The name Ivy Lee may not mean anything to you. He wasn’t a powerful elected official, a famous entertainer, or a Fortune 500 CEO. His influence, however, is far-reaching, all because of the story about a simple suggestion he made decades ago.

Charles M. Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, and while the exact year of this story is hard to pin down, it was around the time of World War I. Schwab was talking with Ivy Lee, a management consultant. Schwab challenged Lee, “Show me a way to get more things done with my time and I will pay you any fee within reason.” 

The One Technique

Ivy Lee handed Schwab a piece of blank paper. He instructed Schwab to write down the six most important tasks needing to be done the following day and number them in order of importance. He further instructed Schwab, upon arrival at work, to begin at once on item number 1 and stay on it until completion. Once the first task had been completed, Schwab was to recheck his priorities and begin number 2. Lee emphasized sticking with a project all day long if necessary, provided the task is the most important one.

Lee cautioned that Schwab should not be concerned if all tasks had not been completed by day’s end. They would not have been completed with any other method, and the system insured work would be concentrated on the most important items. Lee left Schwab with the instructions to make the system a daily habit. He asked when the system worked for Schwab and his company, Lee be given a check for what Schwab felt the idea was worth.

Some weeks later, after the idea had been tried and found worthy, Schwab sent Ivy Lee a check for $25,000 (an amount equivalent to several hundred thousand dollars today) with a note saying the idea was the most profitable one he had ever learned. Schwab formulated a plan for all Bethlehem Steel management, using Lee’s idea. The planning idea was given credit for turning Bethlehem Steel into the biggest independent steel producer in the world at the time. Upon reflection, Schwab stated the $25,000 was probably the most valuable investment Bethlehem Steel had made that year.

The Lasting Influence of the “Ivy Lee Method”

Much has changed over the years. But, the idea of identifying the few things that make the most difference and devoting your time to them lives on. Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics adopted the same practice for herself and her company. She even printed “Six Most Important Things” notepads.

Modern time management consultants teach the importance of identifying a very few critical tasks for each day, generally between three and 10 in number. I teach what I call the “Fab 5.”

Why It’s Important

Input comes to us all day long from all directions. We’re never without something to do. We could stay busy all day and accomplish nothing of substance.

Whether you call yours the “Big 3,” “Fab 5,” “Super 6,” or something else, identifying the critical tasks before the day ever begins sets up the day for success. Give it a try today. Before you go to bed tonight, list those few things for tomorrow that will give you the biggest bang for the buck. Tomorrow morning, get started on #1. How much could that one practice be worth to you?

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