Five Reasons Why the Ivy Lee Method Works

The Ivy Lee Method turned 100 last year, and that has brought renewed discussion about why, as a productivity method, it is so helpful. If you haven’t heard of the Ivy Lee Method, its deceptive simplicity hides a true understand of the human mind and how we operate at our best. Undergirded with an uncanny pulse on human nature, it is still discussed as one of, if not the, most successful productivity philosophies out there. The tenets are,

  • At the beginning of the day, or at the end of the day for the next, write down the six most important tasks you have to complete… no more
  • Rank the tasks in order of importance so that you have a clear view of your priorities
  • Start working on the first item on the list, and focus only on that one until it is completed; resist the urge to work on multiple
  • Move down the list in the same way until you have completed it or have run out of time
  • At the end of the day, roll any incomplete tasks into the next day and re-rank with a fresh list of six

That’s it!

So why is the Ivy Lee Method so effective? We can think of five reasons:

1. It pushes you to be honest with yourself about your priorities

We are fatally capable of believing the myth that everything we have on our plates is of critical importance. The truth is, two or three things may be, but most of it falls into the tyranny of the urgent rather than the important. By being bound to only six items for the day, you are taking a few moments to identify the things that truly need to get done. They may be vitally important that day, while something else is vitally important but can wait at least one day.

Before long, a narrative of what you spend your time on will begin to take shape as you look at how you spent your time before and how you use it now.

2. It acknowledges that you have a finite amount of time during the day

Who of us doesn’t make a to-do list for the day that, for most mere humans, would be impossible to complete in one business day? You may not have it all written down, but between the obligations on your calendar and your to-do list, you’d need superpowers to get it all done.

While we are only able to get so much done during a given day, there is quite a bit we can do, and once you’ve prioritized, it is remarkable how you can push tasks through to completion—especially when you don’t multi-task.

3. It discourages multi-tasking

American business culture still clings desperately and proudly to multi-tasking, but clinical psychologist and neuroscientists are in unanimous agreement that multi-tasking doesn’t work. In execution work, the brain may keep other considerations running in the background, in the subconscious, but we are only able to be effective, and an active agent, in one task at a time.

This is why Ivy Lee’s insistence that you stick with one task until you have completed it is so powerful. It guards against the pride that suggests that you can juggle when doing so will only slow you down. While it feels counterintuitive if you are an addictive multi-tasker, you will actually get more done more quickly when you focus on one thing at a time and complete.

4. It eliminates cluttered thinking

With that excessive, superhuman to-do list comes a crowded and diffuse mentality that does not make the best use of your brain’s computing ability. The more clutter in your day and in your mind there is, the less likely you are able to focus, to follow through, and even to demonstrate self-control. Cluttered thinking triggers a stress response, and scientists are discovering that, the greater the level of mental stress, the less likely you are to be able to make the proper judgment calls about what to prioritize and do. It is a far more reactive and frantic way to live.

5. It lends you a grounded feeling of accomplishment

When you can look at your list of six items at the end of the day and know that you actually finished something, there comes a great feeling of relief and confidence. There is nothing worse than getting to the end of a busy and wondering what you did (and what you got done doing it). When you have a top-of-mind list that you progressively work through that is targeted, you will always be able to articulate to yourself what you got done. Over time, you will have a progressively larger list of completed tasks, and to look back over a month’s time and see what you accomplished really will make you feel superhuman!

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