Forget ‘Divide and Conquer’, it’s more Like ‘Subtract and Divide’.

Burrows Richard Wright Headshot

by Richard Wright

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 11:50


You may have heard of ‘Divide and Conquer’ as an approach to getting the job done – a way to separate the individual elements, and so make a larger challenge more manageable.

I take a different approach. One that probably hasn’t been encouraged by our early days in school! So, take a trip back in time (for me that’s a long way back!) and remember your very early school days and how you were taught maths.

First you were taught to Add simple numbers. Only once you were comfortable with this were you then allowed to move on to Subtraction. Similarly, with Multiplication: you first learnt your times tables by reciting them over and over until you knew them, before you were then taught how to Divide. Because of this in-built, pre-programmed approach, we always look to Add and Multiply before we ever think to Divide and Subtract.

OK, so at this point you are about to stop reading as you wonder “what the hell is he going on about?” I’m talking about time management and how, as a Manager, you choose to handle a growing to-do list. My point is that our tendency can often be to take more things upon ourselves. We fear subtracting anything from our to-do list, thinking instead that it is easier/quicker/less hassle to just do things ourselves.

So how do you go about subtracting them? The 101 in time management – rank all your tasks by urgency and importance: decide which are the urgent actions that must be done now, and which are important in helping to move your business towards its goals. I read a great description of this in Damian Hughes’ Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Culture, in which the author defines such problems by using the following four classifications:


Quote image


Firefighting – Things happen and you must react, drop everything, and sort them out. Urgent and Important.

Fire prevention – The more time you spend on these tasks the less Firefighting you do. Important.

False alarms – These tasks may seem like Firefighting because of the level of noise and alarm that surrounds them. But often the alarm is raised by someone with different priorities to the business, and although these tasks may seem urgent, they may only be so to them. The problem is that you only get to realise this once you’ve dealt with the task! These are the real time wasters that you have to stop from happening.

Fire escapes – This is your procrastination, where you try to escape from a task that you dislike and which you see as neither Urgent or Important. Be careful though because they may well be. If they are, just bite the bullet and get on and do them. If they are not, Subtract or Divide!

Come on, you must have by now worked out that Divide is my word for Delegate. Spread the load: downwards, sideways and, if you are in strong functioning team, sometimes upwards.

I find that applying these definitions to my to-do list really helps me identify which are the tasks I can drop.

One of the greatest skills of a business professional in any industry is the art of prioritising. There is a Buddhist saying – If you want to know your past, look at your present circumstance, if you want to know your future, look at your present actions.

So if you only make one New Year’s resolution, make it to Subtract more than you Add and Divide more than you Multiply!

Richard Wright

Managing Director