The Ivy Lee Method: A 100-year old, 15-minute routine for stress-free productivity

The Ivy Lee Method is a simple, powerful strategy for stress-free productivity that highlights the importance of doing the most important thing first each day. It’s a reminder that fewer priorities lead to better work and performance. A reminder that simplicity helps to guide complex plans, behaviors and actions.

In the early 1900s, Charles M. Schwab, President of Bethlehem Steel Corporation — a steel and shipping company — wanted to increase the efficiency of his management team.

Oil business magnate, John D. Rockefeller Sr. suggested that Schwab meet with Ivy Lee — a highly respected productivity expert and pioneer in the field of public relations. [1]

At the start of their meeting, Charles Schwab asked Ivy Lee for help to improve the productivity of his company.

“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.

Schwab asked, “What will it cost me?”

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

Here’s what happened next.

The Ivy Lee Method explained

During the meeting, Lee first began by asking Schwab to outline his vision for the company to which Schwab responded promptly.


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After this, Lee spent 15 minutes with each of the executives of the struggling Bethlehem steel company.

Here’s the 6 step method Ivy Lee recommended for achieving peak performance and high productivity on a daily basis:

  1. Clearly define your vision, goals and objectives for your life, business, health etc.
  2. At the end of each, preferably in the evening, write down the six most important tasks that you need to complete the following day to achieve your vision, goals and objectives.
  3. Rank and prioritize these six tasks in order of importance.
  4. Each morning, begin with most important task on the list and do not move onto the next task until the previous one is complete.
  5. Work your way through the six tasks on the list in order from the most to least important task. If at the end of the day you don’t finish a task, move it to the new list of six tasks for the following day.
  6. Rinse and repeat this process every day.

After the three-month trial, Charles Schwab met with Ivy Lee to review the results.

The efficiency and sales of Bethlehem Steel had improved so much that Schwab wrote Lee a check of $25,000 (the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2016) and later noted that the Ivy Lee method was the most profitable advice he had ever received. [2]

Within a couple of years, Bethlehem Steel company became America’s second-largest steel producer and largest shipbuilder.

Charles M. Schwab himself amassed a personal net worth over $200 million dollars as a result of this success.

What makes the Ivy Lee method so effective and how can we apply this insights for better productivity in our lives?

The power of the Ivy Lee Method

Here are 3 of the most important principles that make the Ivy Lee method effective for peak productivity:

Its simplicity makes it easier to take action. Contrary to popular belief, complex plans may actually make it harder to start new habits or take consistent action. Conversely, simplicity removes the friction of getting started, especially when you slip-up from your habits and need to get back on track. Simplifying decision-making is also a powerful strategy that has been used by successful entrepreneurs, CEOs and leaders, like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama for peak productivity.

It builds momentum for consistent action. It’s much easier to take the next step after taking that first step. The Ivy Lee Method helps you to take that first step and build the necessary momentum to maintain consistency – much like a domino effect or keystone habit.

It forces you to focus on just one thing at a time. We live in a society that is obsessed with multi-tasking. Unfortunately, this busyness with multiple activities in any given period of time has been characterized with high levels of distractions and a severe lack of focus. As suggested within the book, The One Thing (audiobook), keeping your focus on the most important thing — one at a time, instead of multi-tasking — could drastically improve your odds of achieving success with your goals. If you struggle with the overwhelm of having too many ideas or tasks, trim away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary to regain focus.

Put first things first

The Ivy Lee Method is a simple, powerful strategy for stress-free productivity that highlights the importance of doing the most important thing first each day.

It’s a reminder that fewer priorities lead to better work and performance. A reminder that simplicity helps to guide complex plans, behaviors and actions.

Give it a go tonight. Simply write down the six most important things you have to achieve tomorrow. And then tomorrow, in the words of Ivy Lee…

“I want you to start at number one don’t even think about number two until number one is complete.”

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Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas and proven science for better health, productivity and creativity. To get practical ideas on how to stop procrastinating and build healthy habits, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The Ivy Lee Method: A 100-year old, 15-Minute Routine for Stress-Free Productivity

Footnotes

  1. The original source of the Ivy Lee, Charles M. Schwab story is extremely hard to find, so if you know please let me know. Regardless, some credible sources include, The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History” by Scott M. Cutlip and The Time Trap by R. Alec Mackenzie.
  2. Impact of the Ivy Lee Method on Bethlehem Steel was highlighted within LeBoeuf, Michael (1979), Working Smart, Warner Books. pp. 52–54.
  3. Credit to Fast Company for insights on this story.