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Getting Things Done with Henry VIII

I love history, and I love living in London. One of the reasons I love living in London is that it's so full of history. I get a kick out of the thought that some of the same streets that we walk today in Ugg Boots and Converse trainers were once walked by sandal-shod Romans.

Now it's not too often that my interest in history and my interest in stress-free productivity overlap, but not long ago here in London there was an exhibit on King Henry VIII that provided a great example of highly productive behaviour.

Thomas Cromwell was one of Henry's closest advisors. Henry trusted Cromwell to deal with some of his most sensitive and important matters, including arranging and annulling some of Henry's marriages. If he were to do the king's bidding effectively, I expect that Cromwell wanted to be sure that he and Henry saw eye to eye on many things. Regularly discussing things with Henry would be critical.

Now Henry was a busy man. He did a lot of jousting and hunting, and with his six wives and a large court to entertain we can imagine there was a lot of wooing and feasting too.

Cromwell's time with the king was precious. Cromwell knew, in order to maintain his trusted relationship with Henry, that his "face time" with the king needed to be put to good use.

Henry also had a lot of power. Under Henry the power of the Catholic Church, until then a powerful and wealthy rival of the monarchy, was severely curtailed. Henry appropriated church property, had monasteries razed to the ground, had priests and monks imprisoned (or worse). Henry's break with Rome created the Church of England, and Henry put himself at its head. Ultimate temporal and spiritual power was concentrated in one man for the first time. Many people who had displeased the king found themselves separated from some of their most important body parts.

Make the most of your time with the king, and don't annoy him, Cromwell must have thought.

So how did Cromwell prepare for his meetings with Henry? There was a document in the exhibit that made it very clear. It was put together in advance of a meeting Cromwell had with Henry at Windsor Castle in June of 1535.

Cromwell left little to chance. The document is a list of 17 topics to discuss with the king. It's titled "Remembrances at my next going to the court". It contains lots of detail, including things like "Item, to know the king's pleasure regarding Master Fisher," and "Item, to remember Sir Walter Hungerford's good deeds to the king."

Interestingly, the document is in the handwriting of a clerk, but Cromwell then amended it in his own hand. He drafted, he reflected, he revised.

Cromwell didn't just turn up at Windsor Castle and wing it. He wanted the most out of his time with Henry, and equipped with this carefully crafted list he knew there was a good chance his meeting would be productive.

In our work we call this kind of thing an "agenda list". Even if you don't spend a lot of time meeting with all-powerful royalty, agenda lists are a good idea. Have one for the people and groups in your life that you meet with regularly. As you make your way through your day, as things occur to you that need discussing with those people, add the topics you want to discuss. On your agenda for your boss you might have "discuss preparation for client meeting." On your agenda for your team meeting you might have "agree who will provide holiday cover over the Easter break." On your agenda for your husband or wife you might have "should we get a puppy?"

The next time you meet with those people you'll be ready to make the most of your time with them. Encourage them to prepare agenda lists in advance for you as well, so that you can both have confidence that the important things are getting appropriate focus.

And be thankful that, even if things do go wrong, even if the outcomes of your meetings are hugely suboptimal, you're unlikely to end up like poor Cromwell. Despite his exemplary meeting management, he eventually fell from Henry's favour. He only had need of one agenda list after that, "things to discuss with my jailer."

(blog originally posted on

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