Even Andrew Carnegie understood the power of making a list. In an anecdote detailed in the book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy, management guru Richard Rumelt writes:
It was 1890, and there was a cocktail party here in Pittsburgh. All the movers and shakers were there, including Carnegie. He held court in the corner of the room, smoking a cigar. He was introduced to Frederick Taylor, the man who was becoming famous as an expert on organizing work.
‘Young man,’ said Carnegie, squinting dubiously at the consultant, ‘if you can tell me something about management that is worth hearing, I will send you a check for ten thousand dollars.’
Now, ten thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1890. Conversation stopped as the people nearby turned to hear what Taylor would say.
‘Mr. Carnegie,’ Taylor said, ‘I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.’
And, the story goes, a week later Taylor received a check for ten thousand dollars.
The benefit to Carnegie was not from the list itself, but from constructing the list. Writes Rumelt: “Attention, like a flashlight beam, illuminates one subject only to darken another. When we attend to one set of issues, we lose sight of another…Taylor’s assignment was to think through the intersection between what was important and what was actionable.”
If each of us would think through what is both important and actionable in our lives, and then take strategic action, we would probably be more effective in meeting our realistic personal goals.
In the words of Rumelt: “Simply being ambitious is not a strategy.”