Ivy Lee Method


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In the world of productivity systems, big and comprehensive methods are often what get the most attention. We think that because the work we're trying to manage is big and important, the method we use should also be complex and exhaustive. By contrast, the Ivy Lee method couldn't be simpler and more straightforward.

The truth is that sometimes the simplest systems are often best. Especially if we're the type that has trouble sticking to a method or being organized in general. The less effort required to follow and maintain a productivity system, the more likely we'll be to actually use it for more than a day or two.

The Ivy Lee method, named after its creator, Ivy Ledbetter Lee shows us the power of simple systems. Lee famously taught the method to Charles Schwab's managers in about fifteen minutes and had such a profound impact on productivity that he was later handsomely rewarded by the steel magnate.

What is the Ivy Lee method?

The Ivy Lee method is very straightforward, and at its core is a to do list. But unlike most other to-do lists, it has a strict limit of just six items. New items can't be added to the list until there's an empty slot.

Let's go over the steps to the Ivy lee method.

  1. At the end of each day, write down the six most important tasks you need to complete tomorrow
  2. Arrange the tasks from most important to least important
  3. The following day you start working on the first task and only move on to the second when the first has been complete
  4. At the end of the day, move any unfinished tasks to tomorrow's list

And that's it.

As simple as that seems, the Ivy Lee method provides just enough structure and planning to really punch above its weight.

Why does the Ivy Lee method work?

There are a couple of reasons why the method works so well, and they're all thanks to its simplicity.

It's simple to get started
The Ivy Lee method really only has four steps and they're instantly familiar to anyone that has made a to-do list before. That means for anyone learning the method, most of the parts will already be familiar.

The only parts that are really new are the self imposed limit of six items and the rule that you cannot move ahead to another task in the list until the previous one has been complete. That gives the method a ridiculously flat learning curve that makes it easy for anyone to pick up the method.

It's easy to continue using
The method only consists of a single to-do list and so it's always obvious what the next task should be. If at the end of the day there are still any items left, you move them to the next day and you fill up all the empty slots.

This process is simple and doesn't require any complex diagrams or for the person to recall any multi-step instructions. This low level of friction makes it very easy to continue using the method day after day, there are no special procedures or periodic reviews or feedback loops to consider.

It forces you to focus
First, the method imposes a strict maximum of six items, which forces you to really focus on those few tasks that will move the needle in the right direction.

Second, the method only lets you work on one task at a time, you can't jump ahead to the next item until the current one has been complete.

These two rules mean you have a relatively small number of tasks to consider at any given moment, and that you're forced to really concentrate on the current one if you want to make progress with your list. That also makes it very hard to procrastinate because you're either following the method and working on the next item on your list or you're not following the method.

How to prioritize your six tasks

Just because the Ivy Lee method is simple, doesn't mean there isn't some nuance. If you end up filling your six tasks with trivial todos, you might be very productive but the things you'll spend your time on won't be meaningful.

So let's also consider some of the common prioritization systems you could use to make your list as effective as possible.

The Eisenhower method
The Eisenhower method has you put tasks in one of four quadrants based on their urgency and importance. When used in combination with the Ivy Lee method, we recommend you try to only add items from quadrants 1,2, and 3. With most of the items belonging to quadrant 2.

The reason for this is that you want most of the tasks on your list to be important but not urgent. If you find yourself with more than one or two items that are both urgent and important, chances are you might be having some trouble with planning ahead. If a large chunk of your day is spent putting out fires, it's a good idea to figure out why there are so many fires in the first place.

Value vs. Effort matrix
Another system you can use is the value versus effort matrix. These two dimensions form a four quadrant grid where you want the majority of your tasks to fall under the top two quadrants. These are the high value activities that will either be easy to do or take significant effort.

It's very similar to the Eisenhower matrix with the main difference being the dimensions you use to think about your activities.

The 1-3-5 rule
The 1-3-5 rule is a system that asks you to organize your work by having one big task, three medium sized tasks, and five small tasks in your todo list. The main idea of this approach is that tasks of all sizes are included on a daily basis. Both tasks that will take a significant effort and those that are quick and simple.

We'll make a small modification in order to have it fit the requirements of the Ivy Lee method of having no more than six items. We'll call our version the 1-2-3 rule. Each day you should work on one big task, 2 medium sized tasks, and 3 small tasks.


Despite its simplicity, the Ivy Lee method has proven to be a solid and effective method for being productive for countless people. If you're someone who generally has a hard time sticking to productivity methods or with procrastination, this is a great method to try.

It takes the tried and true todo list and adds a few rules that give it enough structure to get you going without having a steep learning curve or any complicated processes.

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