Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell

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TBT 94 | Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell

When you’re able to get things done, your self-confidence gets better. In this episode, an operations executive, speaker, and author Lee Cockerell talks about how time management plus discipline and empathy make the best leaders. Discover his early beginnings in Walt Disney and Marriott Corporation, and the lessons that he learned on strategies on simplifying work and hiring the right people who share your core values. Lee also emphasizes on choosing your priorities while you’re still young, and the importance of looking ahead into the future instead of settling for quick fixes.

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Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell

On this show, we always have amazing leaders and incredible strategists to help you to take back your time and that means to work smarter not harder. It is certainly no exception with Lee Cockerell. He’s a retired Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, a position that he held for several years. His responsibilities encompassed a diverse mix of operations which included twenty resort hotels with 24,000 guest rooms, four theme parks, two water parks, five golf courses, shopping village, a night complex and ESPN Sports Complex. We’re talking a serious magnitude that Lee was responsible for. He joined Disney in 1990 as Director of Food and Beverage Quality Assurance for the Disney Paris Hotels. Prior to that, he was an executive with the Marriott Corporation for eight years and with Hilton Hotels. He’s also the bestselling author of four books on leadership management and world-class customer service. Lee is going to bring you an incredible amount of value from his experience.

Thank you. That was great. 

Lee, you’ve got so much wonderful experience, What’s your backstory? I know you talk about time management magic and leadership customer service. What motivates you to be so passionate in that area?

I started out young in the business. I went to college for two years but forgot to go to class. I went into the Army after I flunked out. I learned a lot about this one there and then I got a job at the Washington Hilton up on Connecticut Avenue in DC where John Hinckley shot President Reagan back in the ‘80s. I worked there for several years and I learned about service. I happen to have a good mentor who took me by the hand and taught me the business because I knew nothing.

That early exposure working in a great place where high expectations were there for you to perform at a high level. You’re better to probably develop when you’re young, your philosophy and ideas and attitude about taking care of people and I did. I worked for Hilton for eight years in Washington, DC and Chicago. Also, in Waldorf Astoria in New York and Los Angeles. I joined Marriott and spent seventeen years with them in Philadelphia, Boston and all over the place.

I got recruited by Disney in 1990 to open Disneyland Paris. I went there for three years and then I came back to Orlando. By then, they thought I knew what I was doing so they put me in charge of all the operations in Orlando. I did that for ten years and then I retired. Now I go around talking about it, writing books about it. I’m particularly interested in education with high school, middle school students and healthcare working in those areas a lot because there’s a lot to be done there.

TBT 94 | Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell

Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell: Early exposure to working places with expectations to perform at a high level is right for you. Your philosophy, ideas, and attitude towards people develop while you’re still young.


As it relates to time management or any other key leadership point, what was the one thing that influenced you the most? You were mentored and you got some great mentors. What was one of the great lessons that you learned?

I suffered from compulsiveness. I always wanted to get everything done. I didn’t have a system for how to accomplish it. I was bashful about raising my hand to take on more responsibility or maybe insecurity from the way I grew up in a dysfunctional family of being insecure. I wasn’t sure I could do things. I went to this time management seminar that lasted for two days in 1980. I sat on the front row and I sucked it all in and I learned the system for carrying out the things I wanted to get done. Slowly but surely, I learned that if I would follow this and think about what I was going to do, write it down and open it up every morning and take a look at what I thought I wanted to do and then do it, I started checking them off. It’s a special feeling you get when you accomplish something and I like to check it off in red pen.

It’s dopamine. It’s going right up there going, “Ding.”

When you’re able to get things done, your self-confidence gets better. You believe in yourself. You start to get a lot of accolades from people saying, “Thank you so much. You do great work. You’re reliable. You’re incredible. You keep your promises.” I’m going like, “This is good stuff.” I started practicing, studying it, thinking about it, learning new ways to do it and then I started teaching it.

If you want to learn something, I’ve taught time management for 35 years. I’ve got it inside me. I don’t need a book to teach it from. I don’t need a manual. You get good at it. When you become an expert in something, people want you to come and help them. That’s what I tell young people, “Become an expert in something and decide what it’s going to be and you will be it.” If you focus on it every day, it will always give you a backup.

