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Peak Productivity: The Ivy Lee Method

By Michael Zegarelli

In project management, and many other disciplines, your main objective is to start your day with your most important task, even if it’s seemingly the toughest. It's like author Stephen R. Covey said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

You’ve probably heard the name Charles Schwab, an entrepreneur and president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation which in the early 20th century was the largest shipbuilder and second largest steel producer in America.

What you may not know is that Schwab was obsessed with seeking the edge over his competitors, so much so that Thomas Edison once referred to him as the “master hustler”.

One day in 1918, in his obsession with mastering efficiency on his team and at the suggestion of J.D. Rockefeller, Schwab requested a meeting with a well-respected and successful productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. His request: to show him a way to get more tasks completed and in less time. Lee’s response was to have a 15-minute meeting with each of Schwab’s executives.

“How much will it cost me?” Schwab asked.

Lee’s response, “Nothing. Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a cheque for whatever you feel it's worth to you.”

Schwab agreed. And after a few months he was so elated with the uptick in his team’s productivity that he wrote Lee a cheque for $25,000, equivalent in 2024 to over $400,000. Not bad for a day’s work.

So, what was the secret behind this productivity improvement, and how can you benefit?

It comes back to Stephen R Covey, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

Ivy Lee Method

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Ivy Lee recommended the following daily routine to enhance productivity:

  • At the end of each workday, list the six most important things you need to accomplish the following day.
  • Prioritize them in order, but limit them to six.
  • At the start of the next day, focus only on the first task. Complete this first task before moving on to the second task.
  • Approach the rest of your list with a similar approach. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to the new list of six tasks for the following day.
  • Repeat these steps each day.

What makes this modified to-do list so worth its weight in gold?

Simple = Effective

This method is extremely simple, but it’s this very quality that makes it so brilliant. Productivity is meant to help you become more efficient. As you find ways to streamline tasks with minimal interruptions, you’ll thrive. Introducing complicated methods can counter the very goal you’re trying to achieve. Complex solutions are the enemy of progress. And yes, other urgent tasks will arise. Address them when needed but return to your prioritized list.

Focus on Priorities

Being a multitasker has its advantages, but most tasks require your undivided attention. Focus is often the most important part in getting things done. Ivy Lee’s strategy could easily account for five tasks or seven. The magic behind it is about channeling your focus by limiting your options. It cuts the fat and highlights the very things you initially deemed critical to win your day and provide the best return on your time investment.

Eliminate Procrastination

When you start your day, your main objective should be to set yourself up for success. Staring at a list of 25+ tasks is overwhelming, and although you want to get started, you’ll often end up with decision fatigue. This can lead our brains to search for distractions in an effort to avoid getting started (social media anyone?!). But with a properly curated and limited task list, you can seize your day and focus on what’s most important to you, without struggling to get your workday started.