Ivy Lee’s Secret: The Best To-Do List Method You Never Knew Existed

This 100-year-old productivity hack is more relevant today than ever

The Ivy Lee To-Do List is Just as Relevant Today

We’re going analog today. Stick your phone back in your pocket. Close out your Evernote files and your favorite apps. Today we’re going to lick your to-do list once-and-for-all.

And it all starts with a 100-year-old tip from a management consultant.

To-do lists have become a religion of their own. There are the folks with colored pens and bullet journals. There’s GTD and One Thing. We’ve got a hundred different systems for organizing, planning, and cramming one-hundred pounds of work in a two-pound bag.

The work gets bigger while the bag stays the same.

We’ve all got 24 hours. No matter who you are or where you’re from. Unless you die in the middle of the day, you, me, Warren Buffet, and the kid with the lemonade stand all have the sames-sized bag of time.

For a minute, multi-tasking was a buzzword until we realized our conscious brains can only process one task at a time. Turns out, multi-tasking makes us less productive (if you’d like to boost your subconscious, read my story below).

Now, thanks to Gary Vaynerchuk as its lead cheerleader, we’re in the era of work (aka. hustle). If we can just out-work each other, we’ll crush the other person and we’ll come out on top.

There’s a lot to be said for hustle. As we optimize, strategize, and proselytize our way to a better life, if we don’t work hard for our craft the world will leave us behind — no question.

We also know we need 7–8 hours of sleep or we’re more-likely to die of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease (the Mayo Clinic and others helped us learn that one).

So, if we can’t stay up all night and we can’t do two things at once, how do we get it all done?


In walks Ivy Lee…

Charles Schwab used to be a really big deal. Like, a REALLY big deal. In the early 1900’s, as president of Bethlehem Steel, Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.

We needed ships for shipping and blowing stuff up. We needed trains for shipping and transportation. The US infrastructure was booming and Bethlehem was there to provide the steel behind it all.

As legend has it, Schwab was looking for a way, as most business execs do, to get more productivity from his company. He knew we all get the same, 24-hour bag, so he had to find a way to make that bag as efficient as possible.

Even in the early 1900s, we had productivity consultants. Schwab called upon a well-recognized consultant named Ivy Lee, who was also a successful entrepreneur.

Schwab said (paraphased) “Make us more productive.”

Lee said (paraphrased), “sure.”

Ivy Lee asked for a few minutes with each executive and promised he could turn things around. Charles Schwab agreed to the terms. When he asked Lee for his fee. Lee declined payment, told Schwab to give the system three months and, if Schwab found it helpful, to pay what he thought it was worth at that time.

Again, as legend has it, this method increased productivity so well, Schwab sent an unsolicited check to Ivy Lee for $25,000. In today’s dollars, that’s $449,861.31 in 2018 (according to the inflation calculator at saving.org). Not too shabby for an afternoon of talking and a trick with a half-sheet of paper.

You can do this too. The Ivy Method only take a minute to learn, five minutes to implement, and you won’t have to spend a second in a steel mill (unless you want to).


The Ivy Lee method

This to-do list strategy won’t cost you $449,861.31. It won’t cost you more than a free, quarter-sheet of paper (or unlined 3 x 5 card) and your favorite pen.

The process starts the night before your workday.

  1. The night before, write out the six most-important tasks for the following day. Don’t write more than six. Fewer than six is fine. Many people recommend three.
  2. Number those tasks in order of importance. Number one must be done before you go to bed, no matter what. Number two, less-so etc. Transfer this list to a 3 x 5 card, or (what I use) a folded, quarter-sheet of paper. This fits easily in a wallet, pants, or shirt pocket. See photo.
  1. Start your work day with item number one. Work until you finished item one. Don’t skip to item two until item one is done.
  2. Physically cross-out each item as you finish it. This is important. The physical cross-out triggers the reward centers of your brain. This is a simple way to get yourself to complete the next item. See photo.
  1. At day’s-end transfer any unfinished tasks to the following day’s to-do list. The process starts again from zero. Evaluate the tasks in order of priority.
  2. Practice this process for a week. Some days you’ll nail the whole list. Others, you won’t do more than item one.
  3. At week’s end, if you’re consistently unable to perform all six tasks, reduce your list to five, then four, until you come up with a list of tasks you can finish almost daily. Tim Ferriss is famous for making three-item to-do lists. Try to tell that guy he’s not productive.

The analog component is important

When we use our to-do list in digital format there’s less mental ownership. This is similar to why casinos have us gamble with poker chips, swipe cards, and tokens.

When you remove the analog, physical process from your to-do list, there’s less accountability. We ignore the buzzing reminders and the constant barrage of calendar pings. When you’ve got a paper list, it’s clear which task is next.

The Ivy Lee method is deceptively simple.

You decide what you want to accomplish and do nothing else until each item is completed in order. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. This tool is worth $450 grand.

This six-item to-do list does not replace your calendar, or all the planning tools in your phone. Each task is a reminder, nothing more than a few words in a box.

Keep it simple.

The Ivy Lee method works because it forces you to evaluate each task. Are you doing this task because it’s fun, or because it moves your work forward?