How the Ivy Lee Method Can Help You Overcome Decision Fatigue and Get Things Done More Quickly

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Anyone who has ever flipped through the 20-plus pages of a menu from The Cheesecake Factory can tell you that having more options is not always a good thing. In fact, research shows that after a certain point, having a surplus of choices tends to make people feel less satisfied1 with whatever option they do eventually pick. It can also make it hard to commit to any one choice or make a decision at all. This phenomenon, called “the paradox of choice” or “choice overwhelm,” applies to shopping, dating, and tackling your to-do list. And when it comes to work, choice overwhelm—particularly when you're facing a long list of all seemingly urgent tasks—can leave us stuck doing nothing (see: decision paralysis) and then feeling guilty or burned out.

Experts In This Article

Yet, simply eliminating choices from your life isn't always possible. So, how can we make decisions, stay on track, and do what's necessary... amid lots of choices? Enter a 100-year-old productivity tool called the Ivy Lee method, which can help you beat decision fatigue by streamlining your to-do list and reducing multitasking. It might have been created in the early 1900s, but it can be just as useful today to help you focus and do what you really need to do.

What is the Ivy Lee method?

The Ivy Lee method was developed by Ivy Lee, a productivity consultant who was reportedly hired by Charles M. Schwab in 1918 to help improve efficiency at his company, Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Lee came up with this method to help people both plan and do their work.

The method is as follows:

  1. The night before work, write a list of six (only six!) tasks for the next day in priority order.
  2. In the morning, start working on your list in order, and give each task your full attention—no multitasking.
  3. Only move onto the next task when you have finished the one before.
  4. At the end of the day, if you have tasks still left, add them to the start of your list for tomorrow, and repeat.

How does this technique work?

The Ivy Lee method is fairly simple, but it’s effective for several reasons. For starters, making a limited list of to-dos forces you to be realistic about what you can accomplish. “People will sometimes create to-do lists with 100 items on there, but that's not a to-do list, it's a wish list,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of several time management and productivity books, including Tranquility by Tuesday. Overestimating, she explains, just means a longer list and then feeling bad about not completing it.

The restricted six-item to-do list of the Ivy Lee method is useful not just for what you put on it, but for what you leave off. Identifying your priority tasks “will reduce overwhelm because it shows you how much of what you have been worrying about is just noise,” says Charlotte Rooney, anti-burnout mentor and coach at A Half Managed Mind.

I’ve personally been using the Ivy Lee method for a couple of years and find the list-making step really difficult. It forces me to identify my top priorities and think honestly about what I can and can’t do in a day.

By requiring you to plan ahead, the Ivy Lee method also ensures you start each day with a road map of tasks, rather than ping-ponging from decision to decision in the moment. Our ability to make decisions is like a car’s fuel tank, says career coach and consultant Jess Wass, who specializes in helping people realign their career with their life values. “We start the day with a full tank, but as the day goes on [and we make more and more decisions], our energy level starts to drop. When it drops enough, we have a harder time making decisions, and we start to feel overwhelmed.”

“[The Ivy Lee method] is a tool to help you achieve your goals, not a standard you have to live up to." —Charlotte Rooney, anti-burnout mentor and coach

You can reduce decision fatigue in part through habits—like having a go-to “work uniform” à la Steve Jobs, always having the same thing for breakfast, or making an Ivy Lee list the night before. That way, when you sit down to work, you haven’t used up any decision-making gas and can instead focus more energy on how you are going to do what needs to get done.

Your streamlined Ivy Lee list means you’ll always know what you need to focus on even if you get pulled off track, too (because random emails or last-minute requests from your boss will always come up). “We have a moment of thinking, What was I supposed to be doing? And if we don't have a quick answer to that, we start to panic internally,” says Wass. While you might otherwise slip into productive procrastination—reaching for the easiest, but not necessarily most important thing—using the Ivy Lee method means you'll have a plan for bringing your attention back to what matters.

Planning ahead also means you are more likely to make decisions that favor longer-term and often more important goals instead of quick wins, adds Rooney. “Focusing on impact rather than ease of execution changes the order in which you tackle problems,” she says. “Rather than knocking off the easy things first, with the Ivy Lee method, you'll start with what is important and will make the biggest difference.”

How to use the Ivy Lee method to get things done

While Ivy Lee advocated for six tasks and always working in order, Lee's 1918 workday likely contained fewer meetings than today's... and certainly no Zoom calls, which are exhausting in their own way. Meaning, for a modern workplace—where 37 percent of employee time is spent in meetings—some tweaks to this method are warranted.

For example, you don’t need to force yourself to list out six tasks, specifically. For some people, especially those with meeting-heavy jobs, six tasks might be too many, but you can tweak it to work for modern schedules; maybe three or four tasks per day will work better for you.

Completing tasks in order might be less feasible for some work schedules, too. “You might be better served by figuring out when you'll do each item on your list based on how much time you have available,” says Vanderkam. This could mean doing lower priority but quicker tasks in between morning meetings and focusing on your longer, more important tasks when you have a bigger break later in the day.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t managed to cross all six tasks off your list by the end of the day, either. “It is a tool to help you achieve your goals, not a standard you have to live up to,” says Rooney, of the Ivy Lee method. In some people, it could trigger perfectionist or overworking behaviors, so don’t be afraid to set a hard boundary around when you are finishing work and make peace with sometimes having tasks left over.

You might feel like you are doing less to start with, but you’re likely finishing fewer tasks because they are more important, complicated ones. “If you’ve gotten used to running on adrenaline and dopamine from being very busy, reactive and short-term focussed, this kind of shift can feel uncomfortable at first,” says Rooney.

Don’t expect to be perfect at it right away. “You’re learning a new system, so you will have to try, test, review, and adjust for a bit,” Rooney explains. She says you might over- or underestimate how much you can do or feel stuck wondering how to prioritize tasks, but don’t let that put you off. “Try what feels good enough, and then reflect at the end of the day. Use the information to plan differently the next day, and keep tweaking until it works for you.”

Remember: None of us can ever get everything done every day. But the Ivy Lee method can help us focus on the tasks that really matter by requiring us to think ahead. It’s an old method that still works today to simplify your to-do list, reduce your need to make endless decisions, and hopefully, help you feel a little bit better about the way you work. When you treat it as a framework that can be tweaked for modern life, choosing to try it could be one decision that actually helps alleviate, rather than add to, your decision fatigue.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Chernev, Alexander, et al. “Choice Overload: A Conceptual Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2015, pp. 333–58,

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