Five Strategy Questions to Ask Today


A $400,000 Idea That Will Change The Way You Work

By July 20, 2015 No Comments

I was recently introduced to a new idea that transformed my professional life.

Before I tell you what that is, let me tell you a story…

In the early-to-mid 1900s, Bethlehem Steel was one of the largest and most important companies in the world. During the height of the war effort they produced over 1,100 ships for the US Navy and employed over 300,000 people.

In addition making an outsized contribution to the war effort, they were also responsible for providing the steel used to make the Golden Gate Bridge and, in 1893, producing the world’s single largest piece of cast iron — the key ingredient to the construction of the revolutionary “Ferris Wheel” that would make its debut at the Chicago World’s Fair that year.

Without a doubt, Bethlehem Steel was an innovative company.
In fact, it was on their factory floor that Frederick Taylor first developed the principles today known as “scientific management” – the process of using best practices, metrics and standardization to improve efficiency and performance in organizations.

These approaches transformed our economy and our nation; and they were first pioneered at Bethlehem Steel.

Also pioneered at Bethlehem Steel: the new habit that has been transforming my work over the last nine months.


In the early 1900s, CEO of Bethlehem Steel, Charles M. Schwab (no relation to the financial services company) invited in a consultant named Ivy Lee and gave him an open-ended, yet specific, task: “show me a way to get more things done.”

Lee’s answer was simple (it took him only fifteen minutes with each of the companies executives to explain and implement), but extraordinarily effective.

In fact, according to author James Clear, it had such an impact on the company that Schwab wrote Lee a check for $25,000 for his services – the equivalent of nearly $400,000 today.

So, what did Lee tell them the executives to do?

Spend more time planning.

Lee sat down with each of Schwab’s senior leaders and gave them explicit instructions:

First, at the end of each work day, make a list of the top things that needed to get done the following day (Lee recommended no more than six).

Second, prioritize that list in order of importance.

And third, most importantly, start the following day by working only on that first most important task. Once that’s complete, move on to the next one.

This “$400,000 idea” has been worth every penny…at least to me.

Since I began implementing this approach just over nine months ago, my productivity has increased by at least 50%.

I now get more done in less time and, critically, I get the most important work done, every day.

That constant, steady, meaningful progress not only feels great, but my business is on track to triple revenues this year.

All because of this one simple practice.

But what is it about this practice that makes it so effective?

My best guess: focus.

At the end of the day, we all have more to do than time to do it.

Add to that fundamental challenge, the barrage of distractions we must constantly endure – from email, to Facebook, to “smart ads” – getting our hardest, highest-value work done can be a struggle.

By spending a little more time planning, putting together this simple prioritized “to-do list” each night, I am able to neutralize the real root cause of procrastination: uncertainty. (Think about it: how often have you found yourself on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter simply because you didn’t know what else to do?)


If you want to give this a try, here’s exactly what I do.

At the end of each work day, I write down (on a little sketch pad) the following…

  1. The most important things that I accomplished that day
  2. A prioritized list of the three most important things that I must accomplish the following day
  3. Three things I am feeling grateful for

Note: The short “gratitude” list is not necessarily required, but I feel that it sets me up well as I head off to my next, most important jobs: being a great dad and a kick-ass husband.

The following day, when I open up my computer, I go immediately to the task list and get started.

IMPORTANT: I DO NOT CHECK EMAIL (or Facebook or CNN or whatever) until that first task is complete.

The result: real progress, every day.

The other benefit: I don’t beat myself up when I don’t as much accomplished as I had hoped. If I have spent my time on the most important tasks, but they happened to take longer than expected, I’m OK with that.


I know that this won’t work for everyone, but I do think that it will work for you.

Give it a try this for one week – and see if/how your productivity improves. See how you feel at the end of each day; at the end of the week. If it works for you, great (email me and let me know). If not, no problem, but try something else.

All work/tasks are not created equal.

Your success in creating a life you love will depend on your ability to differentiate what’s truly important from everything else.

What are the three most important things that you have to get accomplished today? Of the three, what is MOST important to your future happiness, health and well-being?

Special Thanks: To author James Clear for researching and sharing the story of Ivy Lee in a recent article. While I have been using this practice for over nine months, I hadn’t known the origin of the idea before he shared it. If you aren’t already, I recommend subscribing to his newsletter. It is excellent.

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

More posts by Ben Sands