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To-Do Lists

To-Do Lists

To-Do Lists

Use this framework to help you manage your time more effectively

In 1918, Charles Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel employed Ivy Lee, a consultant, to help him become more efficient in his time management. Lee recommended what is today known as a "to-do list".

In the early 1900s the Bethlehem Steel company was one of the largest and most profitable steel companies in the world.  Charles Schwab led the company and was feted as a hugely successful business man. During his tenure as the leader of Bethlehem Steel, Schwab employed Ivy Lee, a business consultant, and asked him to advise on how to improve his personal productivity. It is said that Lee presented his recommendation in just four sentences:


“Write down the six most important tasks that you have to do tomorrow and number them in order of their importance. Now put this paper in your pocket and the first thing tomorrow morning look at item 1 and start working on it until you finish it. Then do item 2, and so on. Do this until quitting time and don't be concerned if you have finished only 1 or 2”.


According to legend, Schwab was so pleased with the advice he paid Lee $25,000 (worth over $600,000 in today's money).


Ivy Lee's method is today known as the “to-do list". It has changed little over the years. Lee recommended focusing on one task at a time, starting with the most important. Unfinished tasks are moved to the next day's list. It is especially useful to write the plan at the end of the day so that you wake knowing what you will be working on and not wasting valuable time and energy.


The to-do list has been adapted by many successful people. Richard Branson, the Virgin Group founder, attributes much of his success to this simple process.


Warren Buffett, ranked as one of the richest people in the world, is reported to have been discussing career priorities with his personal air plane pilot, Mike Flint. Buffett asked Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. He then asked which of the goals were his top five. These top five goals became List A and the balance were List B. Clearly the top five goals were a priority and Buffett asked Flint what he was going to do with the other 20. Flint replied that he considered them also important even if they were not priorities so he would work on them when he could find the time. Buffett brought him up short with the following, "You've got it wrong Mike. Everything you didn't circle as a priority just became your avoid it at all cost list. No matter what these things get no attention from you until you succeeded with your top five". Just like Lee, Buffett was bringing the lens into focus.


The advantages of the to-do list are the comfort that you get from a clear overview of what must be accomplished. This helps prioritise tasks which can be broken down into smaller, actionable items with an allocated timeline. It is a memory aid and a means of tracking the progress of jobs. However, to-do lists, aren't they only aid for working efficiently. Alternatives are:

Kanban Boards: These use visual cards to represent tasks that move through different stages, such as "to do", "in progress", and "done". This visual approach helps in project management and workflow visualisation.

Mind mapping: Mind maps are a visual representation of tasks to be completed. They are linked, so that one tasks leads to another. In order to create a mind map, you usually start in the middle of the page with the central theme and from that point work outward in all directions to create a growing diagram composed of keywords, phrases, concepts, facts and figures.

Eisenhower Matrix: This matrix categorizes tasks based on urgency and importance, helping individuals prioritise tasks effectively. Tasks are classified into four quadrants: urgent and important, not urgent but important, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. The Eisenhower Matrix gets its name from the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was quoted saying, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important."

Goal Journaling: Instead of focusing solely on daily tasks, goal journaling involves recording long-term goals, breaking them down into actionable steps, and tracking progress over time. Journaling provides an opportunity for reflection on achievements, challenges, and personal growth.

Today you can employ a to-do list with pencil and paper just as Charles Schwab did 100 years ago. Or, you can invest in software that runs on your mobile phone and computer that allows you to generate ideas, manage them in order of priority, set budgets, develop Gantt charts, and track their progress.

Things to think about:

  • How good are you at keeping key tasks in focus and prioritising them? A to-do list is one of the simplest and cheapest means of organising yourself.

  • Prioritisation is a key to the to-do list. It is easy to get distracted when you have a long list of things to do and pick off the easy tasks.

  • We have all become familiar with triage in hospital accident and emergency centres. This is the preliminary assessment of patients or casualties in order to determine the urgency of their need for treatment and the nature of treatment required. In your day-to-day life in your company, you will need to constantly carry out triage assessments as people knock on your door wanting help. Remember Eisenhower who classified things that need doing according to whether they are urgent and important.

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