, you must maintain it. Like a flywheel, once it gets moving, it’s hard to stop. Planning, discussing, and everything else we do to prepare are great, but a bias for action and violence of action, where appropriate, are necessary for success.
Our time, attention, and efforts are finite. We only have 24 hours in a day, so to achieve our goals and potential in life, we must prioritize. If we don’t, it will be done for us by default. To make prioritization simple, I use three categories: “transformational,” “transactional,” and “F*** that!”
Transformational priorities are items that have a strategic impact on our success, accomplish the mission we seek to achieve, or transform our lives. In keeping with the Pareto principle of 80/20, we should spend 80 percent of our time doing these transformational activities.
I have a simple daily habit: at the end of the day I write down five things that I will do the following day, no matter what comes up. Unless something major happens—an emergency for instance—I will do those five things. The act of writing down a task or a goal has been proven over many studies to increase the likelihood of us accomplishing it. Some studies show that we are twice as likely to achieve what we write down. I always put little boxes beside the items on my to-do list so that when I’m done with that task, I check it off and get a DOSE. I love seeing those boxes checked off!
Transform in the morning; transact at night.
Transactional items, such as filing documents to tidy up the office or cleaning the house, need to be done but don’t transform our lives. These things matter, but our primary mission and goals in life will move forward without them. My goal is to spend only 20 percent of my time on these items. Usually I do transactional tasks only after I’ve completed some transformational priorities.
For example, I get up early and use that precious time to write because it is when my brain is working at its best. After my mind is tired, I go work out. Then I go through my transactional list and do at least one thing that doesn’t require much brainpower but needs doing. At work, it’s easy to find ourselves swamped with transactional items: answering emails, having meetings, browsing the internet, and more. It’s easy to allow our time and attention to be stolen or dictated to us by someone or something else. It takes deliberate and offensive action to maintain control of our time, so make it a priority to do the tasks that will transform you and get you where you want to go.
It takes deliberate and offensive action to maintain control of our time.
In Chapter 1 I wrote about creating a “f***-it” list—a list of things you would do in life if it weren’t for fear. Well, now it’s time to create a “f***-that” list—a list of items that you will not prioritize, things that you don’t care at all about but that you still may end up doing! If you’re like me, then you know how easy it is to kill or waste time and not even know where it went. We do things that have no significant and positive impact on the outcome. Examples include going on social media, checking your phone, web surfing, unstructured daydreaming (worrying and awfulizing), watching TV, playing video games, texting relentlessly, picking fights with the devil, and spending time with negative people. I’m sure you can make a very comprehensive list. The key is to make that list, and literally, look at every item on that list and say, “F*** that!”
Knowing what to cut out will help you understand what’s important. Furthermore, just by writing these lists, you will learn how you spend your time. Stop doing the worthless things that bring no value to your life, and you will find more time for the tasks that will improve your success.
When you take a moment to analyze what you do day in, day out, pay attention to how much of your time is not invested in critical transformation, and is either spent on transactional or “f*** that” items. The next step is to take each of your three lists and rank each item on it, from number one to the last. We know that if everything is important, then nothing is important, so as unpleasant as it is to have to put things at the bottom, it’s important to show yourself what is and is not important. Remember, our time and attention are finite, so we must be intentional about how we spend them.
Our time and attention are finite, so we must be intentional about how we spend them.
Like the corporate world, the SEAL world runs on acronyms; it seems like we have an acronym, catchphrase, or saying for everything. Planning is no different. What follows is my own personal five-point SEALS (specific, evaluable, actionable and attainable, leverageable, and scary) model for creating an actionable plan.
Earlier in the book, I talked about how critical it is to understand the situation and to know where you are, so you can identify and get where you want to go. If I’m lost in the woods and don’t know where I am, I will have a harder time getting to where I want to go. It’s often hard to be honest with ourselves; it’s much easier to ignore the big elephant in our lives. We must learn to be brutally honest with ourselves without judgment. For example, if I want to lose a certain amount of body fat, I have to be honest about my starting point: my current body fat percentage, what foods I eat, how much I consume, how much I exercise, and the condition of my environment.
For every mission or goal, we have to answer the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) to be specific. It’s pretty straightforward, except sometimes we forget the power of our “why.” “Why” is a significant motivator, so this question should be answered to understand the root of the task, the reason that will drive us over time when motivation is sparse.
What gets measured gets managed.
If we can’t measure something, how can we know we are progressing toward the goal, and how do we know when we get there? Some goals are simple: I want to lose 12 pounds in six months to fit into the dress uniform that I will wear to my best friend’s wedding. I can measure this: every week or month, I can get on my scale and see what progress, if any, I’ve made. If I haven’t made progress, I can adjust my habits to get on track. I know if I lose two pounds a month for six months, I’ll make my goal.
