Keep it Simple, Stupid! The Easy Method to Conquer Productivity


Keep it simple, stupid. 

As my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Callaert, used to so lovingly tell us: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

And no, he wasn’t really calling us stupid. He was referring to his ever-favorite KISS Principle – the idea that most systems work best if they’re kept simple rather than made complicated.

Little did the 16-year-old me know how much I would grow up to value the idea behind the KISS principle as an adult…

All throughout my career, I’ve had the goal to constantly seek out ways to work smarter, not harder. I attribute a large portion of my success to this goal and my ability to GSD. Not only have I studied and tested a variety of productivity approaches throughout the years, I have also spent a significant amount of time studying those who struggle with productivity. And the root of the issue? Overcomplicating.

The key to efficiency is keeping it simple.

When it comes to productivity, I’ve learned that the simplest methods are always the most effective. And Ivy Lee created one of the simplest and most effective productivity methods out there.



Who the heck is Ivy Lee?

A confident mofo, that's who. 

There’s a frequently told business legend and it goes a little something like this...

Around a hundred years ago, Charles M. Schwab, the President of Bethlehem Steel (not to be confused with Charles R. Schwab, the American banking and brokerage mogul and founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation), was looking to increase his team’s efficiency when he was approached by Ivy Lee, a highly-respected consultant and productivity expert.

Ivy Lee proclaimed that he could increase his team’s efficiency if he spent just 15 minutes with each executive.

When Charles Schwab asked how much it would cost him, Lee confidently declared: Nothing, unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.

Fast forward to three months later, after Lee spent just 15 minutes with each executive and explained his method, Schwab was so impressed with the results that he wrote Lee a check for $25,000. Today, that’s the equivalent of about $400,000.

Want to know this highly valuable yet simple method?  Read on…

Introducing the Ivy Lee Method:

Want the biggest results with the least amount of effort? I got you, boo. 

Out of all of the methods that I covered in 5 Ways to Boost Your Productivity, the Ivy Lee Method is my favorite. It's simple, straightforward, and provides immediate results. 

Here's how it works: 

  1. Each night, write down the 6 most important things you need to accomplish the next day. Don't write more than 6!

  2. Prioritize and rewrite those 6 items in order of true importance.

  3. When you start your day, concentrate ONLY on the 1st task and do not move on to anything else until it's completed. Then move on to the 2nd task until it's completed, working your way down your list one at a time until each individual task is completed.

  4. At the end of the day, write your list of 6 for the next day, moving any unfinished items from the day to the new list. Be sure to prioritize your list each night.

  5. Repeat this process every day.

That's it! Pretty simple, huh? 

Why the Ivy Lee Method works:

It's Simple. I can't think of an easier productivity technique, especially one with such substantial ROI. Plus, the simpler something is, the easier it is to make it a habit. Turns out Mr. Callaert was right — there’s great value in keeping it simple.

It forces you to focus. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking isn’t effective. As Ivy Lee explained, distractions are inevitable. The key is to focus on just one task until it is completed. Then, and only then, move on to the next.  

It maximizes your time. By establishing your priorities and focus at the end of each day, you can start the next day ready to go without having to spend time in the morning figuring out what to do first. Goodbye, morning indecision!

It prevents the stress associated with incomplete tasks: As Ivy Lee instructed, you should work through your 6 items each day and anything that doesn’t get finished should be reassigned to your list for the next day. By re-listing tasks until you complete them, you prevent the unconscious stress associated with incomplete tasks (aka the Zeigarnik Effect).

It improves your work-life balance: A specific part of Lee's advice was to go home and not think about work. Using this method, you are encouraged to completely turn your focus from work to home which allows you to consciously enjoy that time. 

It gives you a sense of accomplishment. Even if you don't get through all 6 items on the list, you know there's a place for them and a plan to get them done the next day. (Unless, of course, something more important takes their spot. In which case, you shouldn’t feel guilty about not doing them.)  

Some helpful tips I learned while using the Ivy Lee Method:

Pick 6 things that would keep you awake at night if you didn't get them accomplished that day. Honestly, I struggled in the beginning trying to simplify my to-do list into just 6 tasks. And many of my clients have that same challenge. We fear having to pick just 6 things and then agonize over having to determine the order of importance.  The beauty of this method is that it forces us to make decisions which allows us to feel accomplished because we’ve finally created a to-do list that is realistic and achievable.   

Schedule time at the end of the day to write your 6 items. This tip was a game changer for me. The first few days of trying this method, I would find myself climbing into bed and think "Oh crap, I have to write my list." When I transitioned from the corporate world to entrepreneurial life, I lost quite a bit of structure that I didn't realize I would miss. The biggest piece of structure that I lost? Set office hours. When you run your own business, especially an online one where you work from home, there are no set hours. No official clocking out. I can easily get sucked into work and keep going late into the night. But when I started scheduling "Ivy Lee Method" on my calendar at 6:00pm every day, that was my signal to wrap up for the day and "leave the office.” Adding this structure back ensured I wrote my list and allowed me to have better work-life balance. Win, win!

Consider adding a visual reminder. In addition to writing my list each day in my notebook, I also write it on a post-it note that I hang on my computer monitor. The idea of having it right in front of your face means that there’s no need to memorize your list or refer back to it, which also means that there’s less opportunity for distraction.

Be kind to yourself. Let’s face it, distractions happen. But just like with meditation, when you become aware that you’ve wandered, take a deep breath, look at your list, and refocus.  

Life can be complicated and overwhelming — your to-do list doesn’t have to be.

Can you think of ways that keeping it simple could be applied to other aspects of your life? 

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