My Early Struggles

I want to share with you a tool that was probably the most valuable one I used throughout my career. When I first started my career as a project manager, I felt like I was swimming against a tsunami with all the things I had to do. I had a hard time figuring out what to work on next. All I was doing was reacting to the next fire with no sense of direction.

  • Do you feel the same way?
  • Do you have too much to do and not enough time?
  • Do you feel like you’re not making any progress?
  • Are you starring at a desk that resembles a dumpster?
  • What can you do to get out from under your pile of things you need to do?

I started looking for answers and tips on how to get a grip of the pile of priorities and I tried everything I could get my hands on. The solution I found dates back to 1918 and was described in Inc. Magazine. The article described the relationship between Charles Schwab, the steel magnate and the New York business consultant Ivy Lee.

Charles Schwab
Ivy Lee

One day, Lee was visiting Schwab in his office. Schwab started venting to Lee about the massive amount of work he had to do and how little progress he felt he was making. He said that not only does he feel that way but also his executive team also feels overwhelmed.

Lee responded that he believed he had a solution that he could teach Schwab and his team in 15 minutes. Schwab said great and asked how much it would cost. Lee said it will cost nothing up front but if Schwab felt Lee helped him, in 3 months Schwab could pay him what he felt it was worth.  Schwab agreed and set up times that Lee could give his training to Charles and his staff.

These are the 8 steps of The Ivy Lee Method:

  1. Before the end of each day, write down six, and no more than six, things you need to get done the next day.
  2. Review your list of six things and prioritize them with 1 being the most important and 6 being the least important of the six things.
  3. Go home have dinner and relax.
  4. First thing the next day, get to work on #1. Fight off all interruptions (Today, let the calls go to voicemail, ignore your emails, don’t get sucked into the water cooler chat about last night’s game) and focus on #1 until its complete.
  5. Take a break, walk around, and get a water.
  6. Get to work on #2 just like you did with #1. Then #3 and so on.
  7. At the end of the day, move any uncompleted items onto your list for tomorrow. Add more items to get your list to six things, then, prioritize that list.
  8. Repeat this process every day.

The team agreed to give this method a try. After the three months was over, Schwab was so impressed with the results, he handed Ivy Lee a check for $25,000.  That would be $400,000 in today’s dollars.

My Dashboard

The one step that I added was to maintain a list of things you needed to do. I started with a written list for each project I was working on and any non-project related things I was involved in. Today I use an Excel spreadsheet as a single dashboard with all required actions on one page. Each night, a quick review of my list will give me 6 things to do tomorrow. To get a deeper dive into this step I recommend David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It’s far more involved than my method but a big part of it is maintaining a single list of open action items. Below is a screenshot of a draft of my Excel dashboard.

I’ve been relying on this method for over 30 years and have taught it to a few groups and the people I mentored. It has been a valuable asset for me because it’s simple, allows me to build momentum for taking action every day, prevents procrastination and it creates focus by not allowing me to multi-task.

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