Written by Jess Reif
“How can I make the most of my time?”
This question has kept leaders up at night for centuries. In 1918, Charles M. Schwab was the President of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Schwab knew a thing or two about getting things done. Under his leadership, the Bethlehem Steel grew to be the largest shipbuilder and second largest steel producer in the United States. He was widely renowned as a leader and manager and had accumulated a substantial fortune. Still, Schwab strived for constant improvement and believed there was an opportunity to improve his own productivity and the effectiveness of his team. To help him on this quest, he brought in seasoned management consultant Ivy Ledbetter Lee. Schwab instructed, “Show me a way to get more things done.”
Lee agreed, and asked for 15 minutes with each of Schwab’s executives. Schwab inquired about Lee’s fee for advice and Lee replied, “Nothing. Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever it is worth to you.”
The advice Lee gave Schwab and his executives was quite simple. At at the end of each work day, they were to write down the six most important things they need to accomplish tomorrow and rank them by importance. The next day, they would arrive and focus exclusively on the first task, not moving to the next task until the first is finished. At the end of the day, they would repeat this process and prioritize the list for the following day. At the end of three months, Schwab wrote Lee a check for $25,000 (about half a million at today’s value). Prioritized lists deliver results!
The Science of Getting Things Done
How can advice so simple be so powerful? Many people make ‘to-do’ lists without a suggestion from management consultants like Lee. The real magic is when these lists become tools for driving goal-directed behavior. Some of the reasons they work so well are intuitive, and others are more nuanced.
The most obvious reason writing things down is so effective is because it makes you less likely to forget what you want to do. Seeing a task or goal you jotted on paper or in an application triggers you to get it done. It serves as a friendly reminder that you committed to doing something. Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University conducted a study to demonstrate this theory. Participants were randomly assigned to 1) think about their goals or 2) think about their goals and write them down. Not surprisingly, the group that wrote down their goals reported greater progress towards them after a four-week period.
More subtly, lists also help reduce our cognitive load. This frees up our headspace to focus on accomplishing goals. Tasks we have not yet completed tend to weigh heavily on our minds, nagging at us until we return to them. By keeping a running list of our backlog of tasks stored elsewhere, we eliminate the need to store them mentally. This clears our working memory and enables us to focus on the critical work at hand. This is particularly important for knowledge workers, who are generally expected to ‘think’ for a living. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto walks through how a variety of professionals including doctors, pilots, and investors leverage lists to be successful at work. This allows them to direct their full attention to the task at hand rather than thinking about what to do next.
Productivity research suggests that the best to-do lists are anchored to long-term stretch goals. According to Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Better Faster and The Power of Habit, this reminds us that our tasks are not simply ‘to-dos,’ but are instead important steps in achieving our goals. This is consistent with research on goal-directed behavior, which suggests that breaking large goals down into tangible intermediate goals is the best way to achieve them. Reflecting on how our tasks at work affect our organizations’ objectives allows us to contextualize our daily efforts within a larger mission; this motivates hard work and enables superior prioritization.
Inspect and Adapt, All Day Every Day
Our ability to complete tasks is never without constraint. Each day has only 24 hours, and our daily accomplishments are limited to what we can do in that window. This means we must constantly evaluate our priorities to ensure that we are working on the right things. If we fail to prioritize our tasks, human nature is to start with what is easiest and most comfortable instead of the areas that most require our effort. This is not an effective way to move the needle on our strategic objectives.
When deciding which tasks to address first, categorization can help us prioritize them. On the battlefield, NATO medics have adopted a prioritization scheme for treating the wounded to minimize casualties. They divide them into four groups:
- Not breathing (life or death)
- Bleeding (can become a crisis as time passes)
- Broken bones (problematic if left untreated)
- Burns (painful, requires long-term reconstruction)
This enables medical professionals to make quicker decisions about who to treat first. They use this general framework to guide their efforts each day, while maintaining enough flexibility that they can shift resources when a higher priority injury occurs. By making prioritization part of their routine, they can focus on the right thing at the right time.
While most of us are not regularly making life-or-death choices, many knowledge workers can relate to the intimidating feeling of having many things to do and not knowing where to start. We too can use a priorization scheme to help us categorize our own tasks and decide which to address first. Though the exact categories may vary based on the nature of our responsibilities, at work our priorization scheme might look something like this:
- If I don’t complete this right away, something important (i.e. my job, my company will be at risk
- This is a value-add activity that contributes to a long-term strategic objective
- This is important, but not urgent
Applying this framework to the tasks on our to-do lists can quickly turn a demanding line-up of tasks into a productive schedule for our day. Furthermore, we can re-prioritize using the same framework as new opportunities and needs emerge throughout the day.
