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Can you improve your productivity with The Ivy Lee method?

Have the months of hibernation taken their toll on your productivity? Are you struggling to get focused and meet your goals, tasks, life demands? Same, but we might have a helping hand for you with a simple and accessible way to upgrade your to-do list to make it more manageable, effective and easy to get through.

The Ivy Lee method was developed in 1918 by an American businessman called… you guessed it… Ivy Lee. As we head into spring, why not give the age-old method for boosting productivity a go? By prioritising tasks, removing distractions and throwing multi-tasking out the window.

How to create your Ivy Lee to-do list:

Before we get to the ‘Ivy Lee list’, I'd recommend having a master to-do list that has everything you need and want to get done in an ideal world, weekly perhaps or whatever time frame suits you, so that you can create your Ivy Lee list each day without having to do too much extra thinking or planning.

  • List the 6 most important tasks for the day ahead in priority order (preferably the day before but whenever suits you)

  • Start working on the first task

  • When you finish, cross it off

  • Only move to the next tasks when the previous one is complete

  • If you come to the end of the day and there are tasks left over, simply put them at the top of tomorrow’s list.

Simple, right?

Let’s take a closer look. How does this help us when it comes to getting through our stuff to do? Because if like us, you’re already a keen list-maker, but often don’t get through them or usually end up adding incomplete tasks to tomorrow’s list anyway, you may be sceptical.

The benefits of the Ivy Lee method

It reduces decision fatigue - decision fatigue is the mental exhaustion we feel from making many decisions (or just a few really hard ones sometimes). By planning the day in one go, and usually the day before, we can prevent the overwhelm that we feel when bombarded with information and options. Taking the time to prioritise still requires some decision making sure, but if we can do it the night before or once in the morning, we're reducing the amount of time we spend on decision making and therefore leaving more time to actually get the stuff done.

It splits planning from doing - when it comes to making the to-do list, there’s almost two elements to it. There’s figuring out the tasks we need to do, and then figuring out which are most important. Not to mention actually doing the work to complete them. Separating the planning time from the doing time can help us to focus our energy and motivate us to actually get started when the time comes. You might take the time to plan the morning of if that suits you better, so a quick break between can help you move through the tasks.

It tackles multitasking - we live in an age full of distractions, incoming messages, notifications, emails, the information overload and daily interruptions can really scupper our productivity - even with planning. But multitasking is like having too many tabs open on the computer. It will ultimately slow us down. This technique is useful because we can prioritise and focus on one task at a time which is useful when you have a human mind (as we all do). The idea of not moving on till we complete the task also can help us get into a deeper working state, and find a sense of flow which helps us to feel satisfied in what we’re doing too.

It ‘gamifies’ your to-do list - gamification is adding the mechanics of gaming into a non-gaming environment to inspire and engage people. This method is essentially gamifying our to-do list, by creating 6 goals, tasks, levels if you like, and crossing out each one as they are completed. Each time we cross one out we move to the next, like in a game, which can help us stay motivated to keep going.

It keeps us realistic - where there is only space for 6 things to do each day the method encourages specificity and availability for tasks. If we know we’ve got a shorter working day, or more personal demands to meet, we can be specific with what we try to get done and remove the pressure that leaves us feeling defeated or unproductive at the end of the day.

How to make it work for you?

Modernise it: The method was developed over 100 years ago, when life was very different, without the internet, emails, remote working, even parenting roles and demands were different. So it most likely needs some modernising, the Ivy Lee method 2.0 perhaps? That’s a little more flexible or accommodates those menial, repetitive tasks that we do have to do everyday - the school run, cooking dinner, taking the dog out. But that’s not to say the principles of the method won’t work these days.

Adapt it: Accepting that we live in a world full of distractions allows us to adapt as we need - especially when we can’t banish them all. You might schedule things like responding to emails, nipping to the shops when you’re about to run out of milk or bread (or both - that is a priority), or even scheduling some ‘reactive time’ which allows us to flexibly attend to things that crop up throughout the day, without getting totally distracted and lose track of the list entirely.

Focus it: We all have different needs, wants and responsibilities, so you might try using the method for specific areas - the working day, or the household responsibilities, or your social commitments. Divide up the 6 tasks to fit into an area, or only use the method for work or home, even reduce the number of tasks to fit into your schedule. For example, list 3 tasks if you work a shorter day. Use the framework, the premise, but in a way that works for you.

The Ivy Lee Method can help us get stuff done, feel accomplished and regain a sense of control. But do remember that not every hack or method will work for us all. When it comes to productivity, tying your worth and capabilities into being productive or completing the full list won’t help us out. Try to step back, take that pressure off, because your worth as a human isn’t determined by how many things you did today - or tomorrow!

Productive rest: even with all the tools, hacks, and tricks to tackle productivity and focus, it’s important to remember there will still be days where we’re not productive in the usual sense. Taking time to rest, to have a day off when you’re poorly, an hour or two to recover from a long day socialising or even at the office is important too. Remember to schedule some rest time too, so you can maintain your productivity levels.




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