5-Minutes Per Day of Planning is the Best Time Management and Productivity Technique You Will Ever Find - Ask Ivy Lee, Charles Schwab and Michael Masterson
This article is excerpted from my book Quick, Fast, Done: Simple Time Management Secrets from Some of History's Greatest Leaders
You often hear parents complaining about how busy they have become since their children were born. “There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to do anything anymore,” is what many tell me. In response, I tell them about a method that my mother used in order take care of a busy household of six children and countless responsibilities. Using this very simple technique, she accomplished everything she had to do to run a busy household on a daily basis and still had time left over to relax at the end of the day.
The special “time management” or “productivity” trick that my mother religiously followed was to make and use daily to-do lists. Every night she would take a scrap of paper and make a list of all the things she had to do the very next day. She would adjust the list in the morning or during the day if something new came up that was sufficiently important.
All throughout the day my mother would then carry around this list of to-do items and whenever she finished one task she would run her pen through that item to cross it off.
Some people tick off items on a to-do list by marking the front of the line with a check mark or X, but that is the wrong way to do it. By crossing off items by running a line through them you actually make your list shorter as you complete items, and the increasingly shorter list over time produces a helpful positive psychological boost. As more and more items get finished your list gets shorter, and as it gets shorter you experience a psychological sense of completion that helps motivate you to finish off the list in total.
Crossing things off is the method that The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss uses for his own to-do list. Every day he writes down five to six big task items on one note card, he crosses off each item as he completes it and then tears up the card when finished.
All day long my mom would work at finishing her task list, too, and if anything was left undone she would transfer the item over to the list for the next day. The basic idea is that one should always use lists to get things done.
The problem with my mother’s method, however, was that it kept her busy at accomplishing tasks, but she wasn’t progressing towards any larger objective such as accomplishing a specific goal or important target as you need to do in business. However, you can certainly create a system of to-do lists that help you be more proactive in this manner.
Let me show you how to create a proactive and extremely productive to-do list by telling you the story of one of the richest men in the twentieth century, Charles Schwab.
Charles Schwab used to work for Andrew Carnegie, who was also one of the richest men in the world during Schwab’s day. In fact, Carnegie had initially hired Schwab as one of his managers and Schwab eventually ended up running the Carnegie Steel company, which later became U.S. Steel after it was bought out by J.P. Morgan. You can imagine all the management and labor issues that Schwab had to deal with on a daily basis all his life, and how busy Schwab must have been in running Carnegie Steel, then U.S. Steel and later Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel producer in America at that time. This was a man who probably did not have much free time to himself.
If someone needed time management and productivity tools then that man was Charles Schwab.
One day Charles Schwab was meeting with his management consultant, Ivy Lee, who was asking for more business. Schwab told Lee, “We don’t need more ideas, we need more execution of the ideas we already have. Show me a way to get more things done. If you can give me a way to get us to do the things we already know we have to do then I’ll gladly pay you anything you ask.”
Ivy Lee told him, “In 15 minutes I’ll show you how you can get your organization doing at least 50% more. If all your executives use this method then you will have your wish. Use it, judge its value and then send me a check for whatever you think it’s worth.”
Here is the method Lee taught Schwab and his executives at Bethlehem Steel, which harkens back to my mother’s very successful method of making daily to-do lists and then working to complete those tasks.
The Ivy Lee Method
First, at the end of each day you must write down the five or six most important things you need to do tomorrow. Not things that will make you busy that you have to do anyway, but the important things that will make you productive and move you ahead. Don’t write down more than six tasks.
Next, prioritize these five or six items in order of their importance. We will talk about what is “important” in a moment.
Third, tomorrow morning when you arrive at work you must concentrate on completing only the first task, which you have already decided is the most important. Work on completing that task until it is finished and only then move on to the second task.
Afterwards, approach every other item on your list in the same manner. First complete one task before you attempt to work on the next item of lesser importance.
At the end of the day, move any unfinished tasks to a new list of six items for tomorrow and then repeat this process every single day.
