Back in my late thirties I had the opportunity to run a fabulous business magazine for women called Working Woman (now sadly defunct). One of the bonuses attached to the job was that I was constantly exposed to fresh and terrific advice on work, leadership, and success from some of the best executives and experts in the country. Which was wonderful for me because I was trying to grow so much as a new leader myself then.

One month we interviewed a management guru who made a statement that really nabbed my attention. “If you want to truly succeed in your position,” he said, “you have to learn to drain the swamp as you slay the alligators.”

He went on to point out that his comment was derived from an old Southern expression that goes something like this: “When you’re up to your ass in gnats and alligators, it can be hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”

Here’s how that expression relates to your work: Whether you’re running a department, division, or an entire company, your time and energy can get sucked up by urgent everyday tasks (that’s the slaying-the-alligators part), which can prevent you from focusing on important and essential big picture goals (like draining the swamp).

The management guru’s point was that no matter how insanely busy your job is, you have to make time to focus on your vision and long-term objectives.

If you’re in sales, for instance, the alligator-slaying part of the job would include making pitches for new business and answering the needs of established clients. The draining-the-swamp part would be setting time aside to conduct research that helps you see emerging opportunities or to throw out your standard pitch and draft something inventive and bold.

As soon as I heard this advice, I put it to use, but I probably didn’t employ it in a major way until I took over Cosmo. The stakes were so high there, I had to use every possible strategy to guarantee I wouldn’t fail. Every single week I blocked off at least one hour to focus only on the visionary part of the job—how the magazine had to evolve in the coming months and years. No matter how many fashion photos had to be edited that day or Hollywood publicists had to be charmed, I left the day-to-day stuff on the other side of my office door and focused only on the big picture.

Sometimes I spent that hour digesting emails from readers about what they were looking for in the magazine and then considered how I could address their needs. On other occasions I used the time to have editors present an analysis of ratings on the columns they edited so we would know how they might have to shift. And sometimes—oh, and this is the part I loved the most—I’d sit at the counter of a restaurant with a glass of wine and a notepad and dream up fresh new ideas.

It was during these weekly big-picture sessions that I came up with some of the best ideas for the magazine. If I could think of one reason I took Cosmo to number one and kept it there, it’s that one.

So if you do anything else as leader, block out time to drain the swamp. And I guarantee it will make a huge difference.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Schedule at least an hour a week to focus on those long-term goals.
  • Never make an excuse not to do it.
  • Close your door. If you work in an open office, put on headphones, signaling you’re busy, or sneak off to a conference room.
  • Make data collection and analysis a big part of the process. What are your customers/clients telling you? What do they like? What do they dislike? What new trends are emerging? How could they be translated into opportunities?
  • Use the time to only focus on your vision for the future. Don’t become distracted.

And remember, if you don’t drain the swamp, you’ll be up to your ass in alligators before long. And that’s not a good thing.