Ivy Lee Method: A Timeless Approach for Better To-do Lists

A good to-do list is worth its weight in gold. Use the time-tested Ivy Lee Method to reduce distraction and create the highest impact to-do list possible.

In 1918, Bethlehem Steel Corporation president Charles M. Schwab (not to be confused with American banking magnate Charles R. Schwab) was one of the richest men in the world.

Adjusted for inflation, Charles Schwab’s estimated net worth approached $1.19 billion.

Much of Bethlehem Steel’s success was attributed to Schwab’s extreme focus on efficiency and productivity.

The story goes that Schwab hired prominent productivity consultant and public relations expert Ivy Ledbetter Lee to show him “a way to get more things done.”

Lee requested 15 minutes with each of Schwab’s executives and, in an unusual twist, asked not to be paid upfront.

Instead, he said, “After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”

Three months later, Schwab wrote Lee a check for $400,000 (when adjusted for inflation).

What is the Ivy Lee Method?

So, what $400k productivity system did Lee give Schwab’s executive team?

He provided them with a straightforward but powerful prioritization technique and daily routine for time management organized into four simple steps. A routine that has become one of the most influential productivity methods of all time and a must for anyone trying to achieve peak productivity.

The Steps:

Step 1 – At the end of each work day, write the six most important tasks you need to accomplish tomorrow. No more than six items.

Step 2 – Prioritize and arrange these items in order of their true importance.

Step 3 – When starting your next day, focus only on the first task. Don’t start the second task until the first task is complete.

Step 4 – Work through the rest of your daily tasks in this same way. At the end of the day, move unfinished tasks to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

Make this your daily schedule and repeat this process every workday.

Why the Ivy Lee Method Works

It may seem counterintuitive that such a simple method, developed in the early 20th century, could be so effective in today’s technology-driven world. The Ivy Lee prioritization method is about more than just listing tasks. It’s about understanding each task’s significance and tackling them with undivided attention.

It works because:

Its simplicity enables flexibility. As James Clear likes to say, “Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.” This prioritization method works across industries, job titles, and with or without technological help. There are no special exceptions, complex rules, or project management software needed, which makes it easy to implement and follow. If you get off track, you just refer back to your list.

It forces you to focus on what is important. It’s not about doing more. It’s about doing what matters. By limiting the number of tasks you can have each day, you’re forced to remove what isn’t absolutely necessary. What is left are the tasks most likely to move you forward in a meaningful way. It’s this constraint that enables you to commit the time and resources necessary to actually complete your list.

It clarifies the next steps. Research shows the average person makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. By determining your task list the evening before, you start each day applying your energy to your most important task rather than to determining what needs to be done. This not only saves valuable time but helps reduce decision fatigue.

It prevents multitasking. Fewer priorities result in better focus. Better focus, no matter what your field, results in better outcomes. A study by UC Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after an interruption. Single-tasking, on the other hand, reduces attention residue, resulting in less time wasted. This leads to more time and energy to devote to completing your most important tasks.

How To Implement the Ivy Lee Method

While the tools that power our to-do lists may have changed, the best way to implement the Ivy List Method has not. Following on the original steps to implement the Ivy Lee Method:

  1. List Your Tasks: At the end of your workday, identify six critical tasks for the following day. No more than six tasks per day. These should align with your core objectives. Make sure to capture these where you will be able to review them throughout the day (Todoist, Analog Today Card, or other to-do list tool).
  2. Prioritize Wisely: Order these tasks by impact and urgency (see the Eat the Frog method). This isn’t about ease; it’s about importance. Ensure your single most important/urgent task is first on the list of tasks to be completed.
  3. Focus and Execute: The next day, start with the top priority task and give it your undivided attention. Only focus on this single task. Don’t move to the next task until it’s completed.
  4. Repeat: At the end of the day, review your task list and move any remaining tasks to your list of six crucial tasks for the next day. Repeat the above process.

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