Productivity Hack: What Is the Ivy Lee Method and Does It Really Work?

editor of woman writing on blank notebook

Can you reduce your to-do list to just six? (Image: Getty/

If you’ve been having a hard time concentrating or getting things done lately, you might be able to help with an age-old productivity technique called the Ivy Lee method.

Developed in 1918, by an American businessman named Ivy Lee, it’s a simple and accessible way to upgrade your to-do list by prioritizing and eliminating things. distractions.

So what will you do?

To try the Ivy Lee method:

  1. List the six most important tasks of the day in order of priority, ideally the night before
  2. Start working on the first task
  3. When you finish one, cross it out
  4. Only move on to the next quest when you have completed the previous one
  5. If any tasks have not been completed by the end of the day, add them to the top of your list for the next day


But does it really work? And what are the benefits of using the technique?

It reduces decision fatigue

I’ve been using the Ivy Lee approach for the last year and it’s helped me stay realistic about my workload, stay on track, and minimize multitasking.

Because you plan your day and often the day before, this helps to reduce decision fatigue, where we burn out making choices.

Catri Barrett, a certified life coach specializing in perfectionism and procrastination, says this can be helpful: ‘We’re bombarded with information and options, which can can make you feel overwhelmed.

‘Starting with tasks can be the hardest part, which is where the Ivy Lee approach can be very helpful.

‘You’re eliminating the decision-making process that can take up so much of your mornings.’

It separates planning from execution

In fact, this decision-making process can be the hardest part. I think about what I really need to do a challenge, however, once that’s done, I often feel in control and get the job done.

“There are two types of work – planning and execution,” says Jess Salamanca, a business coach. ‘This technique assumes people know how to prioritize their time, what the six activities are and what order they should be in.

‘It can help increase productivity, but you can waste your time if you’re not doing the right things, so it’s important to consider how you plan.’

Graphics of Multitaskers

Multitasking doesn’t work – this technique gets you out of it (Image: Getty/

It solves multitasking

In an age of distraction and information overload, the Ivy Lee method can help you focus on one thing at a time.

Catri said: ‘Multitasking is a myth. ‘Just like computers, too many tabs open in your head will eventually slow you down.

‘Techniques like these are useful because they allow you to prioritize one task at a time, which is a more efficient approach when you have a human mind.’

It can also help you enter a state of deep work. Jess says: ‘It takes your brain 10 minutes to go from task to task, so if you’re constantly doing it, you’ll never get the work done with high quality.

‘The key to being happy at work is being able to find a sense of fluency and doing deep work. Ivy Lee gives you a framework for getting into that state. ‘

It bets your to-do list

It’s really fun when you tick a task and move on to the next. ‘This method is basically gamification, where you write down six tasks, then cross them out. Every time you cross out one, you think, I can do another one. That’s the driving force, says Jess.

Using the Ivy Lee method is also a practical lesson in what you can do in a day.

I used to write loads of tasks on a to-do list and then feel bad about not being surprised when I didn’t do them.

Since you can only list six tasks and be motivated to get through them, Ivy Lee encourages you to be specific about what you can do in the time available.

While skimming through your list can feel good, it’s important not to focus too much on what you’ve accomplished or attach self-worth to your output.

Catri says: ‘Sometimes you’re not going to make the most of your day and be super productive, that’s okay. ‘Don’t fall into the trap of perfectionism and feel like a failure if you don’t complete everything on your list.’

time blocking gif

Make your to-do list more than a game (Image: Getty/

How the Ivy Lee technique works for today

The Ivy Lee method can be incredibly useful, but it was created over 100 years ago, so a bit of modernization and flexibility may be needed to make it even more relevant today.

Jess said: ‘It was developed when life was very different, by a rich man who had the autonomy to follow his time. It assumes you own your time and can do exactly what you want with it.

‘It’s a great method, but it doesn’t consider the requirements of modern life, like meetings, email, notifications and childcare.

‘Accept you live in a world of distractions and adapt to it when you need to.’

You can list replying to emails as one of your tasks or take the time to respond if there’s a problem.

You can also reduce the number of tasks that start if you’re working shorter days or adding things like school or other commitments to your list.

It’s a bit like Ivy Lee 2.0, where you use the framework but in a way that works for you.

Bottom Line: Ivy Lee is a simple method that can help you get more done and feel more in control. Not all productivity hacks are right for everyone, but this could be a hack to add to your ‘to-try’ list.

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Sarah Y. Kim

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