to-do list

"What are your next steps?"

These five words can make or break an entrepreneur with big ideas.

In my discussions with clients, the conversation invariably turns to grand accomplishments that they'll achieve in the future. It's great to talk about tactics that will help their companies reach their ultimate visions; in fact, doing so is a critical part of proper planning. But it's easy to lose sight of immediate steps when you're gazing far off into the distance.

I once heard former General Electric CEO Jack Welch speak, and he relayed one strategy that really stuck with me. Welch would routinely make leaders in his company answer a two-part question: First, "What are your five-year objectives?" And second, "What is your plan for the next 90 days?"

Welch's reasoning? He wanted to ensure that everyone understood their role in the company's future. And he also knew that without an immediate plan to start bringing the vision to life, people would never leave the starting line.

When someone asks you "What are your next steps?" you can no longer lean on big-picture strategy; you have to start thinking of actionable tasks. You must prioritize your time and resources. That's why these five simple words have such an impact.

So, how do you determine your next steps? It all comes down to prioritization. Even if you have countless small fires to extinguish every day (as most CEOs do), you must focus your attention on doing the work that really matters.

The late New York management consultant Ivy Lee was one of the earliest—and greatest—evangelists of priority-setting. Around the turn of the 20th century, he worked with some of the largest names in industry, including the president of Bethlehem Steel, Charles Schwab.

As a classic story goes, Schwab approached Lee hoping to increase both his own efficiency and that of his management team.

Lee made Schwab a proposition he simply couldn't refuse. He promised to increase the efficiency of Bethlehem's leadership team—and also drive up the firm's sales. All he needed was 15 minutes with each of Schwab's direct reports. When asked how much the initiative would cost, Lee replied: "Nothing, unless it works. After 90 days, you can send me a cheque for whatever you feel it's worth to you." Schwab readily agreed.

Lee met briefly with each of the steel-company executives. He asked only that they make one promise: that, at the end of every day, for the next 90 days, they would list and prioritize the six most important tasks to accomplish the following day. Then, the next morning, they would start with priority No. 1, then No. 2, and so on.

Using this simple system, executives found the highest-priority tasks weren't falling by the wayside, and that any uncompleted work tended to be of low priority. In short, the execs were doing more of the work that mattered and less of the work that didn't.

Three months after his first meetings with the Bethlehem execs, Lee received a cheque for $35,000 from Schwab—an astounding figure at a time when the average U.S. worker made $2 per day.

This story has transformed my life. Even in today's world, its tenets hold true. Each day, as things come up that need my focused attention, I capture them on a To-Do list and flag the really important things that will help me reach my long-term goals. Each evening, I review my list of high-priority items, rank the most pressing five, and put them into my calendar for the next day. I then start each day focusing on my top priority.

In ten years, I have probably accomplished all five items on my list only six times. But one thing is certain: when I start each day, I know I'm focused on what really matters. I know what my next steps are.

I've heard it said that one minute of planning is worth an hour of work. It's true. The simple practice of prioritizing my daily To-Do list has had a huge impact on my productivity, and the productivity of the hundreds of people I have shared it with. And it will for you too. Try it! Before you leave the office today, ask yourself: "What are your next steps?"

Andy Buyting understands what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, having owned several businesses during his career. The developer of the Hiring Right Recruiting System and a Certified Gazelles International Business Coach, he provides strategic direction and growth tools for companies looking to go from good to great.

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