Maximise your clarity, productivity and sleep with this nightly to-do list method

The Ivy Lee To-Do List method dates back to 1918, when Lee, a productivity consultant, was hired by Charles M. Schwab, the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, to improve his company’s efficiency. As the story goes, Lee offered his method to Schwab for free, and after three months, Schwab was so pleased with the results he wrote Lee a check for $US25,000 – the equivalent of about $US400,000 today.

The Ivy Lee method is surprisingly simple:

  1. At night before bed, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.

  2. Prioritise those six items in order of their true importance.

  3. The next day, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.

  4. Physically cross-out each item as you finish it. This is important as the physical cross-out triggers the reward centres of our brain.

  5. 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.

  6. Repeat this process every working day.

  7. At the end of the week, if you’re consistently unable to perform all six tasks, reduce your list to five, then four, until you come up with a list of tasks you can finish almost daily. Tim Ferriss is famous for making three-item to-do lists.

Pro tips:

  • Consistency is key. Regularly completing the same number of tasks per day makes it easier for your brain to organise the information and to remember everything you need to do.

  • Don’t list one huge task, break it down into steps.

    • e.g. instead of listing “write assignment for uni” - break the big task into smaller and more manageable tasks like:

      “research assignment for one hour” / “structure my assignment with dot points for 20 minutes” / “draft the first two paragraphs for 30 minutes” / “format my reference list for 20 minutes”

Why does the Ivy Lee Method work?

The Ivy Lee method requires no expensive notebook or planner, no paid consultant, no online seminars or training. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s effective.

It reduces decision fatigue (learn more about that here) and reserve your energy for your most meaningful work. You wake up knowing exactly what you’ll be working all day instead of wasting valuable time and energy making decisions in the morning.

It removes the friction of starting: the biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. Lee’s method forces you to decide on your first task the night so you don’t have any excuses for not starting.

Doing single-tasks is good for your brain: studies show that our brains can’t actually multitask. We can only really do one thing at a time, no matter how much we might tell ourselves otherwise.