The Cure for the Never-Ending To-Do List

The Cure for the Never-Ending To-Do List: the Ivy Lee method is 100 Years Old and Fresh as Ever!

It’s 100 Years Old and Fresh as Ever

It’s no secret that I’m a list-maker.  I love powering through a to-do list – checking off and crossing out give me such a sense of satisfaction.

Until… the list gets to be a mile long. Or something unexpected happens, and I have to drop everything. I feel overwhelmed and discouraged, and I let my list languish for days.

Of course, it’s not the end of the world to wing it for a little while. But when there are time-sensitive items on the list, from paying bills to making “Happy birthday!” calls, I’m kicking myself when I miss them.

Enter Ivy Lee

That said, I was intrigued when I heard about “the Ivy Lee method,” as described by James Clear.

Here’s the story: Charles M. Schwab, the president of industrial behemoth Bethlehem Steel, invited Ivy Lee to his office one day in 1918. Schwab asked Lee to help boost his executive team’s productivity; Lee said he could do it in 15 minutes. When Schwab asked Lee what he would charge for his services, Lee reportedly delivered this badass response:

“Nothing. Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”

One Simple Method

The Ivy Lee method has 5 steps, as reported by James Clear:

  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. 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.

Charles Schwab was reportedly so delighted with the results of this method, he wrote Ivy Lee a check for $25,000. To give you some perspective, that would be something like $400,000 today!

Want more Career hacks? Follow @brainybizbabe on Twitter!

Serious Results

When I read about this method for making a to-do-list, my first reaction was that it was totally obvious. Isn’t that what I was doing already?

Then I decided to really give it a try, to the letter.

Much to my surprise, using the Ivy Lee method totally changed my day. I realized that I would sometimes start on a less-important project first thing in the morning, as a kind of warm-up. But a lot of the time, I’d go from that low-priority project to my Twitter feed, then get a phone call… and before I knew it, it was lunchtime and I hadn’t done a thing toward my most important project for the day!

Really and truly focusing on first things first was a game-changer for me. I find that I’m much better at getting my top-priority tasks done, even when life throws me a curveball.

And even more important, at the end of the day, I can stop. Instead of trying to cram in just one more thing before bedtime, I can let it go and enjoy some free time, knowing that I’ve taken care of my most important obligations.

The verdict? Two thumbs up for the Ivy Lee method!

Have you tried the Ivy Lee method? Would you? Let me know in the comments!

There's more where that came from! Related posts on Brainy Business Babe
Top Five Resolution Resources: Get Productive

Top Five: Best Free Apps for Work

Brainy Business Book Review: Mastery by Robert Greene
Join us, brainy business babe!
Enter your email below, and you’ll be able to download my daily intention-setting tool instantly for free! You’ll also get my weekly mood-boosting email, which I hope will bring a smile to your Monday morning. (Don’t worry, you can unsubscribe anytime if it’s not your thing.)


  1. Sarah says:

    This sounds a lot like what is taught in The One Thing. It’s an awesome book if you haven’t read it! I have a sign on my desk that says “Until my one this is done, everything else is a distraction.” 🙂

  2. Stefani says:

    The title of this post totally drew me in. THEN, as I was reading, I remembered that I read that post by James Clear and absolutely LOVED it! It’s such common sense, yet it’s so darn hard to do! This post just reminded me of the importance of it…so thank you for that!! Sharing now so others can benefit! 🙂

  3. Lynn M. says:

    Sounds like a great method, I’m surprised I haven’t heard of it before. I just did a whole thing on my blog about lists with the book getting your sh*t together and they so should have talked about this method too!

  4. Robin says:

    As a professional stylist and evening gown designer, I would be LOST WITHOUT MY LISTS!!!!! However, to edit down to 6 items might be impossible… but sticking to a shorter list? I can see how that would be more productive. xoxo Robin

  5. Fi says:

    Interesting. Do you use this for personal or for business. Id love to use for both. I could easily use for business however personal my lost is always a mile long not sure i could limit ot to 6 things.

Leave a Reply