How To Be More Productive by Using the Ivy Lee Method

Updated: 12 Oct, 2021 | Bill Peatman

One of the most trusted executive productivity methods is 100 years old. In 1918, Charles W. Schwab (no relation to the Charles Schwab of the financial world), CEO of Bethlehem Steel, was desperate to boost organizational productivity, so the story goes. He hired a business consultant named Ivy Lee to help. Well, Schwab didn't traditionally hire Lee. Lee refused payment unless his advice worked. He said Schwab should pay him what Schwab thought the results were worth.

Lee asked for 15 minutes with each of Bethlehem Steel's executives. In those 15 minutes, he told the executives to do the following every day:

  • Write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow at the end of the day
  • Prioritize the list in order of importance
  • The following day, begin with the first task on the list
  • Work on the first project until finished, then move on to the next task
  • Continue until every project on the list is complete
  • Add any unfinished tasks to the top of the list for the next day

After three months, the productivity gains were such that Schwab wrote Lee a check for $25,000--$400,000 in today's economy.

Why the Ivy Lee Productivity Method is Effective

"It's simple enough to actually work," said James Clear, author of "Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones." Clear points out that the beauty of the Ivy Lee Method is that it doesn't require any technology or app and uses simple rules to guide complex behavior.

Simplicity also makes it easy to get your day started. By listing the tasks the day before, you know exactly how to start your workday. You don't meander through your inbox and spend a few hours doing random tasks that aren't all that important. Save those for when you've finished your six most important projects.

The Ivy Lee Method Forces Single-Tasking

While multitasking was at one time a badge of honor for executives—proof of their productivity superpowers—it is now known to be kryptonite. Multitasking throughout the day is a productivity killer. Researchers have discovered that "switching time," the time it takes to back out of one task and dive into another, costs about 25 minutes of your attention. That's nearly an hour to switch in and switch out.

Other downsides to multitasking include:

  • Increased stress levels
  • A 40 percent decrease in productivity
  • Reduced cognitive abilities

The Ivy Lee Method forces single-tasking by requiring you to concentrate on one task or project at a time. You focus on one item until it is complete. This practice is similar to timeboxing, where you schedule blocks of time for specific types of work—through timeboxing does not include the prioritization involved in the Ivy Lee Method.

The Ivy Lee Method Enables More Deep Work

Deep work is the opposite of multitasking. Cal Newport, author of "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," defines deep work as "the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task."

According to Newport, deep work:

  • Enables you to quickly (and deliberately) learn complicated new skills
  • Produces higher-value output at a faster pace
  • Generates a sense of meaning and fulfillment in your professional life

Anyone Can Implement the Ivy Lee Productivity Method

In addition to being simple, the Ivy Lee Method is accessible to anyone. The Ivy Lee method requires no expensive notebook or planner, SaaS app, paid consultant or coach, or costly seminars or training. The Ivy Lee Method is free, easy, and effective. 

Anyone can list the six most important tasks of the day. Following through may be challenging, especially at first. We are so accustomed to responding to every email, text, and Slack message in real-time that it can be difficult to shut those channels down.

How to Start Using the Ivy Lee Productivity Method

As with most new habits, the hardest part is often getting started. Shifting from multitasking to single-tasking can be difficult and stressful. To help you get started, here are some tips on getting focused and remaining in a state of sustained concentration.

  • Try to estimate the time required for each task. Parkinson's Law says that work will expand to take the time assigned to it. Giving a finite time limit for a project can help you complete it faster.
  • Remove any other distractions from your work environment. Sustaining focus can be tricky when you are working from home and kids, pets, deliveries, chores, and other distractions pop into your office and brain. Try to mentally and physically separate from distractions.
  • Turn off notifications. Don't let those dings and alerts from emails, texts, Slack, and social media interrupt your focus.
  • Alert your colleagues. If you are going to change how and when you respond to people, let coworkers know so you can reset expectations.
  • Create some accountability. Find an Ivy Lee Method buddy and keep each other on track.

Is the Ivy Lee Productivity Method Right for You?

No productivity method works for everyone. The best way to find out of the Ivy Lee Method is right for you is to try it for a week or two. If you don't see results, or you can't stay focused, don't despair. You can try other productivity methods like the Eisenhower Matrix, the Iceberg Method, and the Autofocus System.

To learn more about executive productivity, download 7 Skills of Highly Effective SMB Leaders.

7 Skills of Highly Effective SMB Leaders

About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

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