My to-do list has 91 items. Even if I eliminate stuff like "Take out the trash" (that I remember to do anyway) and "Climb Kilimanjaro" (which seemed important five years ago when it went on the list but which I'm really not much interested in doing anymore), I'm still down to maybe 50 items. It seems like a lot to me.
Last summer I clipped a Peggy Noonan column, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” from the
“He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”
“He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.”
There’s no mistaking those. Noonan went on to suggest that Obama was trying to do too much and, in the process, was missing “The Sentence.” (Her suggestion for Obama was: “He brought
It all reminded me of the way Daniel Walker Howe described President James Knox Polk in What Hath God Wrought. Polk is a president you don't think about every day, but when it comes to "the sentence," he had his act together.
Upon being elected, Polk told his Secretary of the Navy that he would have "four great measures" of his administration: Settlement of Oregon with
How did Polk do? Howe concludes, “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the
Polk’s extraordinary focus reminds me of the trick an old boss taught me, way back before we all had smartphones. He would take a 3-by-5 card at the start of each fiscal quarter and write down his three to six goals for the quarter. Then he would leave it in the corner of his desk where he could see it constantly, or carry it in his pocket when he was traveling. Every morning and evening he'd review the list to gauge if what he was doing contributed to one of those goals; if not, he’d stop and, as he said, get back to work.
There is a story told about a time-management consultant who visited the Pentagon to address a gathering of generals. He asked them how they organized their days. The one answer that stood out: "I write down everything I need to do that day, maybe 25 items. Then I start at the bottom and cross them out until I have only the top three left. Then I go to work."
Leaders of all kinds require focus to be successful. I don't know if James K. Polk had a 3-by-5 card, but I'm guessing he didn't have a to-do list with 91 items, either.
Maybe a lesson for you. Certainly a lesson for me.