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.
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.
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.
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.
the same process with the other five tasks.
anything is not finished, carry it over to the list compiled for the following
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

What do
you think? Would you use the method to improve productivity, explore
characterization, or both?
2 replies
  1. Art Taylor
    Art Taylor says:

    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!)

    • Paula Gail Benson
      Paula Gail Benson says:

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

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