The $25,000 Productivity Hack

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99 years ago Ivy Lee walked through the doors of Bethlehem Steel. 15 minutes later he walked out, having earned $25,000 for his time ($400,000 in today’s dollars). The information he shared with Charles M. Schwab was said to be the most profitable piece of advice the CEO had ever received. What could possibly be shared in such a short amount of time that made such an impact? Let’s dive in…

Schwab and his staff knew what they should be doing to grow their steel operation. Actually getting it done was another matter. (Sound familiar?) To solve the problem, they called in efficiency expert Ivy Lee.

After Schwab explained the problem, Lee went silent for a just moment, nodded to himself with a smile, and declared that he had the solution.

As the story goes, he slid a blank sheet of paper across the table to Schwab, asking him to make a list of the six most important things that had to get done tomorrow. When finished, Lee asked him to rank each item, one to six, in order of priority.

Schwab did as he instructed.

“Now put the paper in your pocket,” Lee said, “and the first thing tomorrow morning take it out and look at item number one. Don’t look at the others, just number one, and start working on it. And if you can, stay with it until it’s completed.

“Then take item number two the same way, then number three, and so on, till you have to quit for the day. Don’t worry if you’ve only finished one or two; the others can wait.

“If you can’t finish them all by this method, you could not have finished them with any other method, and without some system, you’d probably take ten times as long to finish them and might not even have them in the order of their importance.

“Do this every working day,” Lee went on. “After you’ve convinced yourself of the value of this system, have your people try it. Try it as long as you like, and then send me your check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”1

It was in the weeks that followed that Schwab decided to send Lee that famous check for $25,000. The results were beyond anything he expected and helped to transform his struggling firm into an industry leader.

From start to finish the meeting with Lee wasn’t more than thirty minutes, but the advice was worth its weight in gold.

Why It Works

In James Clear’s insightful review of the Ivy Lee Method, he points out several reasons why a seemingly simple system delivered such incredible results.2

It’s Simple: While most people would scoff at such a system because of its simplicity, that’s actually its strength. Time and again history and results has shown that it’s not the complex solutions that work best (even though that’s what we’re sold); it’s the simple ones that break the problem down into its basic parts and offer a solution we can instantly understand and use.

It’s Forces a Decision: Indecision is the nemesis of action. We can waste hours, days, or even years tossing around possibilities. But when someone smacks us on the head and forces a choice–and Lee’s method does with his six priorities–we’re free to begin the work of moving forward.

It’s Removes Friction: The start is the hardest part. If you can find a way to get yourself moving, momentum often takes over. Lee’s system of starting the next day with a clear purpose removes the friction of trying to figure out what to do next. Once the list is made today, tomorrow is taken care of.

It’s Forces Focus: People think they can get more done by multitasking. Those people are wrong. Studies have shown that it not only slows progress but can actually do damage to the brain.3 Above-average results come from focus. The names of achievers we know from history etched their stories into time, not through haphazardly jumping from one idea to the next, but from an unyielding focus on the one objective before them.

Now It’s Your Turn

I want you to think of six things that need to get done. I then want you to rank those items in order of importance. Finally, begin work on the first item until it’s finished. Think of nothing else until that item is done. When it is, move the second item to the top of the list and repeat.

Unlike Schwab who happily sent $25,000 to Lee for his advice, this one’s on the house.

To help you on your way, I’ve created a free download called the Ivy Lee Method. With it you can make a list of your six most important objectives and rank them top to bottom. I’ve also included a printable version if you’d prefer to complete by hand. Enjoy! Click here to download the Ivy Lee Method Worksheet.

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