It was 1890, and there was a cocktail party in Pittsburgh. All the movers and shakers were there, including Andrew Carnegie (rich guy in America). He held court in a corner of the room, smoking a cigar.

He was introduced to Frederick Taylor, the man who was becoming famous as an expert on organising 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 cheque 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 cheque for ten thousand dollars.

Taken seriously, Taylor’s injunction was not to simply make a list of important issues.  It was not to simply make a list of things to do.  Nor was it to make a list of what might be important.

Taylor’s assignment was to think through the intersection between what was important and what was actionable. Carnegie paid out because Taylor’s list-making exercise forced him to reflect upon his more fundamental purposes and, in turn, to devise ways of advancing them.

Making a list is a basic tool for overcoming our own cognitive limitations. The list itself counters forgetfulness. The act of making a list forces us to reflect on the relative urgency and importance of issues. It’s a list of “things to do” – not a list of “things to worry about”.  

Put energy into things you can do!

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