The simplest productivity advice in history
Timeless principles from industrial tycoons and startup CEOs
This advice would fit on a small index card. It’s only about 100 words long. And yet in 1918, steel magnate Charles M. Schwab paid a consultant $25,000 for this advice — the equivalent of around $500k in today’s money.
Schwab went to a guy called Ivy Lee, a management consultant before management consulting was a thing, and asked how he and his executives could get more done.
Lee, presumably in the style of a 2x2 matrix on a PowerPoint slide as befitting his role as the OG management consultant, gave Schwab the following advice.
“At the end of each day, write down the most important things you need to do the next day. Do not write more than six items.
Rank the items from most important to least important.
When you arrive at work the next morning, start work on item one. Work only on this until it is done. Then, move on to the second item. Work only on this until it is done. Then, move onto the third item, and so on.
At the end of the day, if any items are not done, add them on tomorrow’s list — keeping the total number of items at no more than six.
Repeat this process every working day, forever.”
Lee left Schwab with that, and asked him to try it for three months, then pay him whatever he felt the advice was worth. Three months later, Lee received a cheque from Schwab for $25,000, which in today’s money is worth around $500k.
The CEO whisperer who uses the same advice
Matt Mochary is a guy I’ve talked about before here. He’s a former startup founder and CEO himself who later became a coach to other startup CEOs, including execs at Reddit, Coinbase, Brex, Angellist, Notion, and others. His advice and guidance has added billions in value to these companies.
His coaching curriculum outlines what you’ll learn if you work with him. Under the title Essential Reading, Mochary — scion of industry, billion-dollar coach, mentor of millions that he is — lists just five things. There are only five tools which this mentor to CEOs considers essential, and number two on that list is Top Goal.
One of the most common complaints I hear from CEOs is that they seem to have infinite things to do on a day-to-day basis, yet weeks will go by, and they don't feel like they have accomplished anything…
The Top Goal framework will help you fix this. Greg McKeown, who wrote a phenomenal book on productivity called Essentialism, boils this down to one key concept: Schedule two hours each day to work on your Top Goal only. And do this every single workday. Period.
The earlier in the day you schedule this Top Goal time, the better to avoid other issues (and people) from pressing for your attention… Take advantage of this time when your brain performs at its best by doing the essential things first.
During this Top Goal time, do not respond to emails, texts, calls, and messages. Only work on your top priority during these two hours. If you follow this pattern each workday, you will achieve amazing things.
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds remarkably like Ivy Lee’s advice. Identify the most important thing. Do it as early in the day as possible. Do this every single day.
Simple does not mean easy
This wildly, deceptively simple advice seems too good to be true. But I think this is a great example of something that Charlie Munger says: “take a simple idea, and take it seriously.”
In fact, this is an idea that’s been taken so seriously, it pops up again and again. Maybe the story about Ivy Lee and Charles Schwab is completely apocryphal, because in his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, author Richard Rummelt tells an eerily similar story, about a steel magnate, a consultant, some deceptively simple advice, and a large payment.
It was 1890, and there was a cocktail party here in Pittsburgh. All the movers and shakers were there, including [Andrew] Carnegie. He held court in a corner of the room, smoking a cigar. He was introduced to Frederick Taylor, the man who was becoming famous as an expert on organizing work.
“Young man,” said Carnegie, squinting dubiously at the consultant, “if you can tell me something about management that is worth hearing, I will send you a check for ten thousand dollars.”
Now, ten thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1890. Conversation stopped as the people nearby turned to hear what Taylor would say.
“Mr. Carnegie,” Taylor said. “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.”
And, the story goes, a week later Taylor received a check for ten thousand dollars.
I’d argue that Ivy Lee is the better consultant on the basis that he gave essentially the same advice and got paid $15k more than Taylor — but again, when a story like this keeps being repeated over and over again, it’s probably because it contains a pearl of timeless wisdom.
How I put this into practice
I’m a relentless thief with zero original thoughts, so having stolen this productivity trick from Ivy Lee, I then stole a way of implementing it from Ryan Holiday. Or maybe it was Tim Ferriss.
Behold: the humble 3” x 5” index card in all its glory.
I use one of these, every working day. I try to write it out the night before, but sometimes it’s the first thing I do in the morning instead (forgive me, productivity gods, for I have sinned).
There are three main benefits of using an index card:
1) It limits the size of the to-do list.
I actually can’t fit much more than 6-8 things on it. It’s a way of forcing myself to prioritise what is actually important for any given day, as opposed to digital to-do apps that can literally hold an infinite number of items.
2) It’s a physical reminder.
This index card sits on my desk, acting as a tangible, visible, inescapable reminder of what I need to focus on. Again, contrast that to an app or your phone or computer that you can close or tab away from at any time — then those to-dos are out of sight, out of mind. If I’m on the go, I carry this round with me, either in my pocket or in my notebook, all day, until…
3) You get to rip it up when you’re done
As I’m working through the items one by one, I’ll cross them off, which brings me a great amount of satisfaction. And the real joy is in completing the last item on the list, at which point I tear up the card into tiny pieces, and throw it away. That ritual is my way of telling myself that I’ve had a good day, that I’ve achieved what I needed to, and the rest of the day is mine to spend as I wish.
I love this system — it’s simple, cheap and effective. I highly recommend it.
There you have it. A simple idea that should be taken seriously:
Write down the most important things you can do each day (ideally on an index card).
Start working on them, without interruption, until they’re done.
Do this every day.
After a year or two, you will be astounded at what you’ve achieved.
I’ll send out the slide deck now — and that’ll be $25,000, please, payable within 7 days of receiving this advice.