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Prioritized to-do lists still powerful, relevant in business

Prioritized to-do lists still powerful, relevant in business

Patrick Burke

I had a reader stop me the other day and pose the following question. “With all the new technology in the world, what did I believe was the most effective tool to increase one’s productivity, and efficiency?”

After thinking about it for a moment, I asked him if he was familiar with the work of Ivy Lee. He indicated he was not familiar with him and responded: “Where does he work: Apple, Google, LinkedIn?” I said no. He continued: “Is he an app designer, a professor, or a business consultant?” I said none of the above. He kept going: “Does he live in New York or Silicon Valley?” I said neither, but if you will slow down, I’ll tell you his story. “Ok, Ok.”

I told him that Ivy Lee died in 1934; the reader gave me a look of bafflement. I said in addition to that, the steel magnate Charles Schwab hired him in 1918 and paid him the equivalent of over $400,000 in today’s dollars for this tool to increase Schwab’s, and his management team’s, productivity and efficiency.

Curious, the reader said, “What was it?” I told him the gist of the story goes like this: Schwab, who was running Bethlehem Steel, the second-largest steel company at the time, met with Lee, an efficiency expert. Lee told him he could increase Schwab’s and his team’s efficiency if he was allowed to meet with each executive for 15 minutes. Schwab asked how much it will cost; Lee indicated nothing unless it works and after three months send me what you think it was worth. Schwab agreed and Lee gave each executive the following instructions:

  1. List the six most important things you must do tomorrow.
  2. Number them in order of importance.
  3. Take the paper out tomorrow morning — start with 1 and stay with it until completed.
  4. Only then go to 2 and repeat until the end of day.
  5. Unfinished tasks can be reprioritized and rolled over to the next day.

The reader looked at me and said, “A to-do list”? I said yes, with all the advancement in technology, I still find the effective use of a prioritized to-do list as the single most valuable way of making sure you successfully accomplish your goals, on time. I indicated to the reader that this assumes people have written down their goals, which I have observed likely less than 5% of people have written goals.

Well as the story goes, Schwab was so impressed by the results of deploying the prioritized to-do list, he gave Lee a check for $25,000 and indicated it was the single most valuable piece of business advice he ever received.

I contend that Ivy Lee’s tool is as powerful and relevant today as it was over 100 years ago.

Patrick Burke is the managing principal of Burke Group, a Rochester-based retirement plan consulting & administration, actuarial services and compensation consulting firm. Contact him at [email protected].