What is The Ivy Lee Method for Productivity? | Friday.app
The Ivy Lee Method for productivity

The Ivy Lee Method: Why This Simple Method Has Endured For Decades

Posted by Brandon Evans
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If you so pleased, you could easily lose hours online going down the rabbit hole of productivity hacks, some of them freely available and others hidden behind pay-walls or subscriptions.

Many of these tips are relatively modern, though they often try to model themselves as both ageless and timeless. Meanwhile, those that don’t try desperate to distinguish themselves somehow from the productivity systems they’re clearly imitating.

So, once in a while, it’s lovely (and useful!) to throwback to earlier productivity models, those that have truly stood the test of time and stayed as solid as steel; more specifically, a method that, in spite of its simplicity, can provide a beefy boost to your productivity. In order to do that, however, the man to see is Ivy Lee.  

Who Was Ivy Lee?

While Ivy Lee does sound like a character from a children’s book set in a hospital, he’s actually a notable champion of the past. 

The American man was a prestigious newspaper reporter turned publicist, before becoming a pioneer in public relations and productivity. More specifically, he worked as a public relations advisor to large corporations, including the Pennsylvania Railroad, Standard Oil, and the United States Steel Corporation.

He was the first of his kind, a publicist working for large corporations, among the initial few to employ the title “public relations”, as we understand it today. Throughout his career, he provided plans to improve the reputation of the companies he worked at. Not entirely satisfied with this feat, however, Ivy Lee made sure to leave us a productivity gem, the aptly named Ivy Lee method.

A Brief History of the Ivy Lee Method

Charles M. Schwab, founder of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, was a rather ambitious man, the kind that’s quoted as saying “there is little that the human mind can conceive that is not possible of accomplishment.” Sadly, such a thought also applies to the second world war, during which Bethlehem Steel proved instrumental “in the equipping of both the Army and Navy,” according to one press release.

However, “with the world war on, the company might as well have had its own money-printing machine,” as reads Forging America: the Story of Bethlehem Steel, with the price of stock rising from “$8 a share in 1907, to $30 a share in 1913, to $600 a share in 1915 and to a peak of $700 a share in 1916.”

Faced with this unprecedented output, Charles M. Schwab knew he’d need to optimize his company. To do this, he sought the help of Ivy Lee, a man already known for his productivity insights. Acting as an early example of a productivity consultant, Lee spent a grand total of fifteen minutes with Schwab’s executives, explaining his coveted method, with the agreement that he would receive payment proportionate to the effectiveness of his words.

Three months later, pleasantly perplexed with such a surge in productivity, Schwab sent Lee payment of $25,000 – approx. $400,000 in modern currency – shooting the man and the method further into stardom. If you are genuinely interested in that story, there are plenty  of books written on the matter.

So What is the Ivy Lee Method?

If you’ve tired of productivity systems that seem overcomplicated, or don’t fancy the upkeep of a dedicated daily spread in a bullet journal, you’ll be delighted to learn that the Ivy Lee method is wonderfully basic.

This is how it works:

  1. Write down the 6 most important tasks you need to accomplish the following day.
  2. The next day, refreshed and ready, you start working on them, getting as far as you can. 
  3. Repeat this method daily.

In the Bethlehem Steel boardroom, Ivy Lee most definitely went into a little more detail than that. In fact, his description broke the technique down into five steps.

1. Clearly define your goals as objectives

First things first, you’ll need to assess your long-term goals and your overall vision that encompasses them. It’s good old goal-setting, which may very well relate to your work, business, family or health. Make large-scale goals manageable, i.e. turn them into measurable, attainable objectives. Once done, take six as the most important items of the day as means to achieve these wider ambitions.

2. Rank your objectives in order of importance

Unless you’re planning to be an exceptionally busy beaver, getting all six tasks done in one day, be sure to prioritize them to ensure you deal with what’s most important first. You can do this mentally, as typically with basic to-do-lists, or use a dedicated system like the Eisenhower decision matrix. Ranking tasks helps you to be less self-critical if you haven’t finished the full six items, as you can reason that you still completed what was crucial.

3. Get to work on the first objective

Each morning, begin working on what you’ve already decided is your most pressing item. Fully commit to you until it’s done, similar to how one may single-task when time-blocking. Do not move onto the next task until the previous one is complete, or Ivy Lee will be very disappointed.

Also, be conscious of the first-hour rule, the fact that “the first hour of the workday is usually the quietest hour in an office,” as presented by Tom Limoncelli, time-management tutor. This crucial period should be spent fully concentrated on your first objective.

