Ivy Lee's 100 year old method for productivity

So a month ago I read Kevin Rose's nice little monthly newsletter The Journal. In there, he tipped about a FastCompany article outlining a 100 year old method for productivity and efficiency. I instantly felt mesmerized by the simplicity of this method. I also recognized that it held the solution to somethign we have all suffered from; a too long todo-list that grows quicker than we can empty it, causing a feeling of dread and a sense that you don't get anything done.

The backstory of this method is that in the beginning of the 20th century, Betlehem Steel was one of the most successful companies in the world. Its leader Charles M. Schwab was one of the richest men in the world, and of course legendary for his brilliance in business. In 1918 Mr. Schwab consulted the rockstar productivity consultant Ivy Lee, and asked him how he could improve efficiency in his closest team. Ivy Lee simply asked for 15 minutes with each executive, which he used to explain the following system:

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

I tried using this method as strictly as possible during the past month, and I must say I like it. I have used variations of it before, but limiting the list of tasks to only six is something I haven't tried before. It is very uncommon that I get through all six tasks, because when I pick the tasks that are truly the most important, they usually take some time. But every once in a while I manage to finish all six, and it feels great. This method works great standalone, and even better in combination with the pomodoro technique which I still use most days.

So what happened after the introduction of this method at Betlehem Steel? After three months, Mr. Schwab was so impressed with the results, that he paid Ivy Lee the modern-day equivalent of 400 000 dollars for the gig.

The header photo is of the Betlehem Steel plant in 1896.

Micael Widell

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