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.

Direct Your Mind: Does This Help My Goal?

In the movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, John (the kid) finds out the bad Terminator is probably going to kill his mom. John wants to find her and warn her. The good Terminator says, “Negative. It is not a mission priority.”

The kid starts yelling. The good terminator (Arnold) says, “This does not help our mission.”

Throughout the movie, Arnold plays a machine that has only one goal and never lets go of it, never gets distracted from it, never comes up with a new goal, and never gets discouraged by setbacks. During the whole movie, he evaluates every possible action with only one criteria: Does it help his goal or doesn’t it? If it doesn’t, he has no time for it. He doesn’t waste any time fuming about someone else’s behavior. He doesn’t waste any time thinking about what he “should have” done. He just stays on his purpose.

Of course, the Terminator is a machine. But imagine how much you could accomplish with that kind of clear focus. This question, asked all the time, every day, would help you do that (without becoming a cold machine yourself, because you have several goals, including maintaining good relationships and being happy).

One of the values of “motivational material” like success books and seminars is that they get you thinking about your goals. The simple focus on your goal is motivating.

That means if this question was on your mind a lot, you’d feel motivated more often.

In a course my wife, Klassy Evans, used to teach, she demonstrated the motivational power of keeping your eye on the goal with a little help from the audience. She asked for two volunteers to come up to the front of the room and let her make them feel bad. Let’s go into the courseroom now and listen to Klassy do the demonstration. The following was transcribed from one of the courses:

“I need two people. The only requirement is that you are wearing comfortable shoes. You? Good. Thank you. Come on up. And you? Excellent. Now [speaking to the two volunteers] I’d like you to look at the audience and find someone who would be a good match for you in a tug of war — and who is also wearing comfortable shoes.

“Okay [to the audience] these two people [referring to the first two volunteers] are going to represent you in your life. You’re going to see what your life looks like. You two volunteers stand here and here and face that wall across the room [the wall to the right of the stage from the audiences’ perspective; the volunteers are to the left of center-stage].

“That wall will represent a goal of yours,” says Klassy. “You’re going to try to reach it while the person behind you tries to stop you. They are the barriers to your goal.

“Not just yet, but in a little while I’m going to ask you two barriers to come up behind them and put your arms around their waist, and be a drag on them while they try to reach their goal.

[She turns to the audience]: “We all have things that hold us back. If we didn’t, we’d just go get what we wanted. So if you don’t have what you want, it’s because something is acting as a barrier to hold you back.

[Speaking to the two people (the barriers) that the first two volunteers have chosen]: “You two barriers, we’re going to do the demonstration twice and I want you to stay consistent. Hold them back equally the first and second time because I want the difference to be a result in them, not because of something you are doing differently, okay? [They nod].

[Speaking to the goal-seekers — the first two volunteers]: “With your permission, I’m now going to bring you down. Then when I say, ‘Go for what you want,’ I want you to start moving toward your goal, represented by this wall [the wall to the right of center stage].

“But first, I’d like you to think of some bad news you’ve heard lately...[Klassy gives them time to think of some. When it looks like they’ve both found something, she continues]:

“Think of a mistake you’ve made...

“Now think of something good in your life...

“and realize it’s not going to last...

“Think of something bad in your life...

“and realize it’s probably permanent...

“and you’re going to have to deal with it for the rest of your life...

“Think about a weakness you have, a fault you have, something that holds you back...

“Think of something that stands in your way and prevents you from getting what you want...

“and realize it is more than you can handle...

“Add up all the barriers you can think of that stand in your way...

“and all your personal weaknesses...

“and come to grips with the fact that your goal is completely hopeless...

“You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you just give up now...

“Now I’d like the barriers to come up behind you and put their arms around your waist and interlace their fingers. And I’d like you to look down at their hands and keep looking at their hands, feeling the strength in their arms. Keep your attention on the barriers, and think about all the things that the arms represent: the barriers, your weaknesses, the hopelessness of the task. In your thoughts, I want you to hear what you tell yourself about all your failures and shortcomings and everything that’s wrong with you. When you feel down, what do you say to yourself about yourself?

“Remember vividly all the times you have failed...”

“Keep looking down at the hands and be aware of the strength of the barrier holding you back. With all your attention on the power of the barrier, I want you now to come and get your goal.

[At first there is no movement. Then they slowly inch forward, eyes down, looking serious, even sad. She lets them struggle that way for a couple of minutes while the audience looks on. They don’t even get halfway to the goal.]

“Okay that’s enough. Thank you. Now I’d like you to go back to where you were again. We’re going to turn it around. Think of something good in your life...

