Death of the To-Do List: Getting the RIGHT Things Done


Charles M. Schwab was a very smart and shrewd businessman who, in 1904, founded Bethlehem Steel, the world’s largest steel producer, which made him one of the richest people in the world.1 Schwab’s employees loved him, and his senior team was recognized for their prolific accomplishments. His leadership skills led Dale Carnegie to feature Schwab in the famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Schwab was also a man of questionable character. He lived an ostentatiously extravagant lifestyle, gambled recklessly, and was anything but faithful to his wife of over 50 years. He died penniless, not long after the Great Depression depleted what was left of his vast fortune.

Unfortunately we tend to glamorize the positive aspects of people like Schwab and gloss over the more despicable elements. But there is much we can learn from both, including inspiration for utilizing our respective gifts and talents to positively impact society.

There is one uncanny decision Schwab made that continues to impact the lives of millions of people today, particularly those who seem to accomplish more in a day than most of us can dream of in a month or even a year.

And that curious decision was to hire a self-proclaimed publicity expert to help Schwab’s team improve productivity. The man’s name was Ivy Lee, the person credited as the founder of public relations.

What could a PR person possibly have to teach about productivity?

Actually, as it turns out, quite a lot.

The Deal

It’s unclear how the two men met, but what we do know is that Lee suggested to Schwab that if he had 15 minutes with each member of Schwab’s leadership team, that he’d be able to help them dramatically improve their productivity.

Schwab asked Lee how much this would cost. To which Lee responded, “Nothing. But, if after three months you like the results, pay me whatever you think is fair.”

At the end of three months, Schwab was so pleased with the increased productivity that he wrote Lee a check for nearly a half-million in today’s dollars.

How did Lee achieve such extraordinary results?

The Method

Lee’s process is deceptively simple – which is part of its effectiveness.

He asked each executive to write out the six most important things they needed to get done tomorrow. Lee then had them to prioritize their list from one through six. And his final set of instructions were essentially this:

“When you come to work tomorrow, start working on Task Priority #1 and nothing else. Don’t even think about Task Priorities 2-6, or anything else for that matter. When you finish with #1, move on to #2 with the same guidance. And so on down your list. At the end of the day, make your list of six for tomorrow, which will likely include any of the ones you didn’t complete today.”

That’s it.

It’s so simple, yet so powerful. Anyone could do it, right?

It turns out to be a lot harder than it seems.

My Failed Experiment

When I first learned of the Ivy Lee method a few years ago from James Clear2, I couldn’t wait to try it.

I dove right in, ready to channel my inner Ivy Lee and watch my productivity soar. I got to work the next day, began on my #1 task, and actually started getting into a nice groove.

But then I fell flat on my face.

What happened was that I missed the two most important words from Ivy Lee’s guidance: “nothing else”.

While progressing with my priority #1 task, I had an irresistible urge to check email. Since I get a few hundred messages per day, I wanted to do a quick scan and make sure there was nothing super important in there. But of course, once I opened email, I got totally sidetracked on several things that were important, but in hindsight, nowhere near as important as my #1 task.

I needed to do something different.

Experiment #2

I realized that the only way this could work was if I dedicated myself to working on Task Priority #1 and truly nothing else. No email. No Slack. No Skype. No meetings. No text messaging. No Facebook. No Instagram. No stock ticker. No news. Basically, no distractions.

What happened then was nothing short of remarkable. The Ivy Lee method actually worked. In that second experiment – my “undistracted” work day – I completed Task #1 and Task #2. There was no time left for Task Priorities 3-6, but even so, I still felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. More so than I had in years.

The one task that mattered most to me that day was completed. In fact, the two most important things for that day were done.

I was hooked.

Death of the To-Do List

The power of the Ivy Lee method is both its simplicity and the focus on what matters most.

But if you create a list of six random tasks that need to be done that really aren’t that important, then this method won’t work. The tasks need to be those things that truly make a difference.

There is a great little book called The One Thing by Gary Keller that articulates why choosing our goals (and subsequent tasks) is such an important determinant of our sense of accomplishment.3 In the book, Keller challenges readers to answer this question:

What’s the ONE thing I can do now, such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?

That becomes Task Priority #1.

Keller goes on to say, “Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list – a list that is purposely created around extraordinary results.”

So the real work in the Ivy Lee method is thinking through our most important tasks that can really make everything else “easier or unnecessary”. And once you have that “success list”, you’re ready to go.

There is nothing magical about the number six. Your success list can be any number of tasks that could be reasonably done in one day. What matters most is that if those were completed, you would feel a terrific sense of accomplishment and a feeling that your most important goals were that much closer to reality.

Too often we get sidetracked not just by all the obvious distractions (especially email in my case) – but by an even more insidious hindrance – which is working on other tasks that are not the most important.

Which brings us to another billionaire with some terrific guidance to help curtail that tendency.

A Far More Impactful Billionaire

Unlike Schwab who wasted his fortune and left little impact, Warren Buffett has not only amassed about $80 billion, but he’s donated more than $50 billion of his wealth to help those in need. Besides being a successful investor and the world’s most generous philanthropist, Buffett is a very smart man.

And his advice for accomplishing goals is shared through an often-told conversation between Buffett and his pilot.

Buffett suggested that if his pilot wanted to achieve more in life, then the first step would be to write a list of twenty-five things he wanted to accomplish in the near future.