The Ruthless Part of Priorization
Sometimes triaging our schedules is not enough – there is literally too much to do, and not enough time to do it. The only solution (assuming you’ve delegated all you can) is determining which tasks lack the merit for a place on the list at all. A useful metaphor for this process is pruning a rosebush. Rosebushes naturally produce more buds than they can sustain. Without proper maintenance, none of the buds will bloom fully, and the plant will die. It is the responsibility of the gardener to prune some of the buds, ensuring that the limited resources of the bush go only to the buds with the most potential.
This sounds like a simple concept, but can actually be trickier than you might think. Buds generally fall into three general categories: excellent, good, and clearly unwell. It is easy to trim those in the last category; they are obviously sick and will never bloom into anything beautiful. What is much more difficult is choosing which ‘good’ buds to prune so that more energy can be directed to the ‘best’ buds. This can be a painful process, and it has to be repeated over and over again to keep the rosebush healthy and thriving.
Like a rosebush, our work and personal lives generate more ideas and activity than they can reasonably sustain. To do our best in the areas where we commit ourselves, we also must be intentional in the areas where we will not commit ourselves. This means re-directing our time and efforts to tasks that are consistent with our priorities and the priorities of those we serve. The outcome may be scrapping projects that aren’t producing results, declining meeting invitations, and removing other items from our to-do lists that are creating undue pressure to engage in activity that will not bear fruit.
Though the process may sound ruthless, the value is addition through subtraction. This fierce protection of the time in our day and constant re-prioritization enables us to accomplish the most important tasks and still be flexible enough to keep up with the changing demands of reality.
Empowerment and Accountability
Prioritized lists are a great way to make us more productive and empower us to achieve our goals, yet they are powerless to help us if we do not hold ourselves accountable to them. A study of one to-do list mobile application found that over 40% of tasks were never completed. In some cases, we lack the intrinsic motivation to accomplish certain goals.
This is where extrinsic motivation can help. Keeping your priorities displayed publicly adds social pressure to accomplish what you said you will – it is a chance to prove that you are an achiever or demonstrate that you don’t follow through on your commitments. People want to be seen as achievers and are more likely to follow through on tasks to which they have committed publicly. Dr. Gail Matthews’s study confirmed that sharing progress with friends or colleagues makes an individual more likely to accomplish their objectives. Weight Watchers meetings and Fitbit challenges capitalize on this concept to help people to meet their personal health goals.
Similarly, many technology organizations leverage daily stand-ups as a mechanism for driving collaboration and accountability among a team. Stand-ups require each teammate report on the work he or she did yesterday and what he or she will do today to help the team achieve its goals. In essence, teammates commit to a set of tasks for the day and report on the tasks they completed yesterday. This is a powerful tool because it sheds light on the ‘to-do’ list that often resides in a notebook or in a private application with no option of external accountability.
At CrossLead, we use our own Daily Activities software application to show to the entire team what everyone is working on and how it contributes to the business objectives; that prioritized list of tasks for all employees is accessible to everyone on our team, from the CEO to our interns. Unlike other popular to-do list applications, it allows us to link our daily work directly to the business plan. The tool enables us to understand how we contribute to the company overall and empowers us inspect and adapt how we spend our time. When time is the only currency you can invest to get the returns you desire, it is critical that you manage it effectively.
 Mackenzie, Alec. The Time Trap. Page 41. AMACOM. 2009.
 Matthews, Gail. Dominican University. http://www.dominican.edu/dominicannews/study-highlights-strategies-for-achieving-goals
 Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus, and Girioux. 2013.
 Gawande, Atul. Checklist Manifesto. Picador, 2011.
 Duhigg, Charles. The Science of To-do Lists. Psychology can make you more productive. http://bigthink.com/videos/charles-duhigg-on-the-science-of-to-do-lists
 Romnaro, Jonas. On Having a Goal: Goals as Representations or Behavior. Psychological Rec. 2015.
 Stack, Laura. What to do when there’s too much to do. Barrett-Koehler Publishers. 2012.
 Cloud, Henry. Necessary Endings. Chapter 4. HarperBusiness. 2011.
 Kruse, Kevin. Forty-One Percent of Tasks on To-Do Lists are Never Done. 2016. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-kruse/forty-one-percent-of-tasks-on-to-do-lists-are-never-done_b_9308978.html
 Dishman, Lydia. Unexpected Lessons from Making your To-Do List Public. 2015. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/3046632/how-to-be-a-success-at-everything/unexpected-lessons-from-making-your-to-do-list-public
Jess leads our Analytics Team, expertly managing our statistics and analytics processes. She creates tailored organizational performance diagnostics and network analysis for clients, to help them better understand how their organizations are functioning.
Jess comes to CrossLead after diverse experience in the management consulting industry. She graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Industrial and Labor Relations.