With the help of my friend Ivy Lee, I’ve been more productive than I ever thought possible. He died in 1934, but his advice continues to help people achieve peak productivity every day. I’ve been using his wisdom not only to get things done but get the most important things done every single day.

(If you’re looking for my session with the same title, check out the video on my previous post, “Praying for Wisdom and Discovering Productivity“.)

Who is Ivy Lee?

I was first introduced to Ivy Lee by James Clear. He wrote an informative article explaining the principal in much more depth than I’m going into here. 1 Here’s a true story to set the scene:

By 1918, Charles M. Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.

Schwab was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time. The famous inventor Thomas Edison once referred to Schwab as the “master hustler.” He was constantly seeking an edge over the competition.

One day in 1918, in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done, Schwab arranged a meeting with a highly-respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee.

Lee was a successful businessman in his own right and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the field of public relations. As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”

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

“How much will it cost me,” Schwab asked.

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

What was Ivy Lee’s secret to productivity that he was so certain would work? It’s simple!

Ivy Lee Method for Peak Productivity

  1. Write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow. Don’t try to tackle more than six.2
  2. Sort those six items in order of their real importance or timeliness.
  3. When you’re ready to start your day, concentrate only on the first task. Complete the first task before moving on to the second task.
  4. Work through the list. 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 day.

It works because of its simplicity. It forces you to think about the following day. As you do, you consider the importance each thing you could be spending time on. Then, it cuts out distractions by asking you to focus on only one thing at a time.

Am I able to stick strictly to my six things every day? Not a chance. Stuff will inevitably come up throughout the day that will derail my plan. That’s okay. Sometimes I’ll make adjustments and roll with the punches. Other times I need to stand firm and push these new things off until tomorrow.

The important thing is that I have a choice. I don’t just react to the surprises, I weigh the unexpected vs. the planned. Then I decide at that moment which is most important. And even if I only get the first thing done on my list, I completed the most important thing I could have done with my day!


Getting important things done feels amazing. It’s gratifying and rewarding. It makes you happier while also making you a better employee. I’ve only been practicing the Ivy Lee method a few months, but it’s already an essential part of my daily routine. It has helped make me measurable improvements towards being happier and healthier.

This system works for me, and I’m happy to share and discuss what seems to be working (or not working) for people. I’ve been having great discussions about the Ivy Lee method and I plan to write more posts on this. Please leave a comment to share your thoughts or experiences so far with Ivy Lee or other methods to achieve peak productivity.


  1. I’ve come to know James Clear as a thought leader on productivity and self-improvement. I recommend his twice-weekly newsletter for any student of productivity.
  2. Have more than six things? Try adding extras to a backlog you can pull from to build your list each day. If it can’t wait until another day and it truly is important, you may have to bump one of your other tasks to the backlog. Don’t add more than six things each day!
Categories: productivity

David Needham

David Needham is the Team Lead of the Technical Curriculum Development team at Datadog. When he's not blogging about productivity and faith at davidneedham.me or speaking at conferences, you can find him streaming on Twitch or playing fun board games with his wife and kids in Champaign, IL.


Praying for Wisdom and Discovering Productivity - David Needham's Blog · May 24, 2017 at 6:43 pm

[…] to find a technique that would be sustainable. James Clear introduced me to the Ivy Lee Method (which I blog about here), but it wasn’t until I saw Steve Persch‘s end of day worksheet that all of the pieces […]

Expecting Unexpected Tasks - David Needham's Blog · May 31, 2017 at 9:10 am

[…] week I introduced the key to peak productivity via the Ivy Lee Method. Following the plan may help you plan to do the most important stuff you identified yesterday, but […]

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