This approach was shared with the Bethlehem Steel management and the result was as follows. A short while later Lee received a check from Schwab for the unheard of amount of $25,000, which was the equivalent of $400,000 in today’s dollars. The amount Schwab paid for this idea, after testing its effectiveness, was simply a king’s ransom! In an accompanying note Schwab wrote to Lee that this simple productivity technique was the most profitable lesson he had ever learned.
The Keys to Success
This simple method will help you get things done quicker and is probably the simplest but most effective productivity system you will ever encounter. It requires just five minutes per day but discipline all day long, and it succeeds because it is simple and forces you to practice the power of focus.
The power of focus and concentration is the power of execution. It is the power of getting things done quickly. The individual who understands that he moves ahead because he attends to important activities rather than just busy activities, and who sticks to doing first those things that keep him moving him forward in productive output, is the person who will progress in life.
The keys to this technique’s success are several. For instance, you should always prepare the list before the end of the day. If you prepare your list just before bedtime then while sleeping your mind will tend to start working to produce solutions for the tasks and challenges to be faced tomorrow. This is why important issues sometimes appear in your dreams.
The important directive, in any case, is to spend five minutes everyday making a short list of the most important items you need to accomplish tomorrow, which is certain to save you time the next day.
In compiling this list you must recognize that the “most important tasks” are the things that will have the biggest impact on your life and move you to the results you want. Unimportant tasks don’t do that and so they don’t have any priority. Urgent tasks don’t necessarily fit that bill either. It is the important tasks which move you ahead!
Restricting yourself to a short list of six items also forces you to prioritize tasks in terms of their importance, and the brevity of just five or six items helps ensure that you can get things done. While a longer list of more items might keep you busy, it is unlikely to be completed or to represent the most productive use of your time, so when making this list you must focus on a short tally of just five or six items.
When you are making your to-do list and scheduling tasks the day before you should also estimate how long each item will take so that you can assign time slots to accomplishing each task in tomorrow’s schedule. Planning for a task’s execution means planning how much time you will dedicate to each to-do item and determining when its execution best fits into tomorrow’s busy day. You also need to add up the time for all tasks to see if they fit into the next day’s schedule. If not, the unimportant tasks can be delayed and particularly time consuming tasks can be broken up into smaller sub-tasks you perform across several days to make things doable.
Prioritizing the tasks means doesn’t just mean identifying the most important ones that will best move you toward your goals. It also means scheduling their completion so that the most important items are finished sooner rather than later. For instance, the extremely busy famous marketer Dan Kennedy sorts his Things-to-Do List by prioritizing tasks as A, B and C items, and he also prioritizes a People-to-Call list in order to make sure that he accomplishes the most important things first.
The general rule is always to do the most important things, most productive things or most difficult things first by scheduling them at the beginning of the day. By putting the most critical tasks at the beginning of the day you are ensuring that the most important things get done first. Getting done first means that those things get done!
Don’t focus on doing easy tasks first, but remember the 80/20 rule that usually just 20% of tasks usually produce 80% of the results for getting you ahead. In other words, 20% of the effort produces 80% of the results you want. Hence, those 20% of items are usually the most productive or important tasks to focus on.
Human beings tend to procrastinate about doing difficult tasks or activities they don’t like, which unfortunately are usually the most important ones for getting us ahead. As a result of putting them off, at the end of the day they still aren’t completed (the delay usually continues forward in time as well) and then there isn’t any time or energy left to finish off what’s left to do. Therefore you must concentrate first and foremost on completing the activities with the most importance. To be productive and get things done, those things must assume the top priority every day.
You should also think of it this way. If you do the most important thing first each day, then you will always get something important done!
Difficult tasks always have to get done anyway so there is no real benefit from procrastinating and avoiding a difficult, unpleasant but important task. By staying focused on priority items first - no mater how you feel about them - you will always continue to be moving forward towards achieving your larger goals and objectives.
By doing those most important or difficult items at the beginning of the day, that is also when you usually have the most energy. Your energy and willpower tend to be highest at the beginning of the day, which means you will be able to provide your best efforts for your most important tasks if they are scheduled early. If your energy peaks at a different time of the day, then schedule your tasks accordingly by taking that into account.
