The 6 Most Important Things List

6 most important things list on a calendar. Photo by Becky McCray.

Imagine with me….

Every day, as you start work, you know exactly what you’ll work on first. And what comes after that, and what comes after that.
Not a vague sense of a looming to do list, but an exact knowledge of the few most important things to work on today, in order. It’s do-able.
When an interruption comes in, you know quickly whether to act on it immediately, delay it, or dismiss it.


How do you get there?
Today, at the end of the work day, last thing before you finish for the day, take out a small piece of paper. Write on it the six most important things to do tomorrow. Put them in order, with the most important first. Then, first thing in the morning when you start work, begin with number 1. Do not move on until it is finished. Then work on the second item.


When an interruption comes in, compare its importance to the items on the list. More important? Do it now. Less? Put it on your separate big project list, but not your six list. At the end of the day, last thing, take out a new piece of paper and write the six most important things to do tomorrow. It’s different from today’s list, because things change.


How to make this work right: 
  • Six things. Not sixty, not thirty-six. Six things.
  • Important things. Not urgent things. Not someone else’s things. Things important to you.
  • Each “thing” is a task you can finish today. Break bigger things down into smaller steps that you can do today.
  • At the end of the day. Not at the beginning when you’re optimistic. At the end of the day when you can be realistic.
  • Do item 1 the first thing in the morning. Don’t check email first. Don’t rehash priorities. Start at 1 and finish it.
  • Daily. Every day. Every single day.

The Mary Kay organization believes in this enough that they make space for it at the top of their consultant date books.

Maybe you’ve heard the back story about the six list before, but I think it’s worth my re-telling it.

Back in the early 1900’s, Charles Schwab was the head of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Consultant Ivy Lee offered to increase the productivity of Schwab’s people, and Lee would let Schwab decide what the results were worth. Schwab agreed.

Lee taught each executive to sit down at the end of each day, and create a list. The list must contain only the six most important things to be completed the next day. Each morning, they should start the day by working on the first item on that list, and not move on until it is completed. That was it. Lee left, and let Schwab watch what happened.

After a few months of seeing results, Schwab sent a check to Lee for $25,000. That’s over $500,000 in today’s dollars.

If Charles Schwab found a simple list of six things to be worth half a million dollars, maybe it can work for you, too.


About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

Wondering what is and is not allowed in the comments?
Or how to get a nifty photo beside your name?
Check our commenting policy.
Use your real name, not a business name.

Don't see the comment form?
Comments are automatically closed on older posts, but you can send me your comment via this contact form and I'll add it manually for you. Thanks!


  1. says

    We have been using this method in our office for the past six months with great results. I agree that the key is sticking with it, and some days are better than others. Another key is to keep you longer list of future items accessible so you can feed it to your daily list of six when you have an opening.

  2. says

    I like the concept and used to have a rundown in TV. I would edit one item at a time and it helped to keep me focused.

    I think I will use this in business as well.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. says

    Cool to see this post go a little viral today!

    Bradford, love that it is actually working for you.

    Chris, the rundown list from TV is a great analogy. I’ll be using that idea!

    Carlos, I’m sorry it hurt, but I hope it helps make change.

  4. says

    Someone sent this to me today, and it’s the second time in the last 5 hours that I’ve heard about a 6 things list. Incredibly. I think I’m supposed to start making a 6 things list every night for the next day, ya think? :)

  5. says

    This sounds like a great idea – I’m definitely going to implement this – I actually made a list of the things I need to accomplish last night, so I’ll work on those this morning.

    I’d love some suggestions for how to best manage my HUGE to-do list – I’ll pull my daily six from this list. I’m a solopreneur so most tasks fall to me, and I’m not sure how to best manage my monster list.

  6. says

    I have a write-on board a work where I list the important things to accomplish each day, usually not more than six. I love being able to erase them before I leave each day, and the *volunteers* get to see what they accomplished. It’s become a great way to build self-confidence in those who don’t feel that they have much to offer. And it helps me stay on task in an often chaotic atmosphere.

  7. says

    My friend Rob Hatch uses these two reminders during the day, when he’s following his six list. They keep him on track:

    I can only do one thing at a time.
    What’s the most important thing for me to be doing right now?