The Ivy Lee Method: A Daily Routine to Maximize Productivity

4 min read

Since quitting my day job as a data scientist, I’ve found that one of the trickiest aspects of being my own boss is making sure that I’m constantly working on the things that are most important.

As someone who builds and grows websites for a living, there is almost an infinite amount of tasks I could do on a daily basis to move the needle. This list includes things like:

  • Doing keyword research
  • Doing background research for upcoming articles
  • Writing articles
  • Updating old articles
  • Working on digital products
  • Optimizing my website speed and design
  • Sending out emails to my newsletter list
  • Promoting my content on social media

Since I have no deadlines and no boss, I’m in charge of determining what tasks are most important to work on each day.

While there are an endless amount of productivity methods out there for determining which tasks to work on and how to work on them, I’ve found one to be more effective (and simple) than all of the others: The Ivy Lee method.

The Ivy Lee Method: Productivity Through Simplicity

The Ivy Lee method is a simple daily routine that involves the following steps:

1. At the end of each work day, jot down the six most important tasks you need to accomplish the next day.

2. Arrange these six tasks in order of importance.

3. When you show up to work the next day, only work on the first task. Once the first task is finished, you can move on to the second task, then the third, and so on.

4. At the end of the day, move any unfinished tasks to a new list of six for the next day.

5. Repeat the process each work day.

The method is ridiculously simple, which is partially why it works so well. It doesn’t involve any fancy algorithms, tools, or excessive planning. It’s simple and straightforward:

  • At the end of each work day, write down what you need to work on the next day.
  • When the next day rolls around, do those things in order of importance.

Nice and easy.

The 100-Year History of the Ivy Lee Method

This method first gained prominence in 1918 when Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation and one of the richest men in the world at the time, arranged a meeting with productivity guru Ivy Lee to discover new ways to increase the productivity of his workers.

Note: The Charles Schwab in this story has no relation to the founder of the Charles Schwab brokerage firm.

Ivy Lee. Source: Wikipedia

As the story goes, Lee shared his method with Schwab and his executives for free, and Schwab only paid him after he saw how successful the method was three months later.

Charles M. Schwab. Source: Wikipedia

Apparently the process provided massive results because Schwab paid out $25,000 to Lee – equivalent to about $400,00 today.

Why The Method Works

There are a few reasons that explain why this method works so well:

1. It’s ridiculously simple. The biggest perk of this method is that it’s simple and easy to implement. When productivity methods are complex or require you to buy a specific planner or use a certain tool, it only adds to the complexity and makes it less likely that you’ll actually implement the method.

In this case, you can use pen and paper or a simple note-taking app to jot down the six things you want to accomplish during the next work day. There’s no excuse for not implementing this method.

2. It eliminates wasted on-the-spot planning time. The alternative to planning out your tasks the day before is deciding on the spot what to work on. Unfortunately, you only have a certain amount of focus and willpower to use each day, so spending time deciding what to work on once you show up is time that you could instead be using to actually get shit done.

As a blogger, the Ivy Lee method is particularly useful for me because one of the biggest decisions I make on a daily basis is what I should write about. By deciding what I’ll write about the day before, I eliminate the time I used to spend staring at my laptop for an hour in the morning deciding what topic to write about.

3. It forces you to become clear on your priorities. As I mentioned before, there is an endless list of tasks that I could spend my time on that may help grow my websites. However, this method forces me to choose the six most important tasks. Not only that, but it forces me to rank these tasks in order of importance.

This method forces me to focus my time and attention only on the tasks that are absolutely necessary and ignore everything else. 

4. It forces you to focus on one task at a time. One of the simplest, yet most crucial aspects of this method is that it emphasizes working on just one task at a time. You can’t move on to the next task until you finish the one before it.

In a world that praises multi-tasking, this method forces you to focus on just one thing at a time, which is the true path to success. As Gary Keller wrote in The One Thing:

“Success demands singleness of purpose.”

Success is dependent on your ability to focus deeply on just one task at a time. The Ivy Lee method enforces this truth.

How I Implement The Ivy Lee Method

I don’t use any fancy productivity apps or software to implement the Ivy Lee method. In fact, I believe that obsession over tools, apps, etc. is a form of procrastination. Instead, I use Notepad++, which is a simple note-taking app.

Just as the method prescribes, at the end of each work day I make a list of the six tasks that I need to complete the next day and rank them in order of importance.

For example, yesterday I compiled the following list of tasks to complete today:

1. Update the Collecting Wisdom Directory.

2. Write article on Ive Lee method for Four Pillar Freedom. (Done!)

3. Set up accounting rules on Quickbooks.

4. Delete old, short posts on Statology that receive no organic traffic.

5. Respond to emails.

6. Read about perks of getting a business credit card.

The first couple tasks on the lists are things that I absolutely had to get done in order to make today a successful day. The tasks towards the bottom of the list are things that I would like to get done, but aren’t absolutely necessary for pushing my businesses forward.

I personally believe that anyone who is in a position in which they are responsible for determining which tasks are most important to work on each day can benefit from implementing the Ivy Lee method. It’s simple, easy to implement, and highly effective.

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