How The Anti To-Do List Can Make You More Productive

This 100 year old trick may be the secret to a more productive work day.

“If you want to achieve great things, you need to work smarter not harder.” It’s advice you’ve no doubt heard dozens of times. After all, every successful person worth their weight in trophies knows that the employee who puts in all the extra hours isn’t always the one who wins the promotion. From the Pomodoro method to the bullet journal, there are so many different apps and techniques out there to help you get the most out of your time. At the root of most of these methods lies the humble to-do list. But what if there was a technique to boost your productivity that involves chucking that lengthy list out the window?

ivy lee method, to do list
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“But how will I ever survive without my Kikki K notepad telling me what I need to do?” you may protest. I hear ya. There’s a reason many of us are slaves to our to-do lists: in theory, they should give us a clear, chronological rundown of what we need to get done. The problem is, when life gets busy the lists often turn into an overwhelming jumble of scrawled notes with no meaningful order. This can lead you to become more stressed and as we all know, that’s never good for productivity.

Enter, the anti to-do list

Okay, so the Ivy Lee method is technically still a to-do list. But instead of writing down every single little thing you need to do in the near future (ie. take Bobo for his fur trim in three weeks time!) it’s all about prioritising. The best part is, it only takes a few minutes and can erase hours of procrastination.

to do list, the ivy lee method
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This technique has been around for quite a while: almost 100 years! It was brought into popularity by Charles Schwab (president of a steel company and one of the richest men in the world at the time) in 1918.  Schwab was referred to by famous Inventor Thomas Edison as the ‘master hustler’, thanks to his creative ways of getting an edge over the competition. One day, he organised a meeting with renowned productivity consultant Ivy Lee. “Show me a way to get more things done,” Scwab said. “Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee ordered. When Scwab asked how much it would cost him, Lee replied “Nothing, unless it works. After three months you can send me a cheque for whatever it’s worth for you.”

How it works

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During his 15 minute slots with each businessman, Lee explained his simple, 5 step method for maximising 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. Review your tasks and prioritise the six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you start working the next day, 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 manner. At the end of the day, move any uncompleted items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

That’s it. It’s so simple, yet it was so effective for Schwab’s company that at the end of three months he wrote Lee a cheque for $25,000 (now equivalent to $400,000!)

Why it works

You may be wondering how a productivity trick from 100 years ago could possibly still be relevant. But there’s a reason the Ivy Lee method is creating a buzz on the internet all over again: because it works! There’s even an Ivy Lee time management app on the Apple Store. Performance improvement writer James Clear recently wrote a blog post breaking down exactly why the technique is still so effective today. The reasons he gave are:

It’s simple enough to actually work

ivy lee method, to do list
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There’s no shortage of technology you can use to help you get the most of your work day. But often, you spend way too much time fussing around with it when you could be getting stuck into your tasks. The Ivy Lee method is free of all the bells and whistles, allowing you to focus on sorting out what really needs to be done.

It forces you to make tough decisions

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Imposing limits on yourself really forces you to get realistic about what you can achieve in a day. This method encourages you to differentiate urgent tasks that needed to be done yesterday from time-suckers that can wait.

It removes the hurdle of starting

the ivy lee method, to do list
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Often, the hardest part of finishing a task is starting it. The Ivy Lee method forces you to decide on your first (most important) task the night before, meaning you can arrive at work with a clear intention and smash it out ASAP.

It requires you to single-task

the ivy lee method, to do list
Image: Pinterest/Jess Keys

We’ve written before here about the benefits of single-tasking, compared to constantly juggling 1000 things at once. The simple truth is that you can’t excel at the task at hand if you’re spreading your attention between 10 different things.
If you can’t bear the thought of parting with your page-long to-do list just yet, don’t fret. The most useful thing you can take from the Ivy Lee method (if nothing else) is tackling your most important task first thing every day.

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