It is a well-proven but little-known law of productivity that multitasking just does not work. In fact, those that believe they are the best at multitasking are usually the very worst and primarily ‘multitask’ because they can’t focus on a single task.
Think of Dory from Finding Nemo (and Finding Dory) fame. Flitting around, going in circles, not really achieving a lot – does this sound familiar? It does to me as a recovering multitasker!
I have looked at several ways to increase productivity, and during this research, I stumbled across a technique that is 100 years old and every bit as valuable today in our highly distracting world of social media, email, and smartphones.
The Ivy Lee Method
The story goes that in 1918 the businessman Charles Schwab enlisted the help of a famous PR and productivity consultant, Ivy Lee. Ivy came into the business and outlined what has become known as the Ivy Lee Method.
- 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.
- Prioritise those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- 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.
- Repeat this process every working day.
The story goes that Ivy Lee asked for nothing more than the strategy was worth for his consulting fee and that Schwab called Lee back into his office a mere three months later and paid him $25,000, which adds up to the best part of half a million dollars in today’s money. Not bad for a morning’s work!
Putting This To Work For You
These strategies are often criticised for being too simple or too obvious. Often that is the point. We all want highly complex ways to increase productivity when the research shows that doing one thing at a time is the best strategy to be productive. This technique allows you to really cut back on the mental clutter, reduce your inputs, and focus on what is most important for that coming day.
How I Work
I have had to make a small change – well, not really a change as such, but tasks 2 and 5 are always my emails. If certain tasks in the day take longer, I may have to move the emails forwards and look at them about 3pm.
This though means that I have to resist the urge to keep my email open as a side task as it pulls me off in too many directions. It also means I don’t dive into my inbox and get distracted and end up with several new priorities that mess up my carefully planned list from the day before.
My approach looks like this:
Task 3 (email)
Task 5 (email)
Make my list for tomorrow
This means that at the very least I get my two most high-priority tasks completed before I even fall headlong into my inbox and potentially get pulled in several different directions. When I am distracted or something crops up I can get right back to the current task with the minimum of distraction.
Why This Works
This works because it is simple and it provides a clear focus. You will have things crop up. You will be distracted by other events in your life and/or business. But you can get back to the current task quickly.
It also means you are not looking at endless, un-prioritised to-do lists. This forces you to focus on what is important. It forces you to cut away the clutter and focus on what absolutely, positively has to be done on any given day.
There is certainly nothing magical about this being six tasks and it could just as easily be 5 or 7. I would caution going above 7 and possibly consider dialling it down to 5 as that makes things all the more manageable and achievable.
Ultimately, it depends if you have tasks that tend to take an hour or several. Work out what works for you and create your own Ivy Lee method. Close down your email. Put your phone on silent. Remove all those nasty browser notifications and enjoy the rewards of increased productivity.