ACTION THIS DAY! What we can all learn from Sir Winston Churchill’s work ethic
ACTION THIS DAY! Words: Dominic Kirby
At first glance Sir Winston Churchill’s work ethic looks unremarkable. Indeed, it looks positively enviable. Churchill’s daily routine during his ‘wilderness years’ in the 1930s, when he was a backbench MP out of ministerial office, was typically this:
7:30 – 8.00am: Wake up, have breakfast in bed, read the newspapers, work until late morning.
11am: Get up, bath and dress.
1pm: Lunch (always several courses, with alcohol).
3.30pm: Work for an hour and a half.
5pm – 6.30pm: Afternoon nap (Churchill said having this siesta meant he could get 30 hours out of 24).
7.30pm: Dinner (the highlight of his day, as much for the conversation as for the food).
11:30pm – 1am: Work for an hour and a half.
This unconventional daily routine may not look like the schedule of a restless workaholic, but this is a case of appearances being deceptive. Take Churchill’s seemingly leisurely mornings. Although Churchill spent most of the morning in bed, he spent it ‘working’ in bed (nice work if you can get it), writing or dictating thousands of words to his secretary.
If we measure Churchill’s work ethic by his literary outcome, it is indeed remarkable. From the end of the First World War in 1918 to the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, Churchill wrote no fewer than 14 books. This included a six-volume history of the First World War, a four-volume biography of his ancestor the 1st Duke of Marlborough and a curious counter-factual history of the American Civil War.
This was in addition to more than four hundred articles he wrote for various publications, as well as countless parliamentary and public speeches. Needless to say, when Churchill returned to government as First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, and later, when he became Prime Minister in May 1940, his daily routine was far more demanding.
ACTION THIS LESSON
One of the reoccurring criticisms of Churchill – and there are justifiably many – throughout his long political career was his propensity for micromanagement: he over-concerned himself with the minutiae of daily government.
This is particularly true of his time as Prime Minister during the Second World War. For example, Churchill frequently read and amended reports and orders written for other politicians and senior military officers. However, Churchill’s weakness in this respect was also a strength.
Reading these documents increased the depth and breadth of his knowledge and understanding of what was happening – and what needed to happen – in various theatres of war and across government. Just like reading the newspapers in bed in the 1930s, studying these reports greatly informed Churchill’s decision-making.
On some of the more important documents Churchill would stamp ACTION THIS DAY in big red letters before it was sent to the intended recipient. This meant Churchill considered the document so important that the person for whom it was intended – whether they were a government minister, a senior military officer or a civil servant – was to implement it the same day.
When codebreaker Alan Turing and some of his colleagues wrote to Churchill from Bletchley Park in October 1941, bemoaning the fact they were overworked and underfunded and asking for his help, Churchill immediately forwarded the letter to General Hastings Ismay, his military secretary, with ACTION THIS DAY stamped on it and a hand-written note saying: “Make sure they (the codebreakers) have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.”
Had Churchill not intervened in this matter, Allied codebreakers may not have been given the resources they needed to decrypt the Enigma codes and the outcome of the war may have been very different. Churchill had a great sense of decisiveness and his intention in doing this was to instil a greater sense of urgency into the recipient.
This is something I’ve been trying to do with my Year 11 classes since at least Christmas, by writing ACTION THIS LESSON in suitably large red letters on any unfinished or inadequate classwork. Sometimes they action it, sometimes they don’t.
On other, less urgent documents, Churchill would stamp REPORT IN THREE DAYS in blue. This meant, you’ve guessed it, the recipient was required to investigate and brief the Prime Minister. Likewise, I’ve taken to writing SHOW ME NEXT LESSON on some classwork.
As teachers we spend a significant proportion of our working lives trying to instil a greater sense of urgency into our pupils – particularly those with public exams in a few weeks.
THE ART OF WAR
As a former soldier and military historian, Churchill knew the most important principle of warfare is the selection and maintenance of the aim. In other words, knowing how, when and why to choose a goal and, as importantly, how to stick to it. As both a classroom teacher and a Sixth Form tutor I try to do the same.
As teachers we know how, when and why to set ourselves and our classes goals. We also know how, when and why to prioritise them. Like most skills, the art of prioritising comes with practice and experience but as busy professionals with significant workloads, we have to be past masters at it from day one.
Like Churchill, I’ve learned to identify and action what’s important and delay or disregard what’s not, albeit on a much smaller-scale. One of the strategies I use to do this is to make it my business, like Churchill did, to know what’s going on in and around school.
This is easier said than done when priorities can and do change on a regular basis, just as they did during the war. What may seem to be very important or topical at departmental or school-level at the beginning of the academic year, for example a particular teaching or learning strategy, may be obsolete by the end of it.
This June marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The planning and execution of Operation Overlord and the subsequent Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944 virtually eclipsed everything that was happening elsewhere in the war.
Yet even during one of the most important battles of the 20th century, Churchill still made time to keep up to date with what was happening in the Middle East and the Pacific. I think if Churchill’s work ethic teaches us anything it’s the importance of knowing how, when and why not to lose sight of the bigger picture.