If you’re an expert in something, you can always go back and do that. I know I can be a good waiter, I can always go back and do that and make cash tips. That’s how I started focusing and people said, “Why were you so crazy about time management?” I said, “Probably compulsiveness, but I have this deep fear of failure. I wanted to make sure nobody ever criticize me.” I don’t take criticism well. I’m still working on it and my wife is trying to train me to get over it and quit being defensive.

It’s feedback, not criticism.

I cover it up well these days.

I know that Disney has an interesting and different approach. I’ve talked to some other people not through an interview but met some different people and they said they had some different approaches to time management. What would you say is the secret at Disney to how they managed time for the organization?

Anybody who works for Disney, when you first join there, they give you a big orientation and time spent making sure the expectations for performance are clear. There are a lot of expectations that you get clarity. It’s like your mother, when she said, “Be home by 11:00 or else.” That’s why you know the rules. The responsibilities are big because our guests are saving their money for years to come there.

They have huge expectations and we don’t want to fail them. We may have the most promised product in the world when you think about kids 4, 6, 8, 12 years old and they’re coming to meet Cinderella and Mickey Mouse. It’s real. We work hard at making sure we can do what we say we’re going to do and promises. You got to be organized to do that. We don’t open late. We don’t run out of food. We are organized. That takes good time management skills and good organizational skills to make sure that you can do it and we’re busy. Fifty-two million guests a year and 80,000 cast members working in Orlando, you got to have your act together.

You have to have systems and support structures to make it work. They spend a lot of time setting expectations at the beginning of the performance. People don’t often think, “That’s not time management.” Yes, it is. The time that we spend preparing and making sure that we are communicating effectively. When your staff knows clearly what their role is, what’s expected of them, it makes all the difference in having things run smoothly and how you want them to interact with each other and give them some of the tools how. That is time well-spent upfront.

I can tell you a funny story. My boyfriend joined an organization. This organization was so disorganized that it took him a month to get the laptop, because they had all of their people work remotely, and to get him a login into the laptop. There was no job description. This is crazy and this is a large company. He had three bosses and none of them took any time until two months after he was there to meet with him. Even after he sent emails, “Please tell me what my role is.” This guy wants to work and it’s not working.

Compulsiveness is when you want to get everything done without a system to accomplish them. Share on X

That’s common, that is not unusual. When you arrive at Disney, your laptop is on your desk. It’s already programmed. Everything’s there. You meet with the staff. We have what we call a new leader transition. Everybody’s in the room and you tell them about how you work, what’s important to you. They get to know you, about your family, everything. They know about you by the end of the first day. When you do the right things upfront, a lot of things never happen to waste your time. I tell people, “If you exercise, you don’t have to get bypass surgery.” That takes time to get bypass surgery. A lot of people don’t think about it because they don’t teach it in high school and college. They don’t talk about this concept of focus on your priorities now. They’ll pay off later 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road. We don’t like to do long-term things. We like to do it now.

How do you teach someone discipline? You went into the Army and you learned discipline from a young age. That is a key piece of personal time management and focusing on what’s most important. What’s a tip there that you can help people with when they’re struggling with self-discipline?

When we’re hiring people at Disney and even Marriott, we had a good screening system, a good profiling system. I don’t think you’re going to be too successful teaching people discipline. You need to hire people that have discipline. I tell everybody, “The two most important things as a leader or parent are empathy and discipline.” Those two things are how you get it done. We hire people that can show us that they’re well-organized. We have questions about that. How do you plan your day? How do you make sure a crisis doesn’t happen? People take us through that and explain to us how they think about it. If you ask me how I plan my day, it’s like going through the checklist. There’s no doubt in your mind when I finish telling you that this guy has his act together. Other people say, “I just come in and if something happens, I try to take care of this one.”

We do have a lot of entrepreneurs reading, not just business owners who have teams but people who might be solo entrepreneurs. Do you have one thing that you learned for yourself that helped you with that discipline? I 100% agree, hire people who already have it, but what if I’m online and I don’t have it? How could you help me?

