The Only To-Do List You Need To Be Productive


It’s called the “Ivy Lee Method” and it’s a super old productivity hack that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. In fact, we’ve started using this method for our daily project status meetings.

I read somewhere (can’t find it now, sorry) that productive people constantly try out new ways to be productive. It could be a new approach to a to-do list, putting everything on a calendar, planning their day the night before, whatever it takes. But one thing is for sure, productive people are constantly tweaking and optimizing their routines to stay as productive as possible.

Consider this one stupid-simple little hack that could make your day more productive and your life a lot less stressful.

This is the Ivy Lee Method:

1. At the end of each workday, 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.

That’s it. It’s that freaking simple. We’ve been using it for a little over a month now. Here’s what we like about this process:

How Marketing at Verblio Uses the Ivy Lee Method

First, we divide our projects into two buckets.

The Big 5: These are the big initiatives that we want to complete in two-week sprints. If there is an item on our Big 5 that will take longer than two weeks, we need to make it smaller (it’s, frankly, too big for our Big 5). You gotta set boundaries!

The purpose of the Big 5 was to ensure that at the end of the year, when management asks what we do, we don’t stand there going: “Crap, I felt busy all year, but I don’t remember one thing that we did.” This would be bad.

So we created the Big 5 to anticipate that question and highlight big wins for our department.

The Daily 6: The Daily 6 are the six items of importance that we borrowed from the Ivy Lee Method. The Daily 6 should be small enough that they can be reasonably accomplished in one day. If not, they are too big and we need to make the task(s) smaller. Daily tasks should contribute to the Big 5 (allowing for 1-2 tasks that fall outside the Big 5 scope).

Productive people are ruthless about what’s important and what’s not. So if there are tasks on our Daily 6 not contributing to our Big 5, something’s amiss and we need to recalibrate.

Our Productivity Benefits Using Ivy Lee Method & “Big 5”

It keeps us focused on the big picture.

It’s so easy to get mired in the day-to-day, that you lose sight of what’s important. We found that having a Big 5 makes us prioritize what’s truly important.




Getting 6 things done per day boosts morale & creates momentum.

The Ivy Lee Method is dead simple. It’s just six things that you should be able to get done in a day. Only 6? Yes! I would argue that most people don’t get through their to-do lists on a daily basis.

In fact:

Studies have shown that nearly two in three professionals write to-do lists, but just 41 percent of the items on there actually get done.




So start with six. There is no Trello board, no insanely complex Gantt chart. Six items. Keep it simple.

Do them. Gain confidence. Get momentum. Improve morale. Isn’t that a nice sentiment?

Six items leaves time for unexpected events & longer tasks.

By keeping your list manageable, you keep time open for last-second requests or tasks that take longer than expected.

It’s called the “planning fallacy” and it was coined by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. Essentially, we have an optimism bias when it comes to estimating how long a task will take. Regardless of how long previous tasks take, we always think that this time it’s going to be faster. Sadly, it’s not.




The secret to happiness? Under-promise, over-deliver.

This should be on my gravestone. I love this mantra, but rarely follow it. I always think I can bite off more than I can chew and end up with my foot in my mouth.

The Ivy Lee Method forces me (and hopefully, you) to under-promise what you can deliver on. Lower your expectations and it’ll make your life a lot happier.

Barry Schwartz, in his TED Talk “The Paradox of Choice,” agrees:

The secret to happiness—this is what you all came for—the secret to happiness is low expectations.

By the way, that’s a great TED Talk. The whole thing. You should watch it.

Speaking of productivity…who’s doing your blogging?

If you’re a productivity wonk like we are, you should consider outsourcing the things that are on your Big 5 or Daily 6.

Is blogging on your to-do list? We can handle your business blogging so you can focus on other priorities. Hey, just something to think about.


Pat Armitage

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