The Ivy Lee Method: Peak Productivity
By 1918, Charles M. Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.
Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time. The famous inventor Thomas Edison once referred to Schwab as the “master hustler.” He was constantly seeking an edge over the competition.
One day in 1918, in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done, Schwab arranged a meeting with a highly-respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee.
Lee was a successful businessman in his own right and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the field of public relations. As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”
“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.
“How much will it cost me,” Schwab asked.
“Nothing,” Lee said. “Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it's worth to you.”
The Ivy Lee Method
During his 15 minutes with each executive, Ivy Lee explained his simple daily routine for achieving peak productivity:
- At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.
A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check today.
The Ivy Lee Method of prioritising your to-do list seems stupidly simple. How could something this simple be worth so much?
What makes it so effective?
On Managing Priorities Well
Here's what makes it so effective:
It's simple enough to actually work. The primary critique of methods like this one is that they are too basic. They don't account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. What happens if an emergency pops up? What about using the latest technology to our fullest advantage? Complexity is often a weakness because it makes it harder. Yes, emergencies and unexpected distractions will arise. Ignore them as much as possible, deal with them when you must, and get back to your prioritised to-do list as soon as possible. Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.
It forces you to make tough decisions. I don't believe there is anything magical about Lee's number of six important tasks per day. It could just as easily be five tasks per day. However, I do think there is something magical about imposing limits upon yourself. I find that the single best thing to do when you have too many ideas (or when you're overwhelmed by everything you need to get done) is to and trim away everything that isn't absolutely necessary. Lee's method is similar to requires you to focus on just 5 critical tasks and ignore everything else. Basically, if you commit to nothing, you'll be distracted by everything.
It removes the friction of starting. The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. (Getting off the sofa can be tough, but once you actually start running it is much easier to finish your workout.) Lee's method forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work. If I decide the night before, I can wake up and start being productive immediately. It's simple, but it works. In the beginning, is just as important as succeeding at all.
It requires you to single-task. Modern society loves multi-tasking. is that being busy is synonymous with being better. The exact opposite is true. Having fewer priorities leads to better work. Study world-class experts in nearly any field—athletes, artists, scientists, teachers, CEOs—and you'll discover one characteristic runs through all of them: focus. The reason is simple. You can't be great at one task if you're constantly dividing your time ten different ways.
The bottom line - Do the most important thing first, each day. It's the only productivity trick you need.