In the opening scene of a thriller I once read, a small crowd waited to cross a noisy intersection. The sounds of motors honking, the occasional curse word from a driver, radio music, talking, and beckoning calls from hot dog venders filled the air. The pedestrians waited impatiently, but then the light changed and they started across unaware that one of them—a man—had suddenly crumpled to the ground. Dead. One or two pedestrians who noticed the man drop, stopped to help. The killer, a man with poison in a syringe, had quietly and quickly injected the man. No one noticed as he slipped away with the crowd.
When I think about that murderer, I’m reminded that there are silent assassins all around us. Time killers.
Like that murderer with the syringe, time killers look innocent enough. A harmless crossword puzzle in the newspaper. The inviting Sudoku game in the back of the magazine. An informative news feed on the Internet. Phone calls. Emails. Tweets. Facebook messages from friends and clients. Suddenly, your morning’s gone. Unnoticed, innocent-looking distractions killed your valuable time.
We are often guilty of doing activities we like to do rather than activities we ought to do. We might actually work but still not accomplish what we need to get done. For example, scholars like to study; they don’t like to write the paper. A homemaker may grocery shop but spend so much time reading labels that the house stays cluttered. Athletes like to run the winning play but may not want to meet curfew or do two-a-days. But to get ahead, we can’t just do the jobs we like to do; we also have to do the jobs we need to do to succeed.
There’s a way to do both. And a wealthy industrialist paid a lot of money to find out the secret I’m about to share with you—free.
About one hundred years ago, a man named Ivy Lee went to the president of Bethlehem Steel, Charles Schwab, and made a deal with him. Lee told Schwab he could increase Schwab’s productivity as well as the workload of all his managers. What’s more, Lee told Schwab he could help Schwab’s executives produce a significant amount more if he could just spend fifteen minutes with each of them. To make the offer especially enticing, Lee told Schwab he wouldn’t charge anything at all unless his advice worked. “Then, after three months,” Lee told Schwab, “if my advice proves profitable, send me a check for whatever you think it’s worth.”
They struck a deal.
Here’s how productive he was—Lee actually spent only ten minutes with each executive. Here’s what he told them: “I want you to promise that for the next ninety days, before leaving your office at the end of each day, you’ll make a list of the six most important things you have to do the next day and number them in their order of importance.”
The executives were shocked that that was all they were asked to do.
“That’s it,” Lee said. “Scratch off each item after you finish it. Then go on to the next item on your list. If something doesn’t get done, put it on the following day’s list.”
Each Bethlehem executive agreed to follow Lee’s instructions. Three months later, Schwab studied the results. He was so pleased, he sent Lee a check for $35,000! (That may or may not seem like a lot of money to you, but this was one hundred years ago. At the time, the average United States worker made $2.00 a day or $4,000 a year. Thirty-five thousand dollars was a LOT of money! Even today, imagine if you spent a few minutes with a group of executives and gave each one the same, simple tip and got $35,000 for it. You’d be thrilled!)
Many people follow Lee’s advice today. The founder of the $2.2 billion direct sales cosmetics company Mary Kay praised Lee’s idea when she wrote the book You Can Have It All: Lifetime Wisdom from America’s Foremost Woman Entrepreneur . Mary Kay Ash boasted that she herself followed Lee’s advice. After all, she reasoned, Schwab was one of the smartest business professionals of his day. If he felt that bit of advice was worth paying $35,000, she ought to try it, too. So, each night she made a list of things to do the following day. But, she added a twist to it. She didn’t just number the tasks in order of importance. She always put the hardest or most unappealing task at the top. “This way,” she wrote, “I tackle the most difficult item first, and once it’s out of the way, I feel my day is off to a good start.”
Follow Lee’s advice! Before you go to sleep tonight, figure out what you need to do tomorrow. Write down the six most important things you need to accomplish. Not only will you start tomorrow ready to go, but subconsciously, you’ll also be working on those six projects while you sleep. Then, follow Mary Kay’s advice and knock those tasks out from hardest to easiest.
Don’t let your time get snuffed out by what appears to be an innocent killer! Stand guard. When you guard your time, you guard your life. For time is the stuff that life is made of.
Nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence like accomplishment. -Thomas Carlyle