“it’s probably going to last...

“Think of something bad in your life...

“and realize it’s temporary, you’ll get through it...

“Think of some success you’ve had...a time when you did something and you won or it came out right and you felt really pleased with yourself, proud of yourself...

“When you think about a new challenge, you can remember, ‘Well, if I could do that, I can do this.’

“Think of all the strengths you have, talents that many other people don’t have...

“There are quite a few once you start thinking about it...

“I’ve got a little gold star in my hand [it’s a ceramic star glazed in a glossy golden color, about four inches tall]. I want you to focus your attention on it. Ignore the hands around your waist, and keep your eyes on this star. Let the star represent what you could have. This star is your goal. Imagine the future, when you have achieved this goal...

“would you dress any different?

“Would you go places you now don’t go?

“When you achieve this goal, what great things will you be saying to yourself?

“Think about the good things other people will say when you have this goal...

“What will it feel like to know you have attained this goal?

“What will it feel like to know you have what it took to achieve it?

“Barriers, please put your arms around them again.

“Now, you two: Keep your eyes on the goal. Do not take your eyes off this goal. Remember a time when you did very well at something...

“and I want you to know if you did very well once, you can do very well again...

“I want you to know a lot of people are behind you and want to help you...

“You will reach your goal!

“You have the strength. You have the talent. You have the determination.

“Keep your thoughts on this goal now. Stay aware of your feelings about this goal, and how you’ll feel when you reach it. Now come get it! [Without hesitation, they both suddenly pull forward, smiling and laughing. The barriers are no match. The barriers unsuccessfully try to hold them back, but their effort is futile. In about three seconds, everyone is at the goal. One of the people reaches up and touches the gold star with a big smile on his face. Everyone laughs.]

“Thank you. I’d like to ask the barriers a question: Did you notice anything different between the first time and the second time? [They both nod yes.] Okay, what was the difference? [One of them says, “He had more energy the second time.” Klassy goes to the chalkboard and writes “energy”.]

“Anything else you noticed? [One of them says, “She did it easier.”] Klassy writes “easier” underneath “energy” on the board.]

“Anything else? [One says, “They were faster the second time.” Klassy adds “faster” to the list.] I don’t know if you in the audience could see their faces, but there were more smiles the second time. We’ll assume smiles have to do with fun. [She adds “fun” to the list.] Okay, thanks to both of you. You two barriers can sit down.

[Klassy turns to the audience.] Now I’d like to ask you: What did you notice was different between the first time and the second time? [Somebody calls out, “More confidence the second time.” Klassy adds “confidence” to the list. People say more things, and she adds them to the list: determination, strength, focus.]

[She turns to the two main participants in the demonstration — the goal seekers]: “Now I’d like to ask you, ‘What was the difference for you?’ [One of them says, “It reminded me of learning how to drive. When I first started, I focused my eyes on the front edge of the car, and I wasn’t very effective. My Dad said over and over to look out ahead, and when I did, my driving got a lot better and I could relax.” The other one says, “I felt stronger and more determined.”]

“Thank you. That’s a good one. Anything else you want to add? Okay, thank you for helping. You can sit down now.”

What this demonstration shows very clearly, among other things, is that you are stronger, more determined, more powerful, and better able to get what you want when you stop focusing your attention on your obstacles and put your attention on your goal. 

That’s the purpose of the question: Does this help my goal? 

If you want to be a photographer and get your business going, for example, it would help to continually ask this question. So when you have a little extra money and you’re about it spend it on a weekend trip but it would really help your business to get a new lens, ask the question: Does this trip really help my goal? Does getting a lens really help my goal?

When someone tries to talk you into a job selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, dangling riches before your eyes, this question will clarify the issue tremendously.

If there is one secret to success, this is it: Focus. You can’t do it all. There just isn’t enough time. You have to constantly choose one thing over another. How will you choose? By your feelings at the moment? By what you think others want? Or by how much it will help the most important goal you have?

“Obstacles,” said Henry Ford, “are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”

So ask yourself this question all the time, about everything. It will keep you focused on your goal, and this focus will give you power, speed, determination, strength, and fun.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal GrowthSlotralogyAntivirus For Your Mindand co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English)Follow his podcasts, The Adam Bomb and Talk to Klassy.

The Answer to Procrastination is Not Willpower: A New Podcast Episode

This is the Talk to Klassy podcast, Episode 3: There is a way to think about your future self so your actions in the present are a lot less tainted with procrastination. We explore some research on this topic in this episode. Listen here: