I am organized to a fault. I alternate between multiple planners, calendars, and to-do lists in a perpetual search for the perfect organizational method. But few organizational tips have changed my life quite like the Ivy Lee method.
What is the Ivy Lee method? It’s simple: write out six “to-do” items the night before, listed in order of importance. The next day, tackle each item in order, fully completing one task before moving on to the next.
I can tell you from experience, this method gets things done. In fact, you would not believe how much this hundred-year-old trick is worth!
The $400,000 idea
Where did it come from? As James Clear tells the story, the fantastically wealthy CEO of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Charles M. Schwab, brought in successful businessman Ivy Lee as a productivity consultant in 1918 to improve his company’s performance.
Lee requested a mere fifteen minutes with Schwab’s executives and told Schwab the consultation was free. In three months, Lee told Schwab, he could send a check for whatever he thought Lee’s advice was worth.
Three months came and went, and Schwab sent Lee a check for $25,000—worth approximately $400,000 today. Clearly, the Ivy Lee method was a success. A quick Google search reveals that the Ivy Lee method is making a comeback, with write-ups in business publications like Business Insider and Fast Company, but also in laymen’s publications like Bustle and Medium.
Why and how it works
The Ivy Lee method requires no expensive notebook or planner, no paid consultant, no online seminars or training. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s effective.
So why does it work so well? Consistency is key. Regularly completing the same number of tasks per day makes it easier for your brain to organize the information and to remember everything you need to do.
Focusing on one task at a time is good for you, too. Studies show that our brains can’t actually multitask. We can only really do one thing at a time, no matter how much we might tell ourselves otherwise!
Writers like Cal Newport point out that in a culture overflowing with distractions it’s important that we cultivate habits of “deep work”—the ability to focus all of our cognitive energy on a mentally demanding task. The Ivy Lee method just takes advantage of how our brains work best.
The Ivy Lee method in practice
What does this method look like in practice? I like to write separate Ivy Lee-style lists for work items and personal items. Every evening when I leave work, I write out the top six tasks that need to be accomplished the following day on a sticky note. This forces me to weigh my priorities and determine what is “urgent” and what is “important.”
Here’s what that note might look like:
- Submit my expense report.
- Email my boss about the agenda for next week’s meeting.
- Edit my intern’s op-ed, and send it to my boss for final approval.
- Read an amicus brief for an upcoming case.
- Order new office supplies.
- Print copies of the final meeting agenda.
I have found that spelling out each task with a clear deadline makes it easier to check everything off at the end of the day. Bigger tasks—like brainstorming a large research project—I break into smaller, discrete tasks, like “Take twenty minutes in the team lounge to write down 5+ possible thesis statements.”
Then, every night before bed, I do a mental run-through of what chores need to be accomplished—laundry, grocery shopping, tidying my room—and what social plans are on my calendar and type out a list of six tasks on my phone.
Here’s an example of my personal to-do list:
- Reschedule my doctor’s appointment.
- Send a thank-you note to my aunt and uncle.
- Go to the grocery store.
- Text my sister about our weekend plans.
- Read a chapter of my book.
- Check on whether my package has arrived yet.
How important is it to keep the number of tasks to six? This number forces me to prioritize what really matters and limits my expectations about what I can actually accomplish in 24 hours. But when I get busy, I will expand the list to seven or eight, and when I get caught up, sometimes the list shrinks to two or three items. There is nothing magical about the number six—it’s just a good rule of thumb for setting realistic expectations.
Try out the Ivy Lee method for a few days, and let it work wonders for your daily routine. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper to start. I didn’t pay $400,000 for it, but I consider this trick to be a priceless productivity tool!