Monday, January 15, 2018

The Ivy Lee “Six-Item To Do List” Method

by Paula Gail Benson

Each new year, I enjoy considering the recommendations for organizing and improving productivity. This year, I noticed several articles making reference to the hundred-year-old Ivy Lee “six-item to do list” method.

Through Wikipedia, I learned that “Ivy Lee” was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who is known as the founder of modern public relations. He was born in Georgia, the son of a scholarly minister. He attended Emory and graduated from Princeton. He worked as a reporter for several newspapers, then had a job with the Democratic National Committee. With George Parker, he opened the third public relations office in the country. By 1919, he opened his own firm, Ivy Lee and Associates.

His clients included the Pennsylvania Railroad, American Red Cross, John D. Rockefeller, and Standard Oil. While working for Bethlehem Steel, he was asked by Charles M. Schwab how to increase his executives’ productivity.

In a message titled “The Ivy Lee Method: the Daily Routine Experts Recommend forPeak Productivity,” James Clear describes the meeting. Both Schwab and Lee were respected, successful businessmen. When Schwab called Lee into his office and made his request, Lee asked for fifteen minutes with the executives. Schwab wanted to know what it would cost and Lee replied nothing initially, but, if in three months Schwab determined it had the desired effect, Schwab could pay Lee what he thought it was worth.

Schwab agreed to the proposal. After three months, he gave Lee a check for $25,000. In 2018 dollars, that would be approximately $356,248.55 according to the online US Inflation Calculator.

What was the fifteen minutes worth of advice that Lee gave to Schwab’s executives? Here is a brief summary:

At the end of each day, in priority order, compile a list of six important tasks that need to be handled the next day.

The next day, begin with the first task and focus on it until it is completed.

Continue the same process with the other five tasks.

If anything is not finished, carry it over to the list compiled for the following day.

James Clear, an author, photographer, and weightlifter who has studied successful people and written about how to make life better, suggests that four reasons make the method effective: (1) it’s easy to follow; (2) it demands evaluating what’s most important; (3) by prioritizing, it provides the starting point for the next day, eliminating resistance to beginning; and (4) it requires focus on a single task until it is finished.

The system has a lot of appeal to me for personal organization. As an author, it provides another fascination.

How would different characters make out a six-item to do list? How might a protagonist’s and antagonist’s lists compare and differ? What could the items be and what might change the priorities?

Finding a productivity recommendation that also functions as a writing prompt is a double pleasure.

What do you think? Would you use the method to improve productivity, explore characterization, or both?


  1. Hi, Paula -- I'd never heard of Ivy Lee, but I'll admit I'm a big fan of to-do lists, and ranking, and trying to keep on top of them. I don't always succeed, but it gives me perspective on where I'm at and where I need to be. (In fact, I'm right now checking off the first thing on my to-do list every day, which is basically browse through my favorite blogs. Hello!)

    1. Yay, Art! I'm glad my message made your to do list! May it be a terrific year for you and your family!