The Ivy Lee Method: A 100-year-old routine to make you more productive

Aug 22, 2023
2023-08-22 Intentional Productivity blog image - Ivy Lee Method

Prioritizing your most important things—your "mission-critical tasks" as Tim Ferriss calls them in The 4-Hour Work Week—is key to managing your time and energy. But when you feel overwhelmed by all the tasks on your to-do list, it's easy to lose focus and motivation.

Today's timeless tip, the Ivy Lee Method, provides a simple yet powerful daily practice to help with this. By identifying, ranking, and making progress on your priorities each day, you'll maintain focus on what's truly vital, both at work and in your personal life.

Let's dive in.





It was 1918 and Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel and one of the richest men in the world, was looking for ways to increase efficiency at his company. So he brought in productivity consultant Ivy Lee to meet with his executives.

Lee proposed the 5-minute daily exercise outlined below. Though it sounded overly simple, Schwab's team committed to trying it out.

The result: After 3 months, Schwab was so pleased with how much more productive and effective his executives had become that he wrote Lee a cheque for $25,000. That amount in 1918 is equivalent to about $500,000 in 2023!



1 thing to apply


The Ivy Lee Method involves listing your top 6 most important tasks for tomorrow and prioritizing them in order. Set aside a few minutes at the end of each workday (or your entire day) to do this.


3 main benefits


While originally used by Schwab's executive team, the Ivy Lee Method can benefit anyone who struggles with overwhelming to-do lists and lack of focus.

  • This helps you plan your most important tasks in advance so you can dive right in and get started.
  • It removes the stress of constantly re-evaluating priorities and makes your daily focus crystal clear.
  • You can create consistent progress by ensuring you complete your needle-moving tasks each day.


5 minutes or less


Step 1: List your top 6 tasks

At the end of your day, make a list of the most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Keep it to 6 tasks or less.

  • What project milestones need to be met?
  • What goals will these tasks move forward?

Step 2: Rank by importance

Number your list of 6 tasks in order of importance and priority.

  • Based on your goals, what will move the needle?
  • What are the "mission-critical" tasks for tomorrow?

Leave your list where you'll see it in the morning.


Step 3 (next day): Work in order

Review your list when you start work or begin your day. Go through your list in order, focusing on one task at a time. Move on to the next task only once you've completed the task before it. 

Accordingly, your day looks like this:

  1. Focus only on task #1.
  2. Complete task #1.
  3. Focus only on task #2.
  4. Complete task #2.
  5. Focus only on task #3.

And so it goes as you make your way through your list.


Step 4: Find your variation

Of course, everyone's daily tasks, priorities, and workflows will look different so feel free to adapt this method to best suit your needs, routines, and objectives.

The idea is to find a way to maintain focus on the “vital few” (your priorities) versus getting lost in the “trivial many” (an endless list of non-essential tasks). According to Ivy Lee, you do this by:

  1. Knowing your priorities
  2. Working sequentially
  3. Focusing on completion
  4. Avoiding the distractions of multitasking (namely, cognitive shifting or “jumping” between tasks)





Here's the Ivy Lee Method at a glance. Note that while this was created for the workday, you can easily apply it in the broader context of your entire day.

  1. At the end of your workday, make a list of the most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Keep it to 6 tasks or less.

  2. Number the tasks from 1 to 6 in order of priority.

  3. Review your list when you start work the next day. Start by completing task #1.

  4. Move on to the next task once you've completed the task before it. Keep moving down your list in order as you finish each task.

  5. At the end of your day, move any unfinished tasks to tomorrow's new list of 6 priorities.

  6. Repeat daily and fine tune to find what works best for you.


Why it works
  • It's simple enough to actually follow through on. The focus is completing tasks, not managing a complex system.

  • Limiting yourself to six key tasks forces you to prioritize. Trying to juggle too many priorities leads to less effectiveness.

  • Deciding the night before removes procrastination around figuring out where to start when you sit down to work.

  • Tackling one task from start to finish avoids multitasking that can hamper deep focus.


Final thoughts

The Ivy Lee Method is a simple yet effective strategy for clarity, prioritization, and effectiveness. While no one strategy can address all the complexities of work and life, this method provides a simple routine to cut through the noise and focus your energy on accomplishing what matters most day to day. In fact, it works because of its sheer simplicity—so much so that it earned Mr. Ivy Lee the equivalent of $500k when he shared this method in 1918!

Take a few minutes at the end of each day this week to pick your 6 vital tasks for tomorrow. After a few weeks, you might be amazed at how much this simple practice is worth to you.


Your time and energy are your most precious resources. As always, thank you for sharing some of yours with me today.

See you in two weeks!

— Melissa



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