I would say learn and make sure you got some planner. If you can use your phone, it’s great. I love my phone, but I also have a paper planner. Every day take five minutes in the morning to think about what you didn’t do well, the contract you screwed up, the person you talk to and forgot to tell them three important things. Go through things and try to go back and fix it before you start. Second, you think about the responsibilities you signed up for. Whether it’s your boyfriend or your spouse, your children, your health or your career. What courses do you need to take? Exercise, taking care of aging parents and grandparents. Think about the things you personally have signed up for in your life that you didn’t sign up but they are your responsibility.

You start asking yourself, “Am I putting enough time against those things? Can I find those in my planner? Do I have a plan to talk to my daughter about school or about boys? In my schedule, can I find a couple of days a week that I exercise and do strength training? Have I got an appointment to sit down talk to my parents how they want things handled or my grandparents?” Once you list the things you’re responsible for, it’s a longer list than you think. A lot of it, you’re not ready for it yet. You’re retirement, you got to think about that now. People are thinking about it about two weeks before they retire and find out they didn’t get it together. That’s how I think about it.

I wrote a book about time management called Time Management Magic and it lays it out the lists to all the responsibilities we have in life. Having dinner with your children, that pays off later when you don’t have to visit him in prison, in rehab or get him a lawyer or psychiatrist. Think about your impact now. Most people don’t want to do it. The main thing you got to focus on is are you working on the hard things? Everybody knows the two or three hard things they’ve been putting off for years. I tell people, “Think about them. You know what they are.” It could be a relationship, going back to school, having a hard conversation with somebody, making a hard decision. If you don’t do the hard things, life gets harder. You got to get used to doing it because it’ll bite you hard. Time goes by quick. It’ll be Christmas again and it’ll be New Year’s again. It’ll be your birthday again and you’ll go, “What happened?”

We do that ostrich thing and we stick our head in the sand then we pretend we don’t need to focus on that. We eat the apple pie instead of the apple. We drink soda instead of water and then we wonder why we’re 50 pounds heavier.

Time is not on your side. It’s passing by pretty quick. The future is going to be here in about one second. You got to think more. People got to think about it. They say that if you don’t take the time to plan the life you want, you’re going to spend a lot of time living a life you don’t want. This is what happens to most people you know. They’re living a life they don’t want. They’re not doing anything about it. They get miserable then they get unhealthy and have financial problems. It goes from bad to worst.

It’s so easy. All we need to do is to take a step back. Regularly spend 5 to 10 minutes in the morning and then in the evening to sum up and see where you are. Maybe once a quarter do a deeper thought. Give yourself time to think. We don’t do that because every single little space that we have is filled up. I’ve been conscious about putting my phone away. I have some principles where I don’t check my email or touch my phone in the morning. I leave that time for myself.

It’s a standard principle that I’ve set for myself. If I touch my phone, I will remind myself to put it down. We have to create those spaces for ourselves. If I’m waiting in line, I go onto Facebook and I’ll quickly see anything that’s interesting. What happened to thinking and being there without any interaction or talking to the person in line in front of us? We do need to take back those white spaces in our life.

You’re talking right there about practicing discipline. You take time to sit and not look at the phone and think and get things back together. That’s discipline. We need to think about what we should be doing. Exercise is a discipline. Reading is a discipline. Going back to school is discipline. Getting ready for your retirement is discipline. That’s all it is, is getting it done and you get what you want. If you got a bad life, you must want that. Mr. Marriott told me, “If you have flies in your restaurant, you like flies.”

No matter what it is, every day is a new day. You can wake up and step back and decide that my past is not equal to my future and I’m going to do something different.

It’s never too late to get better.

What’s the greatest advice that someone gave you?

Don’t underestimate what you can do. Don’t underestimate the impact you have on other people every day for good or bad. I think about that a lot. When I was growing up, I was a young kid from Oklahoma. When I got these big positions, I had to quit thinking about, “Lee is just this good old boy from Oklahoma,” I have a job that people expect me to be responsible, pay attention, be available for them, help them.

TBT 94 | Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell

Time Management And Getting Things Done With Lee Cockerell: Work hard at making sure you can do what you say you’re going to do, and that takes excellent time management and good organizational skills.


It took me a while to learn that I have to behave. I have to be careful of what I say and do because it might intimidate or scare people that go, “It’s not Lee, it’s the position.” We got to be cognizant of that because a lot of people are not and they get in a lot of trouble. Look in the paper every day, leaders around the world are getting in trouble. They don’t realize the impact they’re having on other people, their families and their children. I keep that in mind every morning. Everybody’s watching and judging you every second, behave.