Some goals appear not to be measurable. For example, how do we measure happiness? We can do this by breaking it down into more easily measured goals. We know what make us happier: relationships, achieving goals, nature, exercise, nutrition, among other things. These can be measured. We know that spending time with a loved one makes us happy, so we can measure the amount of time we spend doing this and the number of people we do it with. We know that if we get a certain amount of exercise per day, then it makes us happy. When you decide to set a “soft” or abstract goal, make it as tangible as possible so that you can measure it and see progress. Progress is a fundamental ingredient to being happy. It gives us a DOSE!
What can be measured can be understood, what can be understood can be altered.
—KATHERINE NEVILLE, THE EIGHT
For every mission, we create an actionable plan. We start by reverse-engineering the mission, beginning with the actions at the objective, or the “X,” and work our way backward to get there, going from X to A. Often, our missions are very complex, requiring us to coordinate with submarines, aircraft, indigenous forces, and other logistically challenging platforms. When planning we also have to answer the twin questions, “Is it attainable?” and “Are we prepared to accomplish the mission?”
We must be careful here. Often, we underestimate or overestimate our own abilities. The Pygmalion effect holds that the expectations others have of us influence our performance, so we need to go on the offensive and set high performance standards for ourselves. That in turn will influence others’ expectations of us, and ultimately affect our beliefs toward ourselves. It’s a positive circle. It’s very similar to the anchoring effect that happens in negotiations in which the start price often dictates the end price because it anchors the initial price as a reference point. For instance, a car salesperson may give an initial price of $20,000 for a vehicle, and the final price you haggle her down to might be $17,000. You may feel good, but in reality, you could have gotten the car for $15,000 had you started at $17,000 and not set the anchor at $20,000. Expectations are the same way, so when I ask if something is attainable, don’t shortchange yourself. Ask others who have high expectations of you, look around at other successes, and don’t let your fears set your limitations. But always be realistic. On many occasions SEALs have learned this lesson the hard way: we train like supermen only to find out that we are not supermen.
We often set goals thinking that we will accomplish them by ourselves, yet we are significantly more successful if we don’t do it alone. We need to find and add leverage to help us achieve the results we want. In Chapter 3, I discussed leveraging live ammunition and putting yourself as close to the “X” as you can to add brutal honesty to help accomplish your goals. And in Chapter 10, I talked about the importance of swim buddies. One powerful approach is to commit to achieving your goals to someone else in public. Seek out someone who has done what you want to do and who has your best interests at heart. Find what it is that has a positive effect on your behavior and implement it, such as planning trips to the gym with friends or eating a big meal before shopping for food, so that you are not hungry and buy too much junk food. If I want to get in shape and get healthy, my leverage might be thinking of the “why.” For instance, “I want to save my son’s daddy” is a compelling way to see my own personal health, and it triggers my love for my son and his well-being.
When I teach foster youth, I tell them that one of the most powerful leveraging tools they have in life is to ask for help. People love to help children, especially the underdogs, and love to pass on their wisdom.
When we start any new project or set a goal for ourselves, most of us don’t address the big elephant in our lives: fear. We usually don’t talk about or pay proper attention to what scares us most; we’re ashamed of it, among other things. Instead, we focus only on what motivates us, our “why.” It’s important to understand why you want to do something, but identifying and understanding your fears is also essential. If you don’t address the elephant in the room, fear will hang over your head, you will plan with a bad state of mind, and you will carry both the fear and the bad state of mind into the future.
During mission planning, SEALs spend an enormous amount of time addressing all the contingencies and “what-ifs,” so when things go wrong, we have an immediate and calculated response. We call these IADs (Immediate Action Drills). If you are patrolling toward a target and get shot at, you don’t just make it up as you go. You have an IAD that has been rehearsed over and over. Your reaction is coordinated to maximize your survivability rate, everyone knows what to do, and it works even when the gunfire is loud and you can’t hear anything.
The unknown is often fearsome, but planning gives you faith.
Our missions can be very complicated, but in general, they all follow a basic format of SMEAC (situation, mission, execution, administration and logistics, and command and control). Let’s focus on execution, which has five phases: insert, infiltration, actions at the objective, exfiltration, and extract. During each phase, we try to come up with at least three things that can go wrong, figure out how to mitigate against these, and have an IAD for each of them. I draw three columns, one each for contingencies (what we fear could go wrong), the mitigation, and the IAD (what to do if the fear comes true).
