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The $423,000 management tip

Headshot for Richard Smoley.

Is this management tip worth $423,000? You be the judge.

The story goes back to the early twentieth century, when Charles M. Schwab, head of the gigantic Bethlehem Steel Company (not to be confused with Charles R. Schwab of brokerage fame; they’re not even related), asked productivity consultant Ivy Lee for a way to get more things done.

As the story goes, Lee replied, “Give me fifteen minutes with each of your executives.”

“How much will this cost me?” said Schwab.

“You decide. If you decide that this works, after three months, send me a check for what you think it’s worth.”

Lee sat down with the executives and described this simple technique, as described by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits.

1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.

2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.

3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.

4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

5. Repeat this process every working day.

Schwab, whom Thomas Edison called the “master hustler” because of his constant drive to seek an edge over the competition, was pleased enough with the results to send Lee a check for $25,000 three months later. This took place in 1918, so in 2019 dollars, that’s $423,273.

Is the tip worth that much? Many management gurus have cited the story since then, so it’s got to be worth something.

In an age that’s overflowing with smartphone gadgets that ring every five minutes to remind you of some new chore, it’s refreshing to think that your best management tool could still be a pen and a pad of paper.


Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.