How I Reinvented the Ivy Lee Method

What I want to show you today is the productivity technique I’ve been following successfully for the past year. It’s not complicated and so it won’t take more time than it saves you, as is the case for a huge number of these tricks. All you need is a Trello board and some prioritization skills.

Here’s what you’ll do: you will create a new empty Trello board. I called mine “Weekly Planner” and you’ll see why that makes sense in a second, but the name doesn’t really matter as long as you follow the structure. In this board, you will create a column called “Backlog” and then one for each day of the upcoming week, like this:

As you can see, I have not included the weekend here, because I intentionally try to leave my weekends unscheduled. In some cases, I will also plan the weekend by adding columns for Saturday and Sunday. That’s usually how I know it’s going to be a tiring week.

Now that you have this, what are the most important things that you need to do on Monday? I will not get into the details of how to figure it out: there are a lot of frameworks for prioritizing tasks. What I do is try to strike a balance between importance (what creates most value) and urgency (what must be done now). This article by the Crew team explains the concept pretty well.

Once you have this list, only enter six tasks in the Monday column, in order of priority. If you don’t have six tasks, that’s completely fine. If you have more than six, put the rest in the Tuesday column. Note that the specific number is not important, but you need to have a limit, or your list will just grow to the point where you won’t be able to go through all the tasks for the day and will have to move some to the next day, in a vicious cycle of demotivation and anxiety that will ultimately make you less productive.

For instance, here’s what one of my days might look like:

A couple of things to note here:

  • I have also assigned due dates to the cards, so that I could easily mark them as done by checking them off, which is always a great feeling.
  • Since I work on different projects, I prepend each task with the project it’s linked to, so that I can look at my board and get a clear picture of what I’ll be working on.

Once you’re ready to start your day, I want you to open your planner. Don’t check your email, your Slack or anything that might put you in reactive mode for the rest of your day. Just open the Trello board and be reminded of your priorities for the day. If you can, have a screen with this board open all the time, so that it’s easier to get on track.

Open the card for your first task, then start working on it. Don’t go to your second task. You have set the priority. The second task can wait.

Once you are done, check it off:

Repeat until you get to the last task. If you still have some free time, congratulations: you can now do whatever you want! Work some more, answer all of your email, go to dinner, or just slack off.

During the day, you’ll probably find more stuff to work on. Create cards for all these tasks in your Backlog column as soon as they pop up. This will take them off your mind and allow you to focus on the present moment.

At the end of the day, take 5 minutes to plan the next day: add tasks to it from the Backlog or just reorder the tasks you already have there. It’s fine to plan several days in advance, but every night make sure the tasks and priorities are still relevant.

At the end of the week, just archive your lists (except for the Backlog) so that you can plan the new one.

That’s It.

If you, like me, hate productivity techniques, you might find this a bit simpler to stick to and quite powerful, since it forces you to prioritize and allows you to quickly get an overview of your real priorities (which, more often than not, are different from our perceived priorities). It’s also a very flexible method since Trello allows you to do a lot of things: track time, see your tasks in a calendar… the possibilities are virtually endless.

With that said, don’t make the mistake of thinking a Trello board will solve all of your focus and productivity problems. You will still wake up and want to go back to sleep and you will still spend hours procastinating and hating yourself for it. That’s just human nature — you can improve it, but you’ll never be able to completely eliminate it, so learn to minimize it and live with it.

Oh, and here’s a fun thing: a year after coming up with this method, I found out Ivy Lee had already figured it out quite some time ago, which was a huge self-esteem booster.

Technology leader and strategic advisor. I work at the intersection of people, software and words.