How a Simple Productivity Method from the 1900s Can Help You Be More Productive

(Last Updated On: June 18, 2017)

How many productivity and time management methods, apps, and systems have you tried over the years? Raise your hand, if it’s more than 12. Me too. I’m still looking for the perfect fit.

When I started blogging, while working a full-time day job, I knew I had to step up my productivity and organization game. That’s when I read about the Ivy Lee Method.

Could a simple productivity method developed in the early 1900s help entrepreneurs in 2017? With so many advances in technology, you wouldn’t think an old-fashioned method could compete. The only way to find out is to try it, and that’s what I did for a week.

Here's a simple and free productivity system that can help you reach your goals faster! Time management tips, productivity tips for entrepreneurs and bloggers.

What Is the Ivy Lee Method?

It’s fairly straightforward:

  • End of your workday: What are the six most important things for me to do tomorrow? List only six and prioritize in order of importance.
  • Beginning of your workday: Review your list of six tasks for the day. Focus only on the first task and work until it’s done. Then move on to the next item, and so on.
  • End of workday: Move incomplete items to tomorrow, prioritize, and start all over again. That’s it!

Does The Ivy Lee Method Work?

Well, yes and no. The original Ivy Lee Method is too rigid for me. Yes, that means it requires a lot of self-discipline. But I can see how it may benefit someone who is a bit scattered, like me.

My struggle-points:

  • Making time to list six items for the next day.
  • Staying focused on the task-at-hand until completed. Unless you work alone in a cave, interruptions happen.
  • Making it past items one or two, which made me feel like a productivity loser. (I didn’t include everyday items in the top-six list, such as checking email, etc. I’ll explain how I deal with those later in this post.)

Making It Work for You

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all productivity method. The trick is to adapt it to make it work for you. If you’re willing to try the Ivy Lee Method, here are my tips:

  • Set a daily reminder on your phone or calendar to review the day’s list and create the next day’s list. Otherwise, it probably won’t get done.
  • Start your day with your list of six in front of you. Set a reminder if needed. Be sure to open the document, app, planner, wherever you keep your daily list, FIRST thing. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself flailing around on Facebook for an hour.
  • List only items that can be completed in one workday. In other words, don’t list “start on and complete a 100,000-word novel.” If you have a huge project, break it down into bite-sized, daily tasks.
  • Choose wisely. You only get six major to-do items for the day, so be picky. Use this list for important tasks that move your goals forward.
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Modifications to the Ivy Lee Method

As the week progressed, I made adjustments to the method. In the end, it evolved into a system with a weekly-to-daily set up, and categories based on task type.

Let’s walk through the modified system.

Task Categories

Group your tasks into categories, based on your main projects. Here are my current task categories:

  • Content Creation
  • Freelancing
  • Client Services
  • Courses I Teach
  • Courses I Take
  • Personal

Zoom Out to Weekly, Then Zoom in on Daily

Now that you have categories, you’re ready to add tasks. Start with a weekly plan on Saturday or Sunday. Ask: What do I need to do this week, in order to move my goals forward? Lists those tasks under the appropriate categories.

Next, you’ll zoom in on the next day. What do you need to get done tomorrow? Pull tasks from your categories into “Today’s Action Items”  list. I recommend focusing your daily list on the top three to six, depending on the size of the tasks.

Do an end-of-day review and create your list for the next day. Be flexible and forgiving. It’s okay, if you don’t get it all done in one day. It’s okay, if you get excited about one project and work on it all day, as long as you’re not missing deadlines.

At the end of the week, you’ll review your progress and start over again.

Get the Small Stuff Out of the Way

The little things you do every day quickly eat up the entire top six list. The solution: Create a “Daily Tick List” and move small, repetitive items there. Ideas for this list include checking email, posting to various Facebook groups, replying to comments on your blog and social media, etc.

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Look Back on All You’ve Accomplished

Track your completed work and add any notes, resources, or ideas for improving the process or task next time. This allows for an easy daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly review. Plus, if you need to repeat a process or project, such as creating an online course, you’ve created a task template.

I use WorkFlowy to manage my blog and online business, and it houses my planner as well. So, I simply drag completed items to the “done” section.

Do you think the Ivy Lee Method might work for you? What do you think will be most challenging?

About Melanie

Melanie Sparks is a blogger at Little Known Life. She helps online business owners and bloggers create better content through content strategy services, online courses, and writing/editing services. Melanie has worked in communication, marketing, and publications for 17 years.

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  • What a great method! I use something similar – it’s a 1-3-5 list: 1 big thing, 3 medium things, 5 little things. It’s not perfect, but I like the idea of setting a reminder to actually check in and check out at the end of the day. It’s all about intentionality, right?! Thanks for writing this!

    • Great point Lisa, I agree, it is all about intentionality. I know there’s an app called 1-3-5-list, is that what you use? I do it sort of informally, although I tend to just do 1 big thing and 3 little things. Life gets in the way. 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing! Sometimes a simple plan is more functional and adaptable compared to all the new apps and methods!

    My current system is similar in simplicity, the kids and I have a Plan of the Day meeting each morning and we hammer out the day’s routine. As part of that, I review my daily must-dos to prioritize my plan of attack.

    • What a great idea to do a Plan of the Day with the kids. I’m going to try this with my 4-year-old! I think it will help her to know what to expect, too. And I agree, simple is better for me when it comes to planning and productivity.

  • This is amazing.

    I have been practicing this without knowing what it is called. A good practice to get rid of distractions is having a 45/15 intense focus moment and a break. Whenever a new idea or concept crosses my head within the 45 minute intense focus, I simply note it down without thinking about it.

    I spend the 15 minute break grabbing a snack, taking a walk, checking social media and emails. Most definitely break down each of those 15 minutes on what to do. First break, social.

    Loved this

    • I love your spin on the Pomodoro technique, Muthoni! The traditional Pomodoro is 25 minutes of work with 5 minutes of break, but for me that breaks up my concentration. I like the idea of a longer work session and a longer break.

      • I’m with you, Emily. I wait to take lunch until around 3 because I know as soon as I stop working I’m going to have a hard time starting again. And after about 7pm, I’m a useless lump 😐