Productivity is important in any business. But many people make a big mistake and think that the trick is to pack even more in a single day. That's not true. The real foundation to productivity is getting the right things done.

That's the simple basis of what has become a famous story in time-management circles. Ivy Lee, one of the founders of public relations and a general management consultant, helped Bethlehem Steel CEO Charles Schwab become far more productive with what on the surface seems a simple trick: List what you need to do in a single day, rank the items by importance, and then work on them in that order. Don't proceed to a less important task until the more important one above it is done. So you might end up with something like this:

  • 1. Finish sales quote.
  • 2. Send invoices.
  • 3. Review new product design.
  • 4. Place ad for new administrative assistant.

It sounds simple, and it should be. The idea is to realize that you never know what will happen on a given day, so you cannot assume that you will plunge through an arbitrary list of things to do. By focusing on what is most important, you can make the time you have available count and advance what will make the most difference to your business and life.

However, things are often more complicated than you would like. When making this kind of prioritized list, you have to accurately assess what is most important versus what is most urgent. For example, you might be working on an important strategic plan when, suddenly, your phone rings. A high-maintenance customer is worried about something inconsequential. Taking that call is far less important to you than the strategic planning, but it is an urgent issue that you might need to handle to keep the customer's business.

That is why you should keep a certain amount of flexibility when working on being productive. If a disruption crops up during the day and you cannot deflect or delegate it, take a moment and plan it into your day. Give it a priority, and shift everything below it down by one.

I learned a variation of this approach from a Franklin Planner (now FranklinCovey) seminar many years ago: three-part grouping. The first group--the A group--consists of items that should be completed that day. Those items get priority listings of A1, A2, A3, and so forth. Items in the second (B) group, which would be good to finish that day but that have less urgency, are listed B1, B2, B3, and so on. The final C group is for items that you want to get done personally. As with the others, they are listed as C1, C2, C3, and the like.

Now your day might look something more like this:

  • A1. Finish sales quote.
  • A2. Send invoices.
  • B1. Review new product design.
  • B2. Place ad for new administrative assistant.
  • C1. Take car in for service.
  • C2. Pay bills online.

If you can make yourself habitually apply this approach, you will quickly begin to gain control over your day and, more important, focus on what is really important to your business and life. You can do it on paper, although I've long shifted to FranklinCovey software that integrates with Microsoft Outlook and lets me manage tasks (among other things) from a central place.

By the way, after trying the tip for a while, Schwab sent Lee a check for $25,000--almost $550,000 accounting for all those years of inflation. That's how valuable he found it.