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Productivity made simple: Take a tip from a $100 million company

By Ryan Giles //

For years, my partners and I found ourselves extremely busy as we worked to get our company, AGJ Systems & Networks, off the ground. We would end our days exhausted and frustrated that we seemed to get so little accomplished. Personally, I felt like a professional firefighter … reactively responding to the daily list of problems that always came my way. For this reason, I’ve devoted much of my time over the past few years to becoming a productivity expert.
Since technology is my passion, I started my journey by delving
into smartphone apps, computer programs, and every other new productivity tool that I could find. Surprisingly, the single most effective tip I’ve ever learned requires nothing but a piece of paper and a little discipline.

Here’s the story:

In the early 1900s, Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel. He was frustrated that his staff seemed to be extremely busy but got very little accomplished (sound familiar?). In 1903, he called one of the leading productivity experts of his day for a consultation. That consultant was named Ivy Lee, and his advice was simple:

  1. At the end of each day, take a piece of paper and write down the six most important things you need to accomplish. Number them in order of importance.
  2. Tomorrow morning, begin working on #1. Work on it until it’s completed.
  3. Next, do the same with items 2-6 on your list. Work until you’re done or until the day is over.
  4. Don’t worry if you don’t complete them all. At least you’ve finished the most important, and you can add any remaining items to your list for the next day.

Lee spent 20 minutes with Schwab and gave him this information. At the time, Lee suggested that Schwab try it for a few weeks, and then he could pay Lee any amount that he saw fit. Within two weeks, Schwab sent a check to Lee for $25,000 (a fortune in 1903)!

Later in life, after Schwab had grown Bethlehem Steel from a small, local business to one of the largest in the world (worth $100 million), he was asked the secret to his success. Schwab credited this tip as being the most important piece of advice he’d ever received.

After following this advice myself for the past year, I wholeheartedly agree. I’m getting more done, and my priorities are much clearer than at any other time in my life. For the next week, I challenge you to join me and write down your daily priorities. In fact, pull out a piece of paper and write down the six most important tasks for you to complete tomorrow. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you get a piece of paper.

Are you back? Now go ahead with your list.
 Next, put them in order of importance. 
Tomorrow morning, begin with No. 1 and work on it (and no others) until you’ve completed it. 
In a week, let me know how you did.

Reach Giles at Learn more about AGJ Systems at