This 100-Year-Old To-Do List Method Promises Maximum Productivity

It's called the Ivy Lee Method.

To-do list written in a notebook
Photo: GooDween123/Getty Images

When you’re writing your to-do list, it’s tempting to write down all the tasks you might possibly get done the following day. But where do you even begin when your list seems to be getting longer by the minute? Those out-of-reach tasks might actually be the one thing that’s stopping you from achieving your maximum productivity. The good news? There's a solution that's been around for more than 100 years.

The easy trick? Keep your to-do list down to a clutter-free minimum that revolves around your priorities. Your tasks for the next day should hover around six items at most, according to James Clear, a performance improvement writer. Clear recently wrote a post about the method on his website,

This efficient to-do list is known as the Ivy Lee method. It’s based on the style used by the eponymous public relations executive best known for his work with the Rockefeller family in the early 20th century. Creating your to-do list in this style should only take about 15 minutes each night, but will save you so much more time the following day.

Here’s the Ivy Lee Method:

  1. Start at the end of each day. Write down the six most important tasks that need to be completed tomorrow. Though you may have more tasks you’d like to add to your list, limit it to six.
  2. Review your tasks and rank them in order of how important they truly are. What is most pressing for you to get done? That becomes number one.
  3. When you start working the next day, do your number one ranked task first. Don’t do anything else until it is completed. Make sure it receives your full attention. Once you complete it, you can move on to the second task.
  4. Complete as much of the list as you can the same way—focus only on the task in front of you. If at the end of the day there are any uncompleted tasks, they go back on your list for the next day.
  5. Stick with this method every day you have tasks to complete.

If keeping your to-do list at six items sounds completely impossible, Clear says the take away message is to really think about the true importance of the tasks you’re doing for yourself. Think: How much of your to-do list is helping with the wants, needs and agendas of others? “[This method’s] power is putting your most important work first rather than filling up your day with other people’s needs,” says Clear.

If you have more than six things to do, at least schedule yourself around your “anchor task,” or what Clear calls the most important thing that absolutely must get done. When you devote your full attention to what really needs to get done today, you will find yourself taking less time on less important tasks.

He also suggests making separate lists for the morning and afternoons for those with long daily to-do lists and keeping a running list of less-important tasks and ideas separate from your six daily priorities. And remember, this is just a method. “You can tweak it to fit your own needs,” Clear says.

Prefer a more artistic (and therapeutic) to-do list? Try the Instagram-favorite trend: bullet journaling.

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