The Only Thing You Need to Maximize Your Productivity

Written by: Jackie Nagel
Originally published on April 15, 2015. Last updated February 6, 2018.

To describe how productivity and achievement have changed through the years, you don’t need to go far. From the revolutionary idea of “6 most important things to do” of 1912 to the end of the Disk Operating System in the mid-90s, these developments signaled a change in the way we achieve. Productivity

Along with these productivity alterations, experts also offered a variety of solutions. Write down your goals. Get more sleep. Take frequent breaks. Download the latest app. Create an accountability chart. All well-intentioned ideas, yet these productivity strategies merely added to the sense of overwhelm that already existed. Well, guess what. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. As Dorothy so accurately put it in the Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore".

"It’s no longer a DOS world"…

If you’re “old” enough to remember the Disk Operating System (DOS) you know it dominated the IBM PC compatible market from 1981–1995. DOS was a single task system; hence the need for upgraded operating systems that would allow for multiple tasks to be implemented simultaneously.

Following the introduction of “computer multitasking,” human multitasking quickly followed with the hope of processing several tasks concurrently thereby improving human productivity. We all know how that turns out. Research continues to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of human multitasking.

DOS, of course, has been replaced by newer, faster, more efficient, and effective operating systems. In fact, if we had to operate today’s digital activities on a DOS machine, we would be pulling out our hair.

In similar fashion, business professionals still use old, outdated productivity “systems” that actually hamper productivity—completely opposite of what they hope to achieve.

Six (or 12) Most Important Things List

The first time I heard of the “to-do” list was through the story of Charles M. Schwab, the owner of Bethlehem Steel. Mr. Schwab’s steel business was plagued by inefficiencies. To curb the business inadequacies and raise productivity, Schwab engaged Ivy Lee, an efficiency expert.

After listening intently to the dilemma faced by Bethlehem Steel, Lee agreed to help. In exchange, Charles M. Schwab would pay Mr. Lee whatever Schwab felt the results were worth. (How would you like to use that pricing strategy in your business?)

Lee instructed the management team to create the six most important things that needed to be accomplished in a day. Once the list was created, the managers were to organize their tasks according to priority. 

Each day, the managers started at the top of the list and worked their way to the bottom focusing on one task at a time. Whatever remained unaccomplished was added to the next day’s list.

The result? After 3 months, Bethlehem Steel improved performance at such a rate that Ivy Lee was paid $25,000 for his idea. In today’s dollar, it equates to $582,622.50.

While a worthy concept, the six most important things list has grown to 12 or more in today’s fast-paced business world. Although it would be great to accomplish one’s humungous list each day, unless you have superhero powers, the likelihood of this happening is as likely as finding a unicorn lurking in my garden.

With all the distractions of the day, high priority tasks—those that truly have the greatest impact on productivity, and subsequently, success—are not getting the attention they deserve. Often handled at the end of the day or when all other fires have been extinguished, the resulting delays cause a variety of less than desirable outcomes.

The One Big Thing

What are the most successful individuals doing today that allows them to accomplish the activities, actions, or tasks that make the biggest difference to productivity? They are focused on the one big thing.

Leadership expert, Jim Collins, first shared the idea of “the one big thing” in 1994. Along with co-author, Jerry Porras, the notion of BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) was introduced in Built to Last.

BHAG is defined as something that is so big it may not be accomplished but, in the process, great success is achieved. The BHAG breaks one out of small thinking and creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the clutter, eliminates distractions, and allows you to focus on what matter most to your productivity and success.

In 2013, the idea of “the one big thing” was reinforced by best-selling authors, Gary Keller, and Jay Papasan. In The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, Keller and Papasan asked a compelling question designed to invoke focus and greater productivity: “What’s the ONE Thing to do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

They went on to profoundly advise that it was “one” thing—not four or even six things. And, it is the thing “to do”—not the one thing you could do, should do or would do.

The bottom line? Productivity is not about getting things done—it’s about focusing on the one big thing that moves you forward.

Jackie Nagel is a guest author and founder of Synnovatia. She specializes in working with small business owners and entrepreneurs to develop strategic solutions to improve business performance and accelerate business growth.


Originally published on April 15, 2015. Last updated February 6, 2018.


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