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< Productivity Glossary
Ivy Lee Method

What is the Ivy Lee Method?

The Ivy Lee Method is a productivity technique where you outline six important tasks for the day, and complete each one in order of priority. Developed by famed productivity consultant Ivy Ledbetter Lee in the early 20th century, this simple method emphasizes prioritization and completion over multitasking through extensive to-do lists to achieve peak productivity. The Ivy Lee Method is based on a simple yet effective approach that forces you to make tough decisions on what to focus on so you can eliminate low-value tasks from consuming your time. 

Here’s how the Ivy Lee Method works:

  1. At the end of the day, write down the six most important tasks from your to-do list that demand your attention the next day.
  2. Prioritize these tasks based on their importance, focusing on the most critical ones first.
  3. The next day, work on one task at a time, in order of priority. Avoid multitasking and distractions, and give each task your full attention until it's completed.

So instead of spreading your attention across many insignificant little tasks, the Ivy Lee Method forces you to focus only on the most important thing you could be doing in that moment, and actually check it off before moving onto the next most important thing. This practice requires ruthless prioritization in order to determine which tasks are most important, but quickly provides value each day as it fuels productivity.

The story behind the Ivy Lee Method

The Ivy Lee Method boasts a fascinating origin story from over 100 years ago, centering around two prominent figures:

  • Ivy Lee: A renowned productivity consultant and pioneer in the field of public relations.
  • Charles Schwab: The highly successful president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, one of the largest steel producers in the world at the time.

As the story goes, Schwab, seeking to improve the efficiency of his executives, reached out to Ivy Lee for guidance. Lee, known for his unconventional yet impactful methods, proposed a seemingly simple solution: “Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied. “How much will it cost me,” Schwab asked. “Nothing,” Lee responded. “Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”

"At the end of each workday," he instructed the execs to "write down the six most important tasks you need to accomplish tomorrow. No more than six. Prioritize them ruthlessly, focusing on true importance." The executives were skeptical. Six tasks? That seems like child's play. Lee continued, "The next day, tackle only the first task on your list. Give it your full focus until it's complete. Then, and only then, move on to the second task. Repeat this process throughout the day."

Three months later, Schwab called Lee back to his office. The transformation in the executives was undeniable. Productivity had skyrocketed, deadlines were met with ease, and a sense of calm had replaced the previous frenetic energy. Schwab then wrote out a hefty sum – $25,000. In today's dollars, that equates to a staggering $400,000, a testament to the life-changing impact of the Ivy Lee Method.

Benefits of the Ivy Lee Method

The Ivy Lee Method's simplicity and focus-oriented approach offer several advantages for those seeking to enhance their productivity:

1. Enhanced focus

By limiting daily tasks to a manageable number, the method encourages deep work and minimizes distractions. This allows you to dedicate your full attention to the most important task at hand, leading to higher quality work and faster completion.

2. Clear prioritization

The core principle of ruthlessly prioritizing forces you to identify the tasks that truly move the needle toward your goals, with the first task being the most important. This clarity helps you avoid getting bogged down in less important activities and keeps you working on what matters most. If you need help protecting time for these priorities, use Reclaim Tasks to automatically schedule smart events in your calendar.

3. Reduced overwhelm

Extensive to-do lists can be daunting and paralyzing. By focusing on just six tasks, the Ivy Lee Method eliminates overwhelm and creates a manageable workload, fostering a sense of calm and control over your day.

4. Boosted productivity

The combined benefits of laser focus, clear prioritization, and reduced overwhelm lead to a significant increase in productivity. You'll find yourself accomplishing more in less time with this targeted approach.

4. Sense of accomplishment

Completing your prioritized tasks promotes a sense of accomplishment and progress. This positive reinforcement motivates you to stay on track and tackle your goals with renewed energy.

Best practices for the Ivy Lee Method

While the Ivy Lee Method is straightforward, incorporating some best practices can further enhance your experience:

  • Realistic task planning: Make sure each of your six tasks is realistically achievable within your workday. Don't overload yourself with overly ambitious tasks or more than six tasks, as this can lead to discouragement.
  • Time blocking: Consider using time blocking in conjunction with the Ivy Lee Method. Allocate specific time slots for each of your six tasks in your schedule, promoting dedicated focus and minimizing interruptions.
  • Unforeseen obstacles: Schedule buffer time within your workday to account for unexpected tasks or delays. This flexibility guarantees your prioritized tasks don't get squeezed out by unforeseen circumstances.
  • Review & reflect: Take some time at the end of each week to review your completed tasks and any unfinished ones. Analyze what worked well and identify areas for improvement in your prioritization strategy.
  • Personalize it: Don't be afraid to adapt this method to your specific workflow and preferences. Experiment with the number of tasks (if six feels overwhelming) or the timing of your prioritization routine.

Challenges with the Ivy Lee Method

Despite its effectiveness, the Ivy Lee Method presents some potential challenges:

  • Limited scope: The core method focuses solely on daily tasks. It doesn't inherently address long-term goal setting or project management, which might require a broader planning approach.
  • Underestimating complexity: While tasks can be prioritized, some projects involve intricate steps or unforeseen complications. The Ivy Lee Method might not fully account for the dynamic nature of complex projects.
  • Unforeseen urgencies: The method doesn't explicitly address handling urgent tasks that arise unexpectedly. Naturally, you cannot assign ad-hoc, urgent tasks within the order of importance you outlined the previous day. You might need to adapt your plan on the fly to accommodate pressing issues.
  • Subjectivity of importance: Prioritization relies on your judgment of what's "most important." If you struggle with decisiveness, choosing multiple tasks could become time-consuming or frustrating.
  • Discouragement from incompletion: Not completing all six tasks within a day can be discouraging. Always maintain a positive perspective and view unfinished tasks as carry-overs, not failures.

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