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Overwhelmed About Your To-Do List? The Critical Six.

Jan 15, 2014 | Business

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in business with the sheer volume of things that need to be done.

As you stare at your to-do list that stretches for pages, and nerves and hyperventilation kick in, how do you get over the overwhelm and get started?

About 5 years ago I was introduced to the concept of the Critical Six (in James Arthur Ray’s book “Harmonic Wealth“).

In the book, James tells the story of Ivy Lee, who met with president of Bethlehem Steel Charles Schwab offering him a tool that would guarantee that he and his team would be more effective. He offered the tool for free. All he asked was that Schwab and his team use it for 90 days and if it worked, send a cheque for whatever he thought it was worth.

The tool was this:

    • At the end of each day, write down the six most important things you need to do to achieve your objectives.
    • Put them in order of importance (1 – 6)
    • Then, starting the next morning, start on number 1. When 1 is finished, move to two. Continue for each item. If the day ends and the full list is not completed, then the remaining items become the most important for the next day.

Three months later, Ivy Lee got a cheque for $25,000 in the mail. (Which at the time, over 100 years ago, was a pretty impressive sum).

(Note: This is a VERY brief rundown of the story, and depending where you read this legend about Charles Schwab and Ivy Lee, the numbers vary slightly. 21 days, 90 days. $25K, $35K. But the basic message is clear – focus on the 6 most important things).

So, what are your Critical Six? Not 4, not 7, and not 36. Just six.

I’ve been applying this again over the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it has help me focus.

Today's Critical SixWhy?

Firstly, I’m not staring, reading and re-reading pages of To-Dos figuring out what to do next. Because depending on my mood and environment, it’s so easy to just do the easiest thing, or the most interesting thing, rather than the most important thing that will propel me towards results.

Also, it’s helping me manage distractions better. As a general rule I won’t start answering emails or making phone calls until I have started on my Critical Six. I’m reserving my most energetic, creative brain-power for the most important things.

I’m also more likely to hold myself accountable. While I know that I’m never going to complete my to-do list of everything I need to do (across work, home, kids, health and fitness, admin etc), six is achievable. If I don’t achieve these most important six things, I look closely at why. What distractions tore my attention away? Were they important? How can I avoid the same thing happening the next day?

This tool is well documented across the internet. It is by no means a new phenomenon. But I believe it works. Here are some ways I make it work for me.

The Six Things can’t be huge goals or world-changing objectives. No “world peace” or “be interviewed on Oprah”. The six things are the tactics and tasks that will move you towards achieving those objectives.

If I make one of the six too big or ambitious, I am far less likely to achieve it. Larger projects need to be broken down. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.

While I quickly scan my emails first thing in the morning (before I start getting ready for the day. I know, bad habit) to make sure there is nothing urgent, I don’t get into the time-intensive processing and responding until later in the day. This stops my morning being spent in email cross-fire while the big things sit neglected.

Realise that the Critical Six isn’t the absolute end. It’s not a case of “right, six done, off to the pub”. If you finish all six before the end of the day, look for the next most important thing.

ACTION: So, try it and see what you think. What are your Critical Six for tomorrow? Remember to keep them achievable, and to focus on the MOST IMPORTANT. The high value, high return activities that are getting you closer to your goals. And feel free to send me a cheque in three months ;).



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