When I was in the Army, we were taught a five-paragraph order method to inform troops of what they needed to know to get through a mission. Then, like most grunts proudly clutching their honorable discharges like a dog with a toy, I promptly forgot all about this model. Lately, though, as I have been thinking about productivity as part of work I have been doing with the Creative Alliance of Tacoma, I came across my old notes for the five-paragraph order. I realized that the five-paragraph order represented a great way to frame my day for getting things done.
This post will look at the value of how we frame our approach to the day, then break down what we need to address as part of a daily plan of attack, and finish with an example and a template that you can use to develop your own daily plan of attack based on the five-paragraph order.
What is the Five-Paragraph Order?
When military leaders examined how information was presented to soldiers, they often noted how a lack of structure led to soldiers failing to receive the necessary information about locations, equipment, or other such important factors. The five-paragraph order was designed as a way to ensure that commanders in the field would relay information in such a way that they would not neglect to cover these details. The five-paragraph order covers the following factors about a mission:
- administrative matters/logistics
On the face of things, these five terms don’t mean much to those not actively deployed in a combat zone. When placed into the context of a day in the life of a professional, the five-paragraph order still gives the necessary structure to make sure you don’t fail to reach your goals: i.e., your new mission. Using the five-paragraph model as an entry into your daily note-taking system, whether it be a bullet journal, Day One, or Evernote, and then having the journal entry out throughout your workday, ensures that you stay on target despite the many distractions that exist.
In combat, the situation refers to how a unit is being affected by the actions of enemy forces, by adjacent friendly forces, and by the geographic terrain. These are things that a unit has (generally) little control over.
For professionals, entrepreneurs, and the like, often, our appointments are somewhat beyond our control. They are obligations created by the terrain of business: commitments mandated by bosses, clients, networking groups, and the like that we cannot skip out on just because we don’t want to deal with them. They are our dental cleanings and our need to make sure we schedule a time to get groceries or go to the gym. Appointments are unmovable terrain features that break up our days.
In combat, the mission section of the five-paragraph order focused on the “who, what, when, where, and why” of a tactical plan. This was the part of the five-paragraph order where a leader was expected to brief their troops on what they needed to do in broad strokes, and why it was important to their cause. Thus, for Operation Neptune Spear, the mission for JSOC was to travel on May 1, 2015, to Abbottabad, Pakistan, breach bin Laden’s compound and kill or capture him.
Our day to day work missions are a little less significant than that.
When we think about what our everyday missions are, we are talking about our goals. Our goals – which should follow the SMART model of goal-planning – are our “who, what, when, where, and why” of what we want to accomplish.
For someone who is setting up a retail business, that SMART goal may be to publish 20 Instagram posts that depict their products no later than by the end of the month. For a freelance writer like me, the goal may be to present a document to a client no later than their due date.
No, this is not the “gallows pole” sort of execution about which Robert Plant sang. Execution is the step-by-step methodology of how a unit will engage the enemy to push toward the mission objective. In our every day, non-combat lives, our execution is the steps we will take to advance our progress toward completion of our goals. In this section of your daily plan of attack, you should be going through whatever task manager you use, whether it be on paper, in OmniFocus, Todoist, or Things 3, and identifying the priority tasks that you can accomplish today. You should then take those tasks and then enter them into your daily plan of attack so that they are at the top of mind.
When we think about logistics, we are thinking about what we need to overcome challenges to accomplishing our mission. To know this, we need to know how things could go wrong. As someone put it, no plan survives enemy contact. However, if our planning includes preparing for enemy contact, we can at least adapt and steer back towards the accomplishment of the mission. Consider what are the enemies to you accomplishing work.
The most apparent enemy is that you may find yourself lacking the energy or the concentration needed for particular tasks. There are some days when I am too spent to handle specific tasks. For example, after spending a few hours at the VA, I generally find that I am not in the right mindset to write for my website. However, I still have all that time. I can use that time productively if I know that my fatigue levels and distraction levels are at the point where only low-level tasks are likely to be accomplished. Thus, in the logistics section of my daily plan of attack, I rate my fatigue and distraction on a scale of one to ten. If I see that I am distractible, I am not going to try and write copy for my clients. I am going to focus on those administrative tasks I know I can accomplish so that, when I do have the right level of focus, I can produce a quality product for my clients.
“Command” is about putting it all together. It’s a timeline of what we have to deal with and when we plan on doing it. Command is about visualizing how you accomplish your daily plan of attack. This isn’t some new age approach to your work. This is running a mock battle drill, planning out your maneuvers on a sand table, or practicing CQB in your glass house.
For me, the best way to plan out my attack is to create a timeline of what I expect to devote to any particular task, and then I wall off intrusions from other things (phone calls, impromptu meetings and the like). I leave dedicated blocks of time to deal with emails and phone calls later so that I have the freedom to focus on what I am working on now.
Putting it all together
The easiest way to see how applying the five-paragraph order to productivity works is to see an example of it. The veteran five paragraph order should look like this:
- Priority Tasks
- Fatigue (1–10)
- Distractibility (1–10)
- Other Factors
Here’s an example from my life:
- 0800 – Biz to Biz Meeting
- 1000 – Initial Consultation with Client Lead
- 1900 – Team Rubicon Meeting
- Priority Tasks
- Set up Analytics assessment for client
- review notes for branding presentation
- clean bathroom (hey, it’s gotta get done)
- 0700 – Prep for B2B meeting
- 0730 – Travel to Mtg
- 0900 – travel to Client Lead’s office
- 1000 – mtg w Client Lead
- 1100–1200 – travel home (I work from a home office)
- 1200–1300 – lunch, rest, recharge
- 1300 – 1500 – work on blog post
- 1500 – 1600 – review email; respond to social media contacts
- 1600–1700 – draft social media marketing posts related to client fundraiser
- 1700–1830 – dinner, rest, recharge
- 1900–2030 – Team Rubicon Meeting
- 2100–2330 – Free Time
Planning things out with this level of detail – even going so far as to block off time in my calendar, so others see that I am busy – frees me to accomplish the goals I’ve set for my business and my volunteer work. Rigid structure, ironically, frees me from having to figure out what I need to do.