When I first became an Air Force officer I didn’t quite know what tools I should use in order to be a productive and effective officer.
I learned that I need five tools in order to become a more productive leader. Those five tools were: a pen, a notebook, a calendar, a task manager, and a reading plan.
Many of you will receive your commission in the next few weeks and you might be anxious, nervous, and/or excited about starting this awesome journey. You might be feeling overwhelmed and wondering how you’re going to fit into your new units and how you’re going to apply the things you learned during your training.
Let me tell you something you may have already heard. That is totally normal. I felt the same way and I had already been in the Air Force for 12.5 years! Let’s take a more in-depth look at these tools and how you can use them to help you as you learn the ropes.
Tool #1: A pen
I served as a Security Forces member when I was enlisted and was told that a “good cop always has a notebook on them.” When I became an NCO, I was told a “good NCO always has a pen on them.” I was still in Security Forces so I started carrying two pens just to be safe!
Recommendation: Pilot G2 Premium Refillable & Retractable Rolling Ball Gel Pens, Fine Point, Black Ink, 4-Pack
I’ve been using these forever. They are comfortable in the hand and offer a smooth, consistent writing experience. One thing to note for my left-handed folks, you may want to avoid these as my left-handed friends have had issues with the gel ink smudging. Also, get them in the 07 size. It’s the goldilocks of pen tip sizes: not too big, not too small.
Tool #2: A notebook
As I mentioned above, during my NCO days, they always harped on carrying a pen. They did not; however, mention carrying a notebook; which I always thought was weird. I started carrying a notebook on my own and they’ve proven to be useful.
As David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done says “The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Having somewhere to capture your ideas, notes, and anything else you need to remember is something anyone can benefit from, not just officers. I recommend dotted pages because the dots make it easy to create tables, lines, sentences, and doodles if the staff meeting is running long!
Recommendation: Field Notes Pitch Black Notebook – 3-Pack – Small Size (3.5″ x 5.5″) – Dot-Graph Paper
Field Notes has a bunch of different styles to choose from. You can get these in a 3-pack and they offer a simple, slim tool that fits great in the back pocket, or any of the pockets really, of ABUs and OCPs.
Recommendation: Moleskine Classic Notebook, Soft Cover, Pocket (3.5″ x 5.5″) Dotted, Black, 192 Pages
The Moleskine option is a bit more pricey but they are more durable and offer more pages and page quality. They fit in a back pocket but are quite bulky. I used these for a while but then switched to the Field Notes because I wanted to save my back from future pain.
Tool #3: Calendar
A calendar is used to keep track of your events. You will have meetings, briefings, meetings, appointments, meetings, stand-ups, meetings, roll-calls, and hail and farewells to attend. You’ll also have meetings to go to as well. You need a calendar to keep track of the places you need to be and when you need to be in said places.
Recommendation: Google Calendar
I recommend Google Calendar over MS Outlook calendar for one reason: you can access Google calendar from anywhere. I can access Google Calendar through a Chrome browser tab at work on the AFNet, on a Chrome browser at home, my iPhone, and my iPad. I can ONLY access my MS Outlook calendar through work.
It is kind of a pain coordinating events through MS Outlook, but I’ve made it a habit to always send an invite to my Google Calendar as well. Find a workflow that works for you and you will always know where you have to be and when.
Tool #4: Task Management System
Knowing what you need to get done is important if you want to learn, lead, and grow. A task management system is essential for keeping track of those last-minute taskers and community involvement projects.
I recommend Todoist since, like Google Calendar, I can access it anywhere. I can access it through a browser on the AFNET and at home, my iPhone, and my iPad. Todoist also integrates nicely with Google Calendar.
For my friends stuck in a vault without access to devices, I recommended above I think you should check out The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll. I actually use it in conjunction with Todoist since I don’t like to look at my phone during meetings. As a bonus, a Bullet journal can act as a calendar system as well!
Tool #5: Reading Plan
Notice I said plan, and not list. Jeremy Anderberg of The Art of Manliness says this about reading plans:
“Rather than flitting about from random book to random book, you have a system — usually a list — for determining what you’ll read next. Whether that’s specific titles (all of Dickens’ works), or simply broader topics/genres (Civil War history), a reading plan guides your reading efforts and keeps you from stagnating or always choosing the path of least resistance (whatever is right in front of you, easiest, or most entertaining).
Having a reading plan is essential for officers. No matter where you are in your career you are going to have read something. As you gain experience you’ll add to your list. But again, you need to come up with a way to work through that list. You need to come up with a system that allows you to leverage the written material. You are reading.
Both the Chief of Staff and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force have reading lists you should check out, but the books below are a few I recommend specifically for newly commissioned Air Force officers.
Recommendation: Work Reading Plan
When I started working in a new section I would ask the SNCOs the one AFI, Memos, TTP, or Technical Order I should start with and then start building the plan from there.
Recommendation: Self-Development Book
Linchpin: Are You Indispensable by Seth Godin – The author is a celebrity in the marketing and business world. Seth’s book provides great advice on how you can become a linchpin in your organization and make an impact. The “butter bar” stigma is a thing and this book provided a mindset shift for me. It helped me realize anyone can make an impact, even if they are “just” a lieutenant. I read it as a junior Captain and wish I’d read it sooner.
Recommendation: Productivity Book
Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky – Being more mindful and intentional with your time is a skill you can carry over into every part of your life. I started the audiobook on one of my morning runs and kind of regretted it. The book is full of actionable advice, I kept slowing down to capture some thoughts into my phone’s notes app!
Recommendation: Fiction Book
The Hunters by James Salter- I read this while I was attending Squadron Officer School. From what I understand, it’s similar to another popular military fiction book (though based on the US Army), Once an Eagle. The Hunters is waaaaaaay shorter though. Once an Eagle clocks in at 1,312 pages!
What stood out to me was the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. I’ve worked with a few officers whose personality was similar to the latter. Here’s a tip (and kind of a spoiler): don’t be that guy.
There are other tools you can add to your productivity suite, but these are the ones I wish I would have started using right from the start.