What Happened When I Tried A 100-Year-Old Productivity Hack For A Week

Like most people, I’m always searching for that elusive trick or tool that will stop me from procrastinating, increase my efficiency and make me feel like I’ve achieved something at the end of the day.

So when I read about the Ivy Lee Method, I thought I had struck productivity gold.

The Ivy Lee Method is often described as the ultimate to-do list. It first came into the public eye in 1918, when the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Charles M. Schwab, arranged a meeting with productivity consultant, Ivy Lee.

The Bethlehem Steel Corporation was the largest ship builder and second-largest steel producer in America at the time, but Schwab wanted to further increase the efficiency of his team and find better ways of doing things.

According to historian Scott M. Cutlip, Schwab asked Lee how much he should pay him and Lee replied “Nothing. Unless it works. After three months you can send me a cheque for whatever you think it’s worth to you.”


How to action the method

Lee then spent 15 minutes with each of Schwab’s executives, and during this time he explained this simple method of increasing productivity:

#1 At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.

#2 Prioritise those six items in order of their true importance.

#3 When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.

#4 Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

#5 Repeat this process every working day.

Three months later, Schwab sent Lee a cheque for $25,000 (which was a huge amount of money in 1918). Sounds amazing, right? But I wanted to know if the Ivy Lee Method is still effective up against our modern working lives.

After trialling this method for a week, I concluded that the Ivy Lee Method is your normal to-do list on steroids. This is what I discovered:

It forces you to be honest with yourself

The Ivy Lee Method drives you to make some tough decisions. When you only have room for six items on your to-do list, you’ve got to make the most of them and include only the really important tasks. You have to be discerning.

If you’re like me and you like to add a few really easy tasks (or even some that you’ve already completed) to the start of your to-do list, this breaks your habit immediately. You’re only cheating yourself if you don’t make the most of your six items.

It’s the ultimate multitasking detox

This to-do list is all about methodically working your way down the list – so you can’t be working on three things at once. I found this really helpful. It increased my productivity immediately. I felt a huge sense of achievement as I moved down the list. I made sure I added the biggest task, or the job that I was dreading the most, to the start of the list, so I could tick that one off first.


You get more ‘big’ stuff done 

I found that I was completing a lot more of my big tasks each day, but I was neglecting the little admin tasks that I also needed to finish. I’m a freelance writer so usually my day consists of writing a number of posts for different clients, invoicing clients and promoting my work on social media.

I found the Ivy Lee Method worked best for me if I bundled all my admin items into one task, and added it as the last entry on my to-do list. This meant that I completed these tasks, but they didn’t take priority over getting the big stuff done (you know, the stuff that pays the bills).

You can still cheat

Some days I still moved tasks that I didn’t want to do to the next day’s list, and the next day’s, and then the next one after that. The method definitely isn’t foolproof, if you feel like being a fool. Eventually though, you have to complete the task to cross it off your to-do list and move on with your life. And honestly, it’s such a big relief when you just get it done.

Final thoughts

At the end of the week, this 100-year-old productivity hack had forced me to prioritise, and I found myself ticking off my to-do list with much more gusto. But, depending on what you do for a living, the six item cap could be a bit limiting. The Ivy Lee Method is the perfect to-do list boot camp for anyone who needs a little help to up their productivity game.

Keryn Donnelly is a freelance writer and social media consultant. When she’s not working on her first novel, you’ll find her falling over in public, using her outside voice inside, and plotting how to steal Jimmy Fallon’s job. Follow her on Instagram @keryndonnelly