I’m one of those people. The type who’s forever on the quest for the perfect daily system that will magically ensure that I’m making the most out of each day, keeping all the balls of being a full-time author in the air, while also turning those juicy annual goals into reality.
The newest planner? Gimme. The latest productivity hack? Tell me about it. What’s that, there’s a new “to do list” app for iOS? Take my money.
I’ve tried it all. Getting Things Done (GTD). The Erin Condren planner. The Pomodoro method. The Day Designer. The Things app. Bullet journaling. Time blocking. And so on.
They’re all great for about 3 days. And then I start looking for the next thing. Every one of those systems fails me in the same way:
I can’t seem to find the right balance between focusing on the things that need to happen right now, without losing track of all the things that need to happen eventually.
Inevitably, I slip into one of the following traps:
I’m hyper focused on the most immediate task (usually a book deadline that I’ve fallen behind on), and everything else falls by the wayside, resulting in more stress when I lift my head a few days later.
I’ve got a good handle on all the things, but with a to do list of 50+ items, I don’t know where to start, and I end up making a little progress in a lot of directions, instead of a lot of progress in one direction.
I do the “easy things” first for the satisfaction of checking them off, rather than tackle the truly important things. I’m pretty good at convincing myself I’m busy and productive, because look at how many checkmarks I have!! But at the end of the day, I feel strangely hollow, and no less stressed, because I know in my gut I haven’t made time for those things that will have the most impact on my business, life, and happiness.
Honestly? I thought the above cycles were just sort of the nature of this thing we call day-to-day life, especially for us entrepreneur/free-lance/work-from-home types. I was resigned.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve finally broken that cycle with a system that works so well for me, I almost kind of can’t believe it.
The Ivy Lee Method
Here’s how it came about. On a recent road trip, Mr. Layne and I listened to James Clear’s Atomic Habits. We enjoyed it so much that we immediately bought the accompanying Clear Habit Journal, which is basically a delightfully pimped out bullet journal. The majority of the pages are standard dot-grid, but with some “extras”:
There’s dedicated space for a one-line-per day journal, as well as the hallmark of Clear’s philosophy: a daily habit tracker. These extras are exactly why I bought the journal, and I do use and love them.
But the real game-changer came from some unexpected bonus material within the habit journal. In the back of book, Clear’s included a section called the Toolkit, containing a few pages of suggestions on how to make use of the blank pages in the notebook.
I read them all with interest, but one in particular stood out:
The Ivy Lee Method
It was deceptively simple, and let’s be honest: the solutions to the problems in our lives are almost always solved by applying more simplicity, not more complexity.
You can read the details of Ivy Lee method here, but it comes down to this:
At the end of each day, you write down six tasks for tomorrow, in order of importance. No more, no fewer. I sometimes forget to do this at the end of the day, so I write them at the start of my day, but always before I check my email inbox or social media and get wooed by “easy” tasks.
When you’re ready to start working, you do the top task on your list. Only the top task. You do that top task until it’s done. NO LIST HOPPING—that’s important. Then you move to the second, and do only that task until it’s done. Onto #3, and so on.
You’ll either accomplish all 6 tasks within your workday, or, if the tasks are beefier and more time-consuming than you expected, you migrate the open tasks to tomorrow’s list, and repeat the process.
And yes, I know it looks a lot like any other to do list method. You may be wondering what’s so special about it.
Here’s why I think it works so well:
Six is some sort of magic number. I used to write down three tasks for the day, but I’d almost always end up making those tasks too micro, and I’d be done by 10am, and then would spend the rest of the day floundering on what to focus on next. Or, I’d be too ambitious, make those three tasks MASSIVE, and impossible to finish any of them, thus making the to do list irrelevant. Writing down six tasks results in me somehow magically breaking my projects into action items that are both purposeful and manageable.
The hierarchy is important. As mentioned, one of my to-do traps is not knowing where to start, or doing the easy tasks first so I feel busy, rather than actually making progress in the things that matter. Forcing myself to do the #1 bullet before even looking at the other five items ensures that I’m always doing my most important work first (for me, the #1 bullet is always writing related, usually writing 2-5k in my work-in-progress, though it‘s sometimes rewrites if I have revisions due).
Wondering what happens if you have more than six items on your to do list in a world with carpool, grocery shopping, work deadlines, birthday parties, and passion projects? Or wondering how “get to the gym” fits into this system?
Here’s a look at my end-to-end system:
(1) I maintain my master to do list in the ToDoist app.
Yes, six is a magic number, but I never ever have just six things going on. In a single day, I may have 10 new ideas for books to write, marketing strategies to try, or Amazon orders to place. And that’s just one day! I don’t want to lose the ideas, but neither do I want do deal with them right now and derail my important work.
I need a place to dump all the stuff. I use the app ToDoist, which has a Mac app, mobile app, as well as an online interface. If I think of something I need to do while I’m at the grocery store, I can simply drop it into the app, and deal with it later. I’ve had good luck with ToDoist, but any task-tracking app will work, including the iPhone’s built-in (free) Reminders, or Evernote.
