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To-do Lists

A business model that helps 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.


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.

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