The Master Tool

The method I am about to share with you will help you clarify your thinking, get rid of upsets, solve problems, organize your activities, and make you more productive. It's a simple tool, and you already know about it. But just as Dorothy had the way back to Kansas all along without realizing it, merely having the tool doesn't do the trick. The key is knowing you have the tool, and knowing what you can do with it.

The master tool is making lists. Listmaking can be applied to a great many areas of your life. I don't know if there is a natural limit to the usefulness of this tool, but I will give you a few examples of how I use it.

One of the things that tends to stress me out is the accumulation of too much to do. I collect things I want to do much faster than I can do them. So I need to manage my time better.

The best audio program I've ever heard on time management is from Earl Nightingale's Lead The Field program. He tells the true story of an efficiency expert named Ivy Lee who visited the president of a steel company to convince that president Lee's firm could help him manage his company better. The president said he wasn't managing his company as well as he knew how, and that what was needed wasn't more knowing, but more doing. He said everyone at the company knew what they should be doing, and if Lee could tell him how to get more of it done, he'd pay him anything within reason he asked.

Lee got out a blank sheet of paper, and asked the president to write down the six most important things he needed to do the next day. It took the president about three minutes to do it.

Then Lee asked him to number them in the order of their importance to the success of the company. The president took another five minutes to do that.

Then Lee said something like this: "Now tomorrow, pull that piece of paper out of your pocket and go to work on number one. Don't worry about the others until the first one is done. Then go to number two. And so on. Once you've convinced yourself of the value of this method, teach it to your people, and then send me a check for whatever you think it's worth."

A few weeks later, Ivy Lee received a check for twenty-five thousand dollars. And the president wrote that what Lee taught him was the most profitable lesson he'd ever learned. Within five years, the company became one of the leaders in its field, and its success was largely attributed to that simple method.

I've used that method too many times to count, and it always clarifies my mind and helps me get more done. I always immediately feel less stressed as soon as I've written the list, so I sleep better. It takes time to make the list and put it in order but the increased efficiency more than makes up that time. Don't take my word for it. Try it, and then send me a check for whatever you think it's worth (wink).

Here's another example of how I've used the master tool: When I'm worried about something, I use listmaking to help me think. When I feel agitated, I ask, "What's bothering me?" And I'll make a list. The list is always finite. That realization, all by itself, is relaxing. When the worries are in my head, it seems like there's a lot of them, but when they're written down, I can see there aren't that many. Once I've got my worries written down and I look at them, many of them seem pretty stupid.

But usually there is at least one important problem on that list, so I take out another piece of paper and ask this question: "What can I do about that?" Usually I write the question at the top of a page, and number one through ten on the page and then force myself to fill in all ten with something I can do that might help. Often the most original ideas are the ones I come up with last, as if I need to get the obvious ones out of my head before I have room to think something original. I've solved many a problem with this kind of list-making-thinking.

The examples are endless. I've made a list of possible courses of action to deal with a difficult person at work. I've written a long letter of the ten most important reasons I love my wife and gave it to her. I've made a list of my top seven values (I made a list of twenty and then by the process of elimination, got it down to the seven most important).

"We make lists so we will not forget what is important," says George Roche, president of Hillsdale College, "…if we chronically forget items like milk and bread unless we make a grocery list…isn't it also likely that we will forget items like virtue and compassion unless we make a character list…?"

The principle has wide application. How about the ten most important things you want to teach your kids before they turn eighteen? How about putting that one in order and working on your top three?

The principle is: Make a list. (Or make a list and put it in order.) There are many ways to use this principle to enhance your life. Why don't you try it right now? Get a piece of paper, write on it, "How can I use this principle to improve my life?" Write numbers one through ten and force yourself to fill in all ten with an answer. Pick the best one and try it.

Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.

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