The Ivy Lee Method for Teachers

to-do-listA good friend of mine told me about a 100 year old method that she uses to improve productivity.  This method involves completing only six tasks each day and she promised it was amazingly simple yet highly effective. At first, I was very sceptical; what constitutes a task in teaching? There are so many little tasks to do each day. Did teaching a lesson count as a task? In which case, teaching five lessons in a day leaves only one task remaining that I can complete that day. Furthermore, my friend is a highly successful director working in industry; could I really transfer these principles to my job as a teacher?

The method is called the Ivy Lee method after an American PR consultant who, in 1918, was called in to help increase productivity at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time.  The strategy sounded too simple to be true but the president of the company, Charles Schwab, and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000 (around $450,000 today).

The method is summarised here by James Clear

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritise those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished (ignoring interruptions) before moving on to the second task.
  4. 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.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

What makes it so effective? Colter Reed (Manage your Time, Manage your Life explains this below:

  • It’s just six things (give or take). So many times I have found myself darting from one thing to another and accomplishing nothing.  For me this method means that when I teach a five period day; that’s five tasks. I can only do one more task before I go home. This make me prioritise really effectively. Take today for example. I have taught five lessons and had an hour of time before the end of the day. During this time I planned my lessons for tomorrow and prepared equipment that my yr 8 class is going to need for their lesson on hydraulics tomorrow.  My planner has six spaces so I have written in my four lessons for tomorrow and two tasks that must be done and no more. Now I can forget about work and go home.
  • It encourages work-life balance. Going home and not thinking about work was an explicit part of Lee’s advice. If your subconscious wants to chew on problems, let it. But focus your conscious mind elsewhere. You’ve written tomorrow’s tasks. Turn off work email on your phone. Go for a hack. Write your blog.
  • The end-of-day perspective. Planning at the end of the day has several advantages over planning in the morning. You have a more realistic grasp on what you can get done in a day. You tend to focus more on what’s important and less on what’s urgent. You already have a plan in place when the morning’s distractions try to overwhelm you.
  • It encourages you to wrap things up early. The last task on your schedule each day is a given entity.  How many times have you left school later than you meant to because you got caught up in doing just one more thing or answering one last email? I have learned to wrap up ten minutes before 5pm and leave work on time. (Again: work-life balance.)
  • It’s simple. The more simple your system is, the more likely you are to stick with it. If you don’t make it through your list, don’t worry about it—you wouldn’t have gotten everything done by any other method either. I don’t sweat about what I haven’t done; instead I congratulate myself on what I have achieved (no one else will) and move unfinished tasks to the next day’s list.

The questions is, how do we adapt this method for teachers? Here are my insights:

  • Do only one task at a time.  As teachers we are so used to multitasking in the classroom that we apply the same chaotic principles to our ‘free’ non-contact time.  Sitting down to complete one task without distractions until it is done is incredibly therapeutic and enormously productive.
  • One lesson and its associated admin is one task.  By all means use lesson time to get students to self assess work, put their own behaviour points onto the class chart and monitor their own progress. I even got a child to rate his own behaviour on his report card today (surprisingly he gave himself 5/10 for effort and behaviour where I would have given him a 6/10!) But remember, one lesson is one task.  If you are teaching four lessons you can do two further tasks that day.
  • Complete those tasks you keep putting off.  For example that set of yr 7 books you keep meaning to mark. This had become a priority for me so, on a day when my ‘free’ was a period one, and having written it on my list the day before, I started immediately I got to work. I focused completely on the task, did not allow myself to become distracted, left my laptop in the cupboard and got two sets of books marked in the time I had allocated. Simple, but effective.
  • Group lots of small, similar things into one task. Teachers often have lots of small tasks to complete. For example entering a set of marks or phoning a parent. I waited until I had a few parents to call and grouped it with other admin/data entry tasks. In this way I completed a lot of small things in one hit.
  • Don’t think about it; do it.  At times we can spend more time thinking about what is to be done rather than actually getting on and doing it. Because I set my tasks the night before I never have to go through the process of wasting thinking time at the start of each day.  I know what is to be done and I simply do it.

Do Give this simple yet effective method a go. It has improved my work-life balance no end.  I’m rarely working at home in the evenings and I haven’t worked at all at the weekend since the start of this term.  Long may it continue!

Dedicated with grateful thanks to my friend, Gill Boot, for teaching me the Ivy Lee method and changing my life for the better.