4. Work your way down the list

As soon as you’ve finished your first task, give yourself a reward. We don’t really have anything in particular in mind... a cat video, a muffin, or just some self-congratulation will do the trick. Work your way through the remaining tasks, in their priority order of course.

If the end of the day comes and you haven’t achieved a task, it probably feels worse than it is. Simply pick it up and drop it into tomorrow’s list of six. If time isn’t on your side, bump tasks up to high-priority – e.g. today’s unfinished 5 becomes tomorrow’s 2.

5. Rinse and repeat every day

Provided you’re not a master criminal on the run, forming a predictable habit won’t hurt you. In fact, consistency is just about the only way you can improve your productivity, long-term. It’s true for all manner of task management tips, including this one.

Similar to the Ivy Lee method, “habit-formation advice is ultimately simple,” clarifies the British Journal of General Practice, “repeat an action consistently in the same context.” Get stuck in every morning and you’ll soon find it easier to set yourself six tasks and smash through them, every day.

How To Use Friday To Boost Your To-Do List

As the command center for your work, Friday makes it simple to import your tasks to the to-do list and to also pull in tasks from your preferred task management apps. 

You can then rank and schedule your tasks right on your daily schedule. 

Start your to-do list in Friday

The advantage of Friday?

You can see your daily schedule alongside your tasks, a feature that not many task management software has. 

With the Friday planner and your to-do list, you’ll have a roadmap for your day, helping you be even more productive. 

Best Friday Features:

  • Create time for what matters most--helping you to do your most important things first like in the Ivy Lee method
  • Get your whole schedule and tasks in one view
  • Everything you need in one place. Friday supports Google Calendar, Microsoft Outlook, Todoist, Trello, Asana, ClickUp, JIRA, and more. See the full list of integrations.
  • Drag-and-drop your tasks to the preferred slots on your calendar to plan around your meetings

Why Does the Ivy Lee Method work?

If you’re wondering whether to give the Ivy Lee method a try, here’s a few reasons why that may be a very productive idea:

1. Overcome Decision Fatigue

The Ivy Lee Method is especially effective because it depends on planning your day the night before, thus creating more time for action the following day. As opposed to starting your day contemplating what it is you should be doing, the Ivy Lee method has you sort that all out in advance.

This means there’s no decision fatigue and you reserve your energy solely for the work that acts to attain the objectives. Basically, you wake up knowing exactly what you’ll be working all day, thus not wasting valuable time and energy making decisions as the first part of your day.

2. Limit Your Tasks

Ivy Less stressed that you shouldn’t do more than six tasks. If you’re thinking you’ll have a list of six done and dusted by lunchtime, you may be missing the point. While you’re of course free to put “buy new pens” on the list, the six tasks should be more substantial.

The trick, then, is to know how to create the perfect Ivy Lee objective, an undertaking that will keep you busy, provide value relevant to long-term goals and can share one day with the five other aims.

3. Single-Tasking

The seemingly underwhelming simplicity of this process becomes something much more remarkable after you consider the power of single-tasking. In fact, single-tasking is perhaps the entire reason why the Ivy Lee method works as well as it does.

For all the praise that multi-tasking has received, you’d think it would be more efficient, yet a popular Stanford study found it to be far less effective. 

In one journal entry entitled The Myth of Multitasking, it’s explained that other studies “have used fMRI to demonstrate the brain's response to handling multiple tasks,” finding evidence of a “response selection bottleneck that... leads to time lost as the brain determines which task to perform.”

Further, in a 2001 publication, one experiment involved young adults solving a variety of tasks that required them to mentally shift gears. Multi-tasking, as it turned out, resulted in substantial time loss as the brain failed to maintain speed when continuously task-switching, especially the more complex the tasks became. David Meyer, PhD, one author of this collection, suggested that these mental blocks, however brief, could cost as much as 40% of overall productivity.

Through single-tasking – the undivided commitment on your six-item task-list, one by one – there’s less distraction, less energy-consumption and less time wasted. With so much research now backing up the advantages of single-focus work, it’s no wonder Lee took $400,000 to the bank.  

Final Thoughts on the Ivy Lee Method

Though it may have begun as a way for a steel company to continue making the big bucks, the Ivy Lee method can be applied across the board. Though, too, it originated in a simpler time, that simplicity still remains the core of the method, which is surprisingly enjoyable when compared with the ineffective productivity advice that seems to saturate everything.

Despite all of the contrasting tips and tricks you’ll find, it may just come down to raw determination and a good measure of hard work, not at all dissimilar to Schwab’s steelworks. So, if you’ve got six things you’d love to accomplish, make sure they’re written and ready for tomorrow.

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