Are You Getting Your Most Important Things Done? If Not, Here’s How To Do It

06/21/2017 12:52 pm ET

As a CEO (or any manager), we constantly wonder why we can’t get things done. There never seems to be enough time. Although we are very busy, working long hours, and churning through multiple tasks, we never seem to actually accomplish anything. The same goes for our staff. How can this be? We work so hard and see such little progress.

Part of the problem is our inability to finish one task before we start on another. We do a lot of work on multiple initiatives, but complete very few. We call this “multi-tasking,” and brag about it. The easiest way to stop this vicious cycle of working with nominal results was solved over a hundred years ago…and the method still works today.

What are your six MITs?

Over a hundred years ago, as the story goes, Charles Schwab, the CEO of Bethlehem Steel was frustrated that he and his management team seemed to always be busy without getting things done. His savior turned out to be a PR consultant named Ivy Lee. Schwab called in Ivy Lee to help him figure out what could be done to improve productivity in Bethlehem’s management team. Lee told Schwab that he (Lee) needed to spend some time with his executive team and then report back to him.

Lee met with each manager for a brief amount of time, and then came back to Schwab with his recommendation. He gave Schwab a stack of 3x5 cards, and told him to give them to his managers. Each day, the manager must write on the card the six most important things (MITs) he needed to accomplish the next day…and to prioritize them. When the manager starts work the following day, he must start with the first item on the list and work it until its completed. Once that item is scratched off the list, the manager can move to the second item, and work it off the list. This goes on until each of the six items have been completed. The key is completing one task before starting on another. If any tasks remain on the list at the close of business, they move to the top of the list for the following day.

The system seems elegant in its simplicity…almost too simple, and Schwab was rightfully skeptical. But he needed to do something, so he agreed to give it a try. In fact, Lee told Schwab that he could try it out and then pay him what he thought it was worth. Schwab agreed.

After a relatively short period of time, Schwab reached out to Lee, and gave him a check for $25,000 (probably worth $500,000 in today’s dollars). That’s how impressed Schwab was with the results.

So, what does this mean for you?

I have everyone that I coach do the following:

  • Write down the six most important things you need to get done. It can be written on paper, on your computer, or in a task management app.
  • Prioritize them. Put the most important tasks at the top of the list.
  • If a task is too large and would take too much time to do all at once, e.g., write a business plan, break it down into smaller components that can be accomplished quicker. For something requiring a lot of effort and time, like a business plan, break it into smaller tasks such as: do market research, write competitive analysis, gather pricing information from business units, or create draft of executive summary.
  • Finish one task completely before moving on to another. This is where we all have problems…we start working on something and then move to something else before we get the first task done. We end up doing a lot of work, but see very little of our important items completed.
  • If you can’t get everything done today, whatever is left on the list at close of business, moves to the top of tomorrow’s list.

Following Ivy Lee’s simple advice can make such a big difference in your own productivity and the productivity of your staff, that you will genuinely be amazed. Give it a try…and you don’t have to send me a check.

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