That statement, “When people aren’t watching you, what you choose to do when nobody’s watching you, that defines who you are.” That’s always stuck with me. I want to be that person not just when people are watching. I want to be that person all the time. I want to be an example, whether I’m being watched or not.

That’s character. They say reputation is who people think you are. Character is who you are when nobody is around.

A character takes discipline too.

Absolutely, especially for men.

For everyone, in different ways.

Lack of discipline gets people in more trouble than anything else in the world.

We need to go on a discipline campaign to help people to get their discipline back. I was saying, “You can assess somebody’s relationship with time by one simple question.” I know your answer but I’ll ask you anyway. Do you use the snooze button when you wake up in the morning?

I do not. I don’t even use an alarm. I wake up and I get up. I don’t use any technology that’s unreliable. Most clocks are reliable, but somehow people say the alarm didn’t go off. I’m not sure how that works.

That’s our excuse mechanism. They always say the alarm didn’t go off or they hit snooze. It’s the worst invention they could have come about. It came about they said in the ‘60s with the hippie generation. It’s the worst thing because it means that we start our day in resistance and with a lack of discipline. That’s not a great start to our day.

You heard it, “If you snooze, you lose.” You better get up and get with it.

I fell into that trap. My boyfriend is a snoozer. He moved in, he’s laying next to me and he’s not getting up and snoozing. I started to snooze and I was like, “Stop.” I had to stop myself and say, “This is not acceptable. This is not who I am,” because I see it then seep into other areas of my life to make excuses or push things off and I’m like, “That’s not who I want to be. I’m getting up.”

He’s teaching you bad habits and when you hang around people like that, you become like them. Be careful.

That’s one thing. Everybody gets to decide. We have to decide for us. It’s character and each one of us gets to define what’s important for us and what defines us. I like to share that because I want people to think about it. We have to think about what we do, how we show up, how that impacts us and who we want to be. It’s something to think about.

My grandson told me when he was in college, he puts the alarm clock clear on the other side of the room.

We talked about discipline but outside of discipline, what’s the main challenge that you think people have around time management?

People get in habits and think that’s the way it is. People are always telling, “That’s just the way it is.” I say, “Nothing is the way it is. It’s the way you let it be.” They don’t have the self-confidence that they can do something. They get in this rut and then they start taking naps instead of doing their work and then they stay out too late. Life goes from bad to worse. It’s habits.

Habits take a little while to get. If you’re going to start a new habit, probably 30, 40 days, you got to do it. When you first start to exercise, you hate it. After a couple of months, it’s easier. Everything’s hard before it’s easy. That’s what people need to understand. Having a hard conversation with somebody about their performances is hard the night before. After you do it, you feel better about yourself. That’s the main thing. The bigger problem is they haven’t been trained yet. They probably hadn’t thought about it deeply enough. I’m dealing with a lot of middle school, high school and college students teaching this course.

They don’t teach that. Where are you teaching that? Is it in a school system?

Many colleges have adopted my books as textbooks. I got a connection with them because of my website and my podcast. Word gets out as you know. I get a lot of calls from teachers and I send them books and tell them to get their students to take them. We developed a teacher’s guide on how to teach time management. It’s already a program. They can teach it or it’s a self-guided course, they can take it themselves. I get amazing comments back and people say, “I never thought of that. I never thought of doing that. I didn’t realize it was that easy.” You only do what you thought about and you learn.

My grandkids went to a private school and they got a planner in the seventh grade. The school started working with them and teaching them. The school said their only goal in life is to get these kids to college and through college. One way you get through college is to go to class, sit on the front row and take notes. Don’t go to your room to study because there’s a bed there. Study with other people.

Get the environment and culture right so they learn how to plan their day. Friday comes and you’re going to have a test and they know that on Monday. It’s hammering this into people that you have control over this. Management is about keeping things under control. That’s what management is. Most people take better care of their car than they do themselves, their life, their relationships or their health. It’s amazing. Everybody knows how to plan because they plan their vacation with no problem.

Not everybody does. Some people like to wing it. What would you say that companies can do to take more responsibility to support their staff, whether it’s policies or training or whatever in the area of productivity and time management?

