Everything You Could Almost Be Doing

Avoid At All Costs

“Do your best every day and your life will gradually expand into satisfying fullness.”

– Horatio Dresser    

One hundred years ago, Ivy Lee stood in front of a room of executives at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, waiting patiently as they nervously laughed. The advice he gave them was so simple, they thought he was joking; but his strategy ended up being one of the most valuable tactics the company had ever implemented.

Ivy Lee was a productivity consultant, and was hired to help the company of Charles Schwab get more things done in less time. His advice was: use a notecard.

Every executive was given a note card, and was asked to write down the six most important things they had to do tomorrow. When they arrived at work, they were to begin working on the item at the top of the list, and keep working at it until it was complete.

Then, Lee advised them, go on to the second item on the list. Do not stop until it is complete, and only then can you move on to the third item, and so on. Once all 6 items were complete, other miscellaneous tasks could be done. If only 5 items were complete, the unfinished item went to the top of the list for tomorrow.

As he left the meeting, Lee declined payment; instead, he asked Schwab to write him a check in three months time, for the value he thought this idea was worth. Three months later, Schwab sent a check for $25,000, more than $400,000 in today’s dollars.

James Clear goes into detail about why this method works; it’s simple to execute, it forces you to make tough decisions, it removes starting friction, and it requires you to single-task. (Read James’ blog post here.)

What always baffled me about this strategy was not the 6 important things you prioritize as the most important; but, what do you do with all the other things that you could be doing?  What about all those other tasks that don’t make the list?

It turns out, you should avoid them at all costs.

Avoid medium-priority projects all costs.


This last week, I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading many of my favorite articles from Scott Dinsmore’s website Live Your Legend. What was missing from Ivy Lee’s advice was perfectly complemented by the “Avoid At All Costs” list of Warren Buffett. Scott laid out the 5-step process that Warren Buffett uses to decide what to work on, and why anything that isn’t in his top 5 goes on the “Avoid at All Costs” list.

(Go read the 5-step process. It’s really good. Come back here when you’re done.)

The “Avoid At All Costs” list – incredible idea, isn’t it?

You list the top 25 things you could be working on, prioritize your top 5, and put the other twenty on a list labeled “Do Not Touch.”

The very existence of these medium-priority projects, they threaten the likelihood that your higher-priority projects will ever be accomplished. Give them any time or attention, and they could sap your ability to do the highest-priority, most meaningful work in your life.

I’ve been doing a lot of valuation of my own projects lately – but I’ve found that reviewing what does (and doesn’t) make my short list of 6 items every day isn’t effective if I’m not prioritizing my possibilities correctly.

After all, if you put the wrong 6 things on your list, you will find yourself working on the wrong things all day.

What we need is an effective lodestone to guide our decisions and priorities.

How do you decide what is the highest priority for today, for this week, for this month? Let’s talk about that in the next issue.

New Ebook alert!

For the longest time, I hated early mornings. Now I can’t stand waking up later than 7 am. I’ve put together my 10 most effective strategies for becoming a morning person, and put them into this ebook.

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