The Ivy Lee Method: Simply Productive

Productivity at its best: Write it, prioritize it, do it.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

In the world of productivity, whispered voices tell of a meeting a hundred years ago between PR consultant Ivy Lee and Charles Schwab, CEO of Bethlehem Steel at the time. Lee offered to increase the productivity of Bethlehem Steel’s executives by 20%. His fee? Whatever Schwab felt his services were worth after 30 days. (How’s that for confidence in the product you’re selling?)

After meeting with Lee, productivity jumped, and Schwab delivered a check for $25,000. I don’t know what year this was, but to put the fee in context, a day’s wages for a steelworker was $2. (Back-of-the-envelope calculations put it somewhere between $500,000 and $2 million today.)

I had heard a slightly simplified version of the legend years ago, and tried to research the details a few months ago. I didn’t find anything, but I think I was looking for a story involving JP Morgan. I heard about the Ivy Lee method a couple weeks ago, and for the last two weeks, I’ve been using it for my daily planning at work.

I like it.

The Ivy Lee Method is simple and straightforward:

  1. Before you leave work, write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow. Start with any fires you have in Quadrant 1, then schedule some time in Quadrant 2.
  2. Go home. Leave work at the office. Spend time with your family. Read books. Write. Have fun.
  3. The next morning, start with the first thing on your list. Work at it until it’s completed.
  4. Work down your list. Interruptions will happen. Get back to your list as quickly as you can.
  5. Repeat. Anything on still on your list will probably go to the top of tomorrow’s list, unless it’s no longer relevant. Flesh out the list and go home.

So simple it’s obvious, right? But it works, and there are a lot of great principles embodied in it.

This is a great daily review process. Here are some of the things I like about it:

  • It’s just six things (give or take). How many times have you bitten off more than you could chew, and committed yourself to doing a week’s worth of work in eight hours? Six things seems totally doable.
  • It encourages work-life balance. Going home and not thinking about work was an explicit part of Lee’s advice. If your subconscious wants to chew on problems, let it. But focus your conscious mind elsewhere. Turn off work email on your phone. Read to your kids. Go out to dinner with friends.
  • The end-of-day perspective. Planning at the end of the day has several advantages over planning in the morning. You have a more realistic grasp on what you can get done in a day. You tend to focus more on what’s important and less on what’s urgent. You already have a plan in place when the morning’s gravel starts to come in.
  • It encourages you to wrap things up early. The last appoint on your schedule each day is with yourself. In order to keep this appointment, you need to wrap up your work. How many times have you left the office later than you meant to because you got caught up in doing just “one more thing”? Learn to wrap up and leave work on time. (Again: work-life balance.)
  • It’s simple. The more simple your system is, the more likely you are to stick with it. If you don’t make it through your list, don’t worry about it—you wouldn’t have gotten everything done by any other method either.

There is one modification I would make to the Ivy Lee method: before starting to physically work your way through the list, take two minutes to scan your list and schedule any meetings that need to happen. Don’t worry if the order of the meetings doesn’t reflect the importance of the tasks—that’s simply the reality of coordinating schedules. By scheduling meetings early, you’re more likely to get on people’s calendar and they’ll appreciate the earlier heads-up.

You can also schedule meetings with yourself to reserve time on your calendar to work on your important tasks. Don’t schedule your entire day, but block off some keys times to focus. Leave yourself plenty of whitespace, too.

Block off the last 20 minutes of your workday tomorrow. Plan the following day, and see how it goes. After 30 days, how big of a check would you write for Ivy Lee?

Question: How do you plan for the day? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.