The pilot made his list and shared it with Buffett, to which he essentially replied, “OK, of these twenty-five, circle the top five that matter the most to you.” The pilot did as told.

“Now that you have the five most important ones to focus on, what will you do with the other twenty?”

To which the pilot replied, “I’ll focus on the top five. But these other twenty are a close second and are also important to me. So when I have some time between working on the top five, I’ll give some attention to these twenty so that I can move them along as well.”

Seemed like a reasonable plan to me. Until I heard Buffett’s response, which stopped me dead in my tracks. “Absolutely not! Anything that is not in your top five just became your Avoid At All Cost list.”

I thought about all the things that I’d like to get done – and there were way more than twenty-five on that list. What makes Buffett’s guidance so powerful is the idea of focusing only on what matters most.

Time we spend outside of our top five (or top six) dramatically increases the likelihood of not achieving any of our most important goals. To be successful, we need to be willing to cut out “everything else”. Bury the to-do list and replace it with a success list!

But how can we develop a game plan for avoiding those oh-so-tempting other projects?

The answer is in creating mental models.

The Transformative Power of Mental Models

Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg describes the concept of mental models in his excellent book, Smarter Faster Better. Mental models are stories in our minds of what we expect to see. And people with robust mental models turn out to be exceptionally good at focusing.

Duhigg shares how he practiced building mental models while writing his latest book:4

“To make sure I stayed focused, I had to envision what I expected to happen when I sat down at my desk each morning. And so, every Sunday night, I got into a habit of taking a few moments with pen and pad to imagine what the next day and week ought to look like. I usually chose three or four things I wanted to make sure happened, and made myself answer a series of questions.”

Two of those questions Duhigg posed to himself were: What distractions are likely to occur? How will you handle those distractions?

I put that mental modeling to the test with two of my most formidable distractions: email and thinking about all the other tasks that I’d like to get done.

When I sit down at my desk tomorrow, what distractions are likely to occur? A ton of new email will be waiting for me. And I will feel a strong urge to check on what’s in my Inbox. Also, while I’m working on my most important task, I will likely get sidetracked with thoughts about the other tasks waiting on me.

How will you handle those distractions? I will close my Gmail tab and not even look in my Inbox until 4 pm when my scheduled calendar reminder pops up to remind me that then – and only then – will I process email. And when thoughts pop into my head about all my other tasks, I will say to myself, “It’s ok. I’m working on what is most important right now. I’m charting a path toward success, even if lesser priority tasks don’t get done.”

By envisioning what would likely happen and having a plan to preempt distractions made staying focused so much easier.

These tips for increasing productivity are so powerful – you will be amazed at what you’ll accomplish.

So let’s make that happen.

Making Your Impact

Write down your list of the most important things you want to accomplish tomorrow – aligned with your top goals. You can even start small with a number like one or two. But make sure it’s the most important work you can be doing tomorrow. Then when you get started, avoid everything else “at all cost”.

Use whatever hacks or tools you need to make that happen. For me, closing all non-task-related browser tabs makes a huge difference. I time-block my ONE thing and use a modified version of the Pomodoro method5 to work in 35 minute blocks, with breaks for food, bathroom, and replenishing my water and coffee. I typically wear noise-canceling headphones listening to background meditation music. I keep my phone in Do Not Disturb mode during these sessions. I’ve learned to politely say no thank you to meeting requests that are not critical for achieving my goals. And I block out calendar time later in the day for processing email, reading and responding to Slack messages, and returning any phone calls or text messages. I also block out calendar time for stuff I don’t like doing but still needs to be done (e.g. paying bills, filing taxes, etc.).

Create a mental model to combat the distractions that will most likely arise for you, and write down your plan on how you’ll handle each of them.

And at the end of each day (and week), spend a few minutes thinking about your success list for tomorrow (and next week). I also spend time at the end of each month thinking about how the month went, what worked, what could have been better, and how I would like to see next month unfold.

It might be very challenging in the beginning, but it gets easier with practice. And it becomes unstoppable with achievement. Going to bed at night knowing that you accomplished what was most important for the day, and having great clarity on what you’re going to work on first thing tomorrow is incredibly rewarding. And before you know it, you’ll be accomplishing far more than you ever dreamed of – knocking out goal after goal after goal.

Your to-do list is history, having been replaced by a much more focusing and empowering success list.

Armed with the skills to be massively productive, we get to choose what we do with that power. We can squander it away like Schwab and leave behind little of lasting value. Or we can utilize our gifts to help transform lives. The positive – and negative – lessons from others can help shape who we want to be and how we want to be remembered.

Make your impact!

-Anthony

[1] Charles M. Schwab, founder of Bethlehem Steel, lived from 1862-1939. He is not related to Charles R. Schwab, the billionaire investor born in 1937.

[2] I highly recommend James Clear’s recently released terrific book called Atomic Habits. It’s already a NYT bestseller, and for good reason.

[3] My copy of The ONE Thing is so worn from reading it over and over. Gary Keller’s insights on productivity and life are superb.

[4] I also recommend Charles Duhigg’s exceptional book, Smarter Faster Better, not just for enhancing productivity, but also learning powerful techniques on how teams can work much better together. Duhigg’s other book, The Power of Habit, is also ridiculously good. Both NYT bestsellers!

[5] The Pomodoro Technique is a remarkably effective time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo for breaking deep work into 25-minute focus chunks. More here: https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique