The Ivy Lee Method: A Profoundly Simple Yet Effective Way to Get More Out of Your To-Do List

Eugene Adams

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The Charles Schwab Story

Charles M. Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Success in the steel and shipbuilding industries made him one of the wealthiest Americans of the 1920s.

When adjusted for inflation, his net worth reached $1.19 billion.

A massive reason for Charles Schwab’s success was his obsession with productivity. He was constantly searching for new ways to increase productivity. That desire led him to a man by the name of Ivy Lee.

Ivy Lee was one of the pioneers of the public relations field. Ivy Lee told Charles Schwab that all he needed was 15 minutes with each of his executives.

The two men came to an unusual financial agreement. Ivy Lee told Charles Schwab to try his suggestions for three months, then pay him whatever he felt the advice was worth.

The advice must have been effective because three months later, Charles Schwab wrote a check for $25,000 ($400,000 when adjusted for inflation).

What was this amazing productivity method?

The Ivy Lee Method

A typical to-do list involves writing down everything you need to get done. You then work through the list until you complete everything on it.

The Ivy Lee Method is a 4-step method that upgrades a typical to-do list.

Step 1: List the 6 most important things.

The process starts the night before. The first thing you need to do is write down the six things you want to get done the following day. They should be the most important six things.

Then list those six things in order of importance. The most important task should be #1, and the least important should be #6.

I initially struggled with the order of my list. Every task felt equally important. I developed the table below to help me prioritize my list.

Note: This is not an exhaustive chart. Sometimes you will come across tasks that don’t fit perfectly into one of these four categories. However, in my experience, this chart works 90% of the time or more.

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Step 2: Start with #1.

It’s essential to focus entirely on #1 until you finish it.

Once you finish #1, you move on to #2. You then focus completely on #2 until finished.

I used to spend a lot of my day multitasking. I got a lot of work done, but it never felt like my best work. Focusing on one thing at a time raised the quality and speed of my work greatly.

Step 3: Move unfinished tasks to the next day.

In a perfect world, we would finish all six tasks every day. But the world is not perfect, and neither am I. Some days I finish everything on my list. Some days I fail miserably. Most people are the same way.

Include anything you did not finish in tomorrow's list.

If a task carries over too many days in a row, ask yourself if it is really important enough to be on your list at all. Something that doesn’t get done for several days or weeks is probably not important enough to do at all.

Step 4: Repeat daily.

At the end of the day, start back from step one.

This step is the simplest and the most important. I know from experience that progress happens slowly. Some days you will feel like you are wasting your time on this method. Ignore that feeling at first. If you stay consistent, you will see results.

Why It Works

1. Simplicity

Most methods work much better in theory than in reality. The reason for that is the level of adherence to the plan. No plan is ever executed perfectly. The more complex the plan, the more imperfect the execution.

The biggest strength of the Ivy Lee Method is its simplicity. Sometimes starting a new habit can be difficult. It might take a couple of weeks to remember all the steps and make it a habit. This method is the complete opposite. The steps are so simple that it becomes a habit within a couple of days.

2. Focus

After years of fighting it, I finally concluded that multitasking is not efficient. No matter how well you think you multitask, you are more efficient when you focus on one thing at a time.

In the real world, distractions happen. It is not reasonable to think you will be able to avoid multitasking altogether. However, the more time you spend entirely focused on one thing, the more productive you will be.

3. Eliminates decision fatigue

The more decisions you make throughout the day, the worse you make decisions. This concept is called decision fatigue.

The Ivy Lee Method forces you to make all your important decisions the night before. I have found this especially helpful early in the morning and during my midday slump. When I am most tired, it is helpful not to have to think or make decisions. I simply look at my list, and the next task is ready decided for me.

With this method, you can focus less on deciding what to do and more on actually doing things.

4. Forces you to be mindful about your priorities

Warren Buffet is often incorrectly credited with this 25–5 rule.

  1. Write down your top 25 career goals.
  2. Circle the five most important goals.
  3. Cross the other 20 goals off your list and never think about them again.

Even though the story of him stating this rule appears to be fake, it is still a great rule. I don’t recommend you take it to this extreme. But, the core concept is a great one.

Think long and hard about what goals are most important to you. Then make sure every task gets you closer to those goals.

This method accomplishes that by forcing you to reevaluate your priorities nightly.

5. Puts first things first

Ideally, you would finish all six tasks every day, but nobody is perfect.

Using this method has helped me complete my most important tasks, even on my bad days. So, be perfect whenever possible. Get the most important (or most profitable) tasks done on days when you’re not perfect.

Main Principles

Rules are meant to be broken, so you might as well make your own. If following the Ivy Lee Method as written does not appeal to you, that is ok.

As long as you keep the following two principles in mind, you will still enjoy most of the benefits of this method.

  1. Focus on one thing at a time. No multitasking.
  2. Prioritize your most important tasks first.

Adjustments

Theories are great when everything goes according to plan. When things are not perfect, you need to be able to adjust.

Here are some adjustments I have made in the past.

It doesn't have to be 6 things.

There is nothing magical about the number 6. Personally, I put anywhere from 3–7 tasks on my list. The number of tasks depends on a couple of factors.

  1. How much time I have to work that day.
  2. How long I estimate each task will take.
  3. Whether all tasks can be done in the same location or if I need to travel some.
  4. If all my tasks can be done solo or if some teamwork is involved.

Don’t feel stuck with the number 6. Experiment and find the right number of tasks for you. As a general rule, the number of tasks should be challenging but realistic. You want to avoid finishing everything with a lot of time to spare. You also want to avoid having so many tasks that you are constantly carrying many over to the next day.

Works on side hustles and for busy parents.

This method is not just for your primary job. It also works well for side hustles.

If you have a full-time job or you’re a stay at home parent, time is limited. If you fall into one of those categories, you will have to be more forgiving when you fail to complete all your tasks for the day. You will carry tasks over to the next day more often, and that is ok.

The good news is that even if you rarely complete everything you want to, you will complete the most important things. Completing the most important tasks will ensure that you maintain positive momentum even when life is busy.

Another tactic I have found useful is to keep two separate lists. One list will have all your time-based obligations. For example, your working hours, taking your kids to school, cooking dinner, etc. The other list will be the normal Ivy Lee type. You then use the second list to fill in any free time that is left in the first.

Creative Tasks

When you use this method for creative tasks, such as writing, you will sometimes need a break before completing a task.

Here are two potential adjustments you can make when you find it hard to maintain focus.

  1. Move to the next item on your list until you feel recharged.
  2. Have a mindless tasks list to “fill the gaps.” Some examples are, take out the trash, laundry, micro workouts, answer emails, non-urgent messages, take a walk, etc.

I like to keep a list of non-urgent tasks that I can complete in 5 minutes or less. When my brain needs a break, I do 1 or 2 of those, then get back to work.

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that,

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Parkinson’s Law shows up whenever you give yourself too much time to complete a task. If you give yourself one hour to complete a task you could easily do in 45 minutes, that task is very likely to take you one hour. So what happened to that extra 15 minutes?

Typically that extra time is completely wasted. I am not suggesting that you rush. If additional time will improve the quality of your work, take the extra time. But, that is usually not the case at all.

With this law in mind, I try my best to give myself a reasonable amount of time to complete each task. If I fail to complete it in the allotted time, I move on to something else, then come back to the task later. In my opinion, this is important because it serves as a kind of penalty for not completing a task on time.

It takes a lot of trial and error, but there is great value in assigning the right amount of time to each task on your list. Too much time leads to you wasting time. Not enough time leads to frustration. Try to assign yourself a time limit that is both possible and difficult.

Takeaway

Being more productive will make achieving your goals easier, no matter what your goals are. The Ivy Lee Method is great because it is simple and easy to implement.

Even if this method is not right for you, focusing on the following two principles will make you more productive.

  1. Focus on one thing at a time. No multitasking.
  2. Prioritize your most important tasks first.

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Certified Personal Trainer/ Restaurant Reviewer. Because I believe in enjoying delicious food without sacrificing your health.

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