Brain Food #612

The Ivy Lee method

Thoughts of the day

Parkinson’s law is an often-quoted aphorism that was first published in a 1955 essay in The Economist, and simply states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, no matter how much time you have to perform a specific task, the amount of time that task requires will adjust to take up the amount of time you have allocated to it.

As Isaac Asimov poignantly described it, “In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”

If it feels that you have too much to do, how much of that is self-inflicted? And if you can only work on checking six tasks off your list today, what would they be?

This is what the Ivy Lee method proposes. Similar to our short-term memory, which can hold up to seven items before becoming overwhelmed, Ivy Lee, a successful productivity consultant, suggested that to increase productivity one should focus on a limited number of tasks each day, with six being the magic number.

The method is deceptively simple:

  1. At the end of your day, make a list of your six most important tasks for the following day.

  2. Prioritise those six items in order of their true importance.

  3. Once you start working on the first task, do not start working on the next one until you have finished.

  4. Work your way through your tasks.

  5. Move any unfinished tasks to the next day, and reapply the method, with a maximum of six tasks to focus on.

What the method forces us to reconsider is not how much we can achieve in one day, but what is truly important, and to start working on that straight away. When going through your infinite list of things to do, ask yourself, ‘Can it wait?’

And, of course, beyond work, you can add items to the list that it feels you may never have time for - quality time with loved ones, reading a book, looking after oneself.