It is at first frightening to begin the habit of doing the most important and sometimes most difficult (and thus distasteful) task first thing in the morning, but if you set up this routine then you will physically and emotionally get used to it and gradually become more productive over time. It is also a great habit to pass on to your children!
Benefits of the Method
What are the benefits of this short but simple productivity method?
First of all, it actually works – largely because it is so simple! Anyone can understand it so an entire organization can make use of it to increase its productivity, which is what happened at Bethlehem Steel. Sometimes people have to be forced into using this method so that it eventually becomes a natural habit, but it’s a great skill to instill in others.
Second, by forcing yourself to make tough decisions on prioritizing activities you end up weeding out the non-essential tasks that would normally occupy your time without producing any significant results. Using this method therefore has the benefit of forcing you to work at getting results so that you get closer to your long-term or most important goals every day.
If you adhere to the 80/20 rule of focusing on the 20% of activities that produce 80% of desired results then you will be relying on a method that keeps you steadily marching towards the results or consequences that are most important to your life. You’ll stay focused on the things that matter.
This method requires you to stay concentrated and focused on completing one task at a time, and thus eliminates the problem of simultaneous multi-tasking that usually drops productivity to its knees. When you schedule tasks they become more likely to be completed, so it removes the indecision about what to do next and reduces procrastination or hesitation.
It also helps you complete tasks, for execution and completion is what it’s all about. As Malcolm Forbes said, “One worthwhile task carried to a successful conclusion is worth half-a-hundred half-finished tasks.”
Another benefit to this method is that scheduled activities make responsibilities seem more manageable and less overwhelming. That psychological also boost helps with the process of completion.
Furthermore, using this method will result in being able to leave work at the end of the day with less pressure or worries and you’ll sleep better at night because you know that all your other activities will eventually get done in a timely manner. Using this method ensures that everything gets completed in time.
Most importantly, by creating a daily to-do list of prioritized items and then completing them in their order of importance (or as close to the order of importance as your schedule allows) you will be getting things done in a proactive manner and avoiding the need for last minute emergencies. Life and work will simply run smoother.
The Daily Business of Priorities
In his book, The Pledge: Your Master Plan for an Abundant Life, millionaire entrepreneur Michael Masterson explained how this simple practice of “doing first things first” by prioritizing tasks according to their importance changed his life. He wrote,
“It is the single best technique I know for change. And it’s the fastest and easiest way to turn your life around if you are not happy with the way it’s been going so far.
“Doing first things first. Is that what you do?
“Here’s what I do:
- I get up early – never after 6:30 A.M.
- I get to work early – never later than 7:30 A.M.
- I spend my first hour doing a task that advances my most important goal.
- If I’m going strong, I spend the next hour doing the same thing. If not, I switch to a task that advances my second-most-important goal.
- I spend my third hour on another priority.
- Only after four hours of doing important work do I allow myself to deal with less important work and other people’s urgencies.
“By the time most people start wandering into the office – between 8:30 and 9:00 – I’ve done at least an hour and sometimes two hours of work that is helping me achieve my important goals. Goals that correspond to my core values. Goals that will immensely improve my life.
“That’s how I begin a very good day!
“I do this five days a week. And on weekends, I find at least two more hours each day to devote to my top priority. In a year, this averages to about 600 hours. Six hundred hours may not sound like much, but it is.
“Six hundred hours is fifteen 40-hour work weeks. That’s almost four working months! Think about it.”
Thus you now have a very simple method that is actually the most valuable time management and productivity method that I know. It is also the simplest method that I know. It helps you develop the habit of working on something until it is done, and strengthens your powers of focus and concentration.
The joy of completion you experience when you finish a single task or the entire list of items trains your mind to be successful.
Basically, this technique teaches persistence, grit, focus and concentration if you use it often enough.
I not only hope that you personally use it and share it with your colleagues, but that you also teach it to your children as my mother did to me along with my brothers and sisters. The greatest benefits of the method will accrue over time, so the largest bonanza will go to those who start using it early and consistently.
* For the rest of the chapter, please pick up a copy of Quick, Fast, Done (Bill Bodri), which is a compilation of the best time management and productivity techniques designed to help you get twice as much done in half the time.