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Mon 26 Sep 2016 09:29 AM

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The five-second productivity hack that dates back to 1918

It's 1918, and Charles M. Schwab is the richest man in the world. Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second largest steel producer in the US...

The five-second productivity hack that dates back to 1918

It's 1918, and Charles M. Schwab is the richest man in the world. Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second largest steel producer in the US (funnily enough, this Schwab is no relation to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the eponymous corporation that bears his name). He was considered a ruthless businessman, prompting Tomas Edison to describe him as a "master hustler".

According to historian Scott M. Cutlip, author of The Unseen Power, Schwab was obsessed with efficiency. One day in 1918, he arranged a meeting with a well-respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. According to the story, Schwab brought Lee into his office and asked him for ways to get more done.

"Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives" Lee replied. "How much will it cost?" asked Schwab. "Nothing," Lee replied, "unless it works. After three months, send me a cheque for whatever you feel my advice is worth for you".

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for productivity. First, at the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow (don't write down more than six). Prioritise those six items by their importance. Then, when you arrive the next day, work on only the first task until it is complete, then move on to the second, and the third, and so on until you've finished all six tasks. Repeat this process every working day.

It sounds simple, but that's what makes the Ivy Lee method so useful. By forcing yourself to rank your to-do list from most important to least, and by imposing limits on the number of tasks you complete each day, you streamline your productivity (oddly enough, this is similar to Warren buffet's 25-5 rule: focus on five critical tasks and ignore everything else).

But did Bethlehem Steel see the benefits? After three months Schwab and his executive team were so delighted with the progress the company had made, they called Lee back to the office. Schwab wrote him a cheque for US$25,000 and proclaimed his method 'invaluable' to the company. Interestingly, a cheque written in 1918 for that amount would be the equivalent of US$450,000 in 2016.