In leadership and management literature there is a frequently cited anecdote involving two giants of the early twentieth century. In 1918, Charles Schwab, then the CEO of Bethlehem Steel, had a fifteen minute long meeting with Ivy Lee, a productivity expert. Lee gave Schwab some advice and then suggested to him that at the end of thirty days or three months (reports differ as to the amount of time involved), Schwab should send Lee a check for whatever he thought Lee’s advice had been worth. At the end of that trial period, Schwab sent Lee a check for $25,000; or, in today’s inflation adjusted dollars, $394,258.28.
What could Lee have spent fifteen minutes telling Schwab that was worth that staggering hourly rate?
Lee told Schwab to do something very simple yet very profound:
- At the end of the day, write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow, numbered one through six in order of priority. And then go home.
- When you get to work the next day, start with task number one and work on that task until it is completed. Work down your list in this manner.
- At the end of the day, make a schedule for the next day, including any tasks not completed from this day. Go home.
- Repeat 2 and 3 indefinitely!
I believe that there are two reasons Lee’s advice is so excellent. As the title to this post suggests, Lee understands the necessity of setting priorities and finishing tasks, two things that humans tend to struggle with. I am not sure what influenced Lee to develop his method for productivity, but I know where I first encountered this advice – it is in my Old Testament! There is an ancient Hebrew Proverb that says, “Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house.” (Proverbs 24:27). And there you have it: set priorities and finish tasks.
 http://www.in2013dollars.com/1918-dollars-in-2016?amount=25000, accessed on May 12, 2016.
Note that the outdoor work is more important than building the house – it should be done first. And only after it is finished should the house be built. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, there is a tendency to overly spiritualize what is meant by the terms outdoor work and house. I suspect that there is some validity to many of those pious suggestions. But what is explicitly, undeniably clear is the fact that priorities should be completed in order of importance.
There are at least two necessary corollaries to this biblical method for productivity that must be mentioned. First, some lesser priorities may not get accomplished. We cannot do everything – there are many things in our life, even important things, that we may not have either the time or the resources to do. Second, the idea of doing two or three things at the same time should be guarded against. Few of us are as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. It may be the case that some tasks, like writing a sermon or doing the laundry, involve distinct parts and either should or must be broken up into a series of smaller tasks – sometimes with other tasks interspersed. Account for that in your planning.
Whoever you are and whatever you do, you have two great commands that must inform all of your priorities: (1) Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength, and (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-40). Start your day with a pencil and a sheet of paper, number it one through six, and write down in order of importance, the six things you will do today to obey these commands at work, and at home. Perhaps you will finish them all. Perhaps you will get part way through number one. But over time, in practicing the principles found in Proverbs 24:27 you will be more productive. And you will find that, as Psalm 19 puts it, “the ordinances of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much fine gold!”