Increase Your Productivity by Putting First Things First


Most people have a high degree of awareness and common sense to help them become more productive and better organized. However, efficiency and leadership experts often remind us that what is common sense is not necessarily common practice.

The result is that we find ourselves in crisis management, without priorities, and confusing things that are important with things that are urgent. For example, our common sense tells us that “ready, aim, fire” is the proper sequence. Yet in our lives, our common practice may be “ready, fire, aim.”

We often continue the same habits that bring us the same results. By not planning and prioritizing, we quickly fall into crisis management, without priorities and in the thick of thin things. We are frustrated at our lack of production. Days start and end, and somehow we know we could have done better.

Our frustration continues at a high level, accompanied by the expectation that somehow things should be getting better by themselves. We double down on our work, adding more hours and more urgency. Then, we get that nagging feeling that we are working twice as hard and getting lost three times as often.

Just as the sun, earth, and moon are held in their proper orbits by the law of gravity, we are often held hostage by bad habits that hold us fast by their “gravitational pull,” and we find it hard to break away.

The following story contains some simple yet powerful suggestions that we can implement immediately to put first things first and to use time power to our advantage every day:

Years ago, an efficiency expert was hired as a consultant by a prominent leader and CEO in the steel industry. When the consultant met with the CEO, he indicated that he had plenty of ideas that would help boost the production and efficiency of the whole company. The CEO replied that he did not need any new ideas. He wanted a way to help them implement what they already knew.

The consultant said he had one suggestion that would change everything—an excellent way to help people do what they already knew more productively. He spent 25 minutes explaining the strategy to the CEO. Here was his recommendation for everyone in the CEO’s organization:

  1. Take 20 minutes at the end of each day to write down six things you would like to accomplish tomorrow. Keep the list simple and relevant.
  2. Once you have your list of six activities, prioritize it. Put a “1” by the most important item you want to accomplish. Follow that with a “2” and so forth until you have ranked all six items from most important to least important.
  3. Once you have the list prioritized, set it aside. Keep it by your nightstand where you can record any new thoughts and ideas.
  4. When the morning comes, review the list and start on No. 1. Even if you only accomplish the first item on your list, you will always be working on the most important item of the day. You can rest at night feeling like you really were effective.
  5. Repeat the process each day.

Weeks passed and the consultant heard nothing from the CEO. He patiently waited to hear the results of his recommendation. After several months, a letter arrived. It contained a short note from the CEO, accompanied by a check.

The CEO’s note explained how over the last few months he had implemented the consultant’s suggested strategy from top to bottom across his organization. He stated that the 25 minutes during which the consultant shared his strategy were the most important 25 minutes he had experienced in years. The prioritizing strategy resulted in a 10-percent increase in productivity, new enthusiasm, and an increase in self-esteem among his management team and each employee.

At the end of the note, the CEO added: “P.S. I am paying you $1,000 a minute for your time, and I have included a check for $25,000 dollars. I have never done that before!”

It was a $25,000 idea. Most people are like the folks in the steel company. They often know what to do, but sometimes have trouble putting what they know into action.

Put the consultant’s suggestion to the test by applying it in your own life. As you do, keep the following things in mind:

  • Remember that being busy does not necessarily mean you are being productive.
  • Give yourself time to master the activities that drive success.
  • Share what you’re doing with someone who implements similar ideas, and have an accountability session with each other to monitor the program and celebrate your and their success.
  • Use a planner, organizer, or some other system that allows you to go back and review what you have done.

It’s human nature to procrastinate Nos. 1, 2, and 3 because the most important things in life are generally the hardest and often require more of our time. You can always include more or fewer items on the list. The key principles are organizing and executing around priorities—putting first things first.


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