Why do I keep this master list electronically, instead in a notebook? With 50+ items, I need to get reminded of the ones that have due dates. ToDoist allows me to set notifications so I don’t let timely things like birthday gifts and deadlines fall through the cracks. ToDoist is basically my “brain dump” area, where I drop any book/marketing/shopping task as it pops into my head. As you can imagine, there are a lot of items in my app, which is why when it comes down to planning my day …
(2) I use the Ivy Lee Method for planning my day.
At the end of every work day (or the start of the work day) I look through ToDoist and decide which tasks are the most important and the most urgent.
For example, creating an Instagram graphic for a cover reveal is urgent (timely) but not important (spoiler alert: social media is rarely important. Think of it this way: you can still have a writing career without a cover reveal, you can’t have a writing career without a book).
Brainstorming that YA idea I can’t stop thinking of is important, but not urgent—there’s no deadline attached yet.
Writing a chapter in the book due next month is both urgent and important.
Thus, writing a chapter in my WIP should be my first bullet point for the day because it’s both urgent and important. Other stuff can fall into line behind that. I repeat this process until I have six to-do items for the day, and then I get started.
(3) I use a habit tracker for the daily stuff.
I mentioned James Clear’s Atomic Habits above, which I truly recommend reading in its entirety, but if I had to sum up very briefly: it stresses the importance of making our daily habits manageable.
For example, if you write “run 5 miles” on your daily habit tracker, and you’re not an elite runner, there’s not much of a chance of that happening because the tasks feels huge and daunting. But if you simply write “put on running shoes” into your habit tracker, you can do that every single day, no problem. And the chances of you going running after you put on your shoes are good, but you don’t even worry about that. You only worry about putting your shoes on.
Thus, if ToDoist is my brain dump some day, stuff and if if the Ivy Lee method is how I ensure I’m prioritizing the right things, then my habit tracker is where I help establish a routine that will allow me to be at peak performance for the important stuff.
Things like taking my allergy pill, making time to read brain food, exercise, journaling, eating vegetables, etc … all that goes into the habit tracker.
How do I define what goes into my habit tracker, versus the Ivy Lee method for the day? If it needs to happen daily, it goes into the habit tracker. If it’s something that contributes to a healthy mind/body so that I’m better equipped to tackle the important/urgent task, it needs to become a habit, not merely a to do item.
Three Pillars of Productivity
In essence, my system be broken down into three pillars:
Big picture :: ToDoist
Important: Ivy Lee Method
Micro: Habit Tracker
The balance of these three items has really contributed to what feels like my best life. I’m not stressed, because I know nothing’s falling through the cracks. I’m fulfilled and financially healthy, because everything that needs to get done is being prioritized accordingly. I go to sleep both satisfied with my day, and excited for tomorrow.
And most importantly to me as a writer, I’ve made room in my life for creativity by ensuring every day is purposeful rather than reactive, and by creating a platform of healthy habits like exercise and journaling.
Plus, there’s been an added benefit—my social media, TV, and junk food consumption have decreased, not because I’ve declared anything off limits or sought to ban them, but because my life/day is so full of the good stuff, I don’t have much time left over for the “crap.”
behind the scenes …
Below is of my actual six Ivy Lee Method tasks from the other day, exactly as I have them written in my notebook, so you can see what it looks like in practice:
Create revisions workbook & scene list in Numbers (Yours in Scandal)
Finish revising last five chapters of R2 edits and send to Sara (Marriage on Madison Avenue)
Finish round-two comps for Last Word Designs client and send to [🤐]
Upload The Prenup to Vellum
Brainstorm 10 title options for Jarod’s book
Create shipping label to send Passion on Park Avenue author copies to Lisa
As you can see, all six of these items are pretty specific — I’ve learned that simply writing, “revisions for Marriage on Madison,” or “brainstorm Jarod’s book” doesn’t work well because the tasks are too big (I can’t edit an entire book in a day) or too vague (brainstorm is an extremely open-ended endeavor that can easily slip into time-wasting territory).
By ensuring that I write down how many chapters I’ll revise, and put an end-cap on my brainstorming, I have a clear and precise moment where I can check that item off.
I try to make sure that all six of my Ivy Lee Method items are:
Important (you’ll notice that there are a lot of book related tasks, and no social media tasks)
Urgent (there’s some sort of timely factor associated)
Achievable (each one of my tasks can be achieved within a work day if I buckle down and focus)
Specific (each item has a clear ending point so I know when to check it off)
Wondering when I get the other stuff done? Pinterest and Instagram and newsletter and email? After my Six are behind me 🙂 I start my workday at 6am, and very rarely do my Ivy Lee Six take me past 2pm, which gives me a couple hours at the end of the day for the fun stuff (graphics) or reactionary stuff (email).