Number one is training. You got to teach people how to do this and more clarity. If I tell you I need this back as soon as possible or I tell you I need this by 5:00 Friday, do you understand what I said? All of a sudden you set the environment and culture that this is real. It’s not like when you get a chance or first of the month or later this month or as soon as possible. Someday is not a day of the week.

Nothing is why it is, it's the way you let it be. Share on X

Everybody’s as soon as possible is different. That’s so vague.

You got to get more clear on expectations, teaching people how to do it, helping them do it and they’ll feel good about it when they start to get things done. It does inspire you. I’m knocking it off and it inspires you to know, “I can probably do anything. I may not be able to do it but I can get an expert to help me.” I always tell people I don’t know how to do much but I got people around me who do and we get it done. I have a trainer, I wouldn’t work out if I didn’t have a trainer. I’d go pick him out. I have a website guy, a computer guy, a tax accountant, a marketing person. I don’t know how to do any of this stuff but they do. You just got to get it done. Don’t worry about who does it. If you can do it, God bless you. If you can’t, you better figure out how to get it done or you’re going to have a bad life.

What’s your definition of productivity and why?

For me, it’s are you happy? Are you and your family happy? I said, “If I’m happy and my wife is not happy, that’s not good.” If I’m happy, she’s happy and my kids are doing well, then I’m doing the right things. People don’t think about productivity as spending time with their daughter on Saturday mornings alone, being at dinner time with the kids or putting their phones down and having a family conversation, sitting down and talking about what college you want to go to. Those are all planning things. Getting that college fund open and the millions of things we got to do, but we need to do them, not a week before college starts and we find out we don’t have the money. Start thinking about setting the priority. What do you need to be working on that won’t pay off until later? Don’t be working on it the week before it’s due. It’s like term papers, start when they give the assignment not the night before.

Work your way backward, know when the date is and figure out what you have to do each week or each month to figure out how you get it there.

Just plan your life. Quit winging it because it’s not going to work. Life’s too busy and there are way too much anxiety and depression. People are overwhelmed with everything coming at them. There’s a lot of anxiety and every part of life including college kids, high school kids, professionals, every employer wants more. They want it now and they want you to learn more and be more.

We have to have those skills too. We have to have coping skills. Time management is part of it but there are other kinds of things that we need.

Getting enough sleep, it’ll all help. It can be done if you want to do it.

Is there anything else that you want to share?

I might say take the word can’t out of your vocabulary. You can have a huge impact not only in your family but in your life, your health and all areas of your life. It’s a pretty short life. There are only four ages: you’re born, you’re 21, you’re 65 and you’re dead. You better get with it. Get moving.

How can people get a hold of you Lee?

I have a website, LeeCockerell.com. Everything in my life’s on there. There’s free stuff on there if you want it. There’s something on there called a Magic Planner. It’s free if you text Magic Planner on 44222 and we’ll send it to you. It will tell you all those areas of your life you ought at least to be thinking about. Are you working on those now or should you be? We’ve got a lot of positive comments about that, have people think about the areas of their life they may not be thinking about. There are videos on there and my podcasts, the whole 260 episodes. They’re fifteen minutes about leadership, management and customer service for free. We’d like to give free stuff away because people like you better when you give free stuff. One day they might buy a book.

Thank you for being here, Lee. You provided a lot of great value and experience.

Good to be with you. Take care, get organized.

That’s the tip for you guys, reading, get disciplined and get organized. Thank you all for being here and I’m sure you took away at least one nugget that you can think more about. Take time to step back and to think about that and to be more in control of your life. We’ll see you in the next episode.

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About Lee Cockerell

Lee Cockerell retired as the Executive Vice President of Operations for the WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, a position he held for ten years. His responsibilities encompassed a diverse mix of operations, which included 20 resort hotels with over 24,000 Guest rooms, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 5 golf courses, a shopping village & nighttime entertainment complex, the ESPN Sports Complex and the ancillary operations support functions.
Lee joined the Disney organization in July 1990 as Director of Food and Beverage and Quality Assurance for the Disneyland Paris hotels. Prior to joining the Walt Disney World Co., he spent seventeen years in various executive positions with the Marriott Corporation and eight years with Hilton Hotels.
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