The Single Most Important Thing


I just read a comment about "roadmaps" and "process maps" and "project management software"—which helps us move from Abstract Strategy to Concrete Action. I am not opposed to "process maps," and certainly acknowledge that you need some damn good PM software to direct Boston's Big Dig. But I want to focus on something "simpler"—and far more important—THE ONE TOOL WHICH WILL MAKE OR BREAK YOUR CAREER.

Namely the ... To-Do List.

I rarely "guarantee" ... but in this case I guarantee that the most important thing you'll do today is to spend some quality time (normally I hate that phrase) on Carefully & "Strategically" Constructing your To-Do List.

Consider these Four Cardinal Principles: (1) Time is more important than money. (It is the only truly constrained resource.) (2) You = Your Calendar. (You are What You Spend Your Time On as much as ... you are what you eat.) (3) "To-Don'ts" are as important, or more important, than "To-Dos." (What's not on the list is perhaps more important than what is.) (4) Your To-Do List must never be more than 4 items long. (Okay, you can have an "errands list" that includes replenishing the stock of toilet paper and such—but the Big Yo Mamma To-Do List must ... MUST ... never run beyond four.)

The To-Do List ... is who you are today! This morning (long ago, I'm still in India, 9.5 time zones from EDT) I woke up, as usual, "with a hundred things to do"—every damn one of them important. But also as usual I meditated for 10 minutes to calm my dream-induced frenzy (malaria pills), and then spent 15 quiet minutes on my list. Many of my "crucial" "priorities" are not in fact consistent with my dreams for the next six months. They must mercilessly be edited out of my day—now. Some stuff that's unavoidable is crap that I, like you, must do for "political reasons." (There's always a backside or two to kiss. Welcome to Life 101.) But figuring where I want to spend a crucial 3-hour block that's "open" from 7AM to 10AM is all-important. So, I made my choices and made my list. (Three items.) It sat and sits dead-center on my Windows desk-top. (Sometimes I ink it on my right hand—I'm left handed.)

Of course my day did not go according to plan! For heaven's sake, whose does? But, still, I did zealously hold on to 2.5 of those crucial 3 hours for the project that matters to me most. And the bigger point is that the Process of early meditation-TD List construction subconsciously guided my day in the hours that followed.

So you're welcome to "process map" until you're blue in the face, or whatever. Just don't screw up the To-Do List. It really is "all you have"!

Tom Peters posted this on September 15, 2004, in Brand You.
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