For the first column, imagine you are patrolling along a trail when out of nowhere shots ring out and you find yourself under fire. Now, this can happen during any phase of the mission, and it’s one of the worst possible scenarios. You are compromised, and now an enemy of unknown size is firing at you. In the second column, we figure out ways to mitigate this possibility: to patrol to our target, we might choose a path protected by bushes, a place nobody with any sense would go. This is one of our general practices when we move secretly toward an objective; we take the hard route to minimize the possibility of being found by the enemy.
In the third column is the IAD when this event does happen. Shots ring out, and everyone immediately hits the ground in their 360-degree predetermined field of fire. Quickly, the point man fires rapidly in the direction of the enemy, and once he figures out the situation, he yells out the command, “Center peel!” As the point man crawls backward, the next in line starts firing on both sides of the trail, and the entire platoon “zippers” to the rear and takes up a position behind the last man, waiting for the peel to get to them again, much like a wave moving in a stadium. This is done until the platoon gets to a place of cover, which offers a physical barrier. Then someone who finds the cover sets a “door” for everyone to go through, which breaks contact with the enemy and allows the doorman to get a head count. Once safe, the platoon goes silent.
For most of the worst scenarios, we have an IAD that we train and rehearse countless times, so if this happens, we don’t have to figure out what to do. There are infinite contingencies that we may encounter on a mission—goat herders, failed equipment, injury, change of mission—but we must be prepared. We come up with standard operating procedures so that we all are on the same sheet of music even if we have no communications and things turn really bad, which happens. With such advanced technology today, it’s hard to imagine not having communications, but it does happen because technology may fail you in a time of need, so we plan for that, too.
How might you use this contingency planning process in your professional life? Suppose you are giving a presentation to a potential client who would be a big get for your company. When you first receive the assignment, you are incredibly excited that your boss and organization are trusting you to deliver this critical presentation. It may even mean a promotion if you hit a home run! But once your excitement wears off, fear kicks in: fear that you’re not a good presenter, that you don’t know the information well, that you will lose your train of thought, that technology will fail you, that you will fail and embarrass yourself. Such a significant goal or potential change in our lives (a promotion may be on the line) is almost always scary, which probably means it’s what we should be doing.
The key is to create a plan. Think through and rehearse the plan. Make a list of potential contingencies and prepare a mitigation and IAD for each one. Rehearse the IADs, so that when Murphy’s law comes to pass, you will know exactly what to do on the spot. The more you can plan for, the higher your confidence, the less you have to worry about, and the greater your chance of success!
One of the most powerful drills we have that can be done for many situations is called the “hood drill.” We put someone in the center of a large open room with a hood or sack covering his head and upper body. The hood is attached to a ceiling rope or pulley system. An instructor yanks the cord, pulling off the hood, revealing a situation the SEAL must deal with. Sometimes he’s armed; sometimes not. It might be dark; it might be loud. There may be several people in the room, with or without weapons. Scenarios are never the same, so the person under the hood learns to react by going on the offensive. This drill teaches you to cut “freeze” times down and respond offensively in a systematic way that will increase your survivability rate, no matter what the scenario. This sort of drill might be extreme for your work or personal life, but it illustrates the concept: preparing your reactions to potential scenarios is an important part of planning that must happen before surprise, speed, and violence of action can carry the day.
You can do such “hood drills” in a business environment by setting up simulations to practice what you would do if a competitor lowered prices or changed course, if a supply chain failed, or if a new product hit the market. Do you think “hood drills” might have helped companies prepare for the consequences of the pandemic? I know it’s not quite the same as dealing with someone who might have a loaded weapon, but the idea still works. When you have predetermined responses planned and rehearsed, fear and uncertainty don’t rule the situation—you do.
What is important to you? Set your SEALS goals, prioritize and plan for them, and use the fight triangle to accomplish your missions. Prepare yourself for what may go wrong because it often will.
• Have a plan. When things go wrong and the pressure is at its greatest, don’t rely on innovation; fall back on the plan.
• The fight triangle consists of surprise, speed, and violence of action.
• Owning the element of surprise—the initiative—can give you superhuman strength against competitors with no control over the situation. Taking the initiative gives you control and puts you on the offensive.
• Use speed to create urgency, motivate others, and develop momentum. It turns others into followers.
• When attacking a project, immerse yourself, commit, obsess—and do! Planning, discussing, and preparing are great, but a bias for action and violence of action are necessary for success.
• Organize your to-dos into transformational, transactional, and “f***-that” priorities.
• Our time and attention are finite; be intentional about how you spend them.
• Planning mitigates fear, especially fear of the unknown.
• Goals should be specific, evaluable, actionable and attainable, leverageable, and scary.
• Contingency planning should identify likely contingencies, as well as the mitigation and an IAD (Immediate Action Drill) for each.