Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about using a 6-box to-do list

Here it is: the ultimate guide to boxing your to-do list for fun! and! profit!

I wrote a short post about using a 6-box to-do list a couple of years ago, not thinking much of it. It seemed too specific to be interesting to many people.

However, it continues to get consistent visits. There’s a mob of us 6-box to-do listers out there, and we’re searching Google. Every day, apparently!

Since that post, I’ve continued to use a boxed-up to-do list in various forms and iterations, and I have more to say about it. Since there seems to be continuing interest, let’s discuss.

(When I say discuss I really mean I’ll write and you read… Sorry. Blogs are one-sided like that, especially when you disable comments. Have something to say? Tweet me about it! Have nothing to say? Tweet me about that, too! Not on Twitter? Go away. Just kidding. I love you too. Email me.)

My 6 box to-do list background

Here’s what I said about the 6-box to-do list in my original post:

So I’ve used Bregman’s 6-box to do list off and on since 2012, which is when I read the 18 Minutes book. (I just checked my Kindle highlights. 58 highlighted passages. Finished reading on December 7, 2012. That’s useless information, but it’s cool to be able to find it so easily.)

I recently came back to the 6-box method because I found myself getting having day after day when I couldn’t finish my day’s list.

That means, of course, that I’m putting too much stuff on it.

The 6-box to-do list is the brainchild of Peter Bregman, who wrote a great productivity book called 18 Minutes (well worth the read).

In it, he explains this to-do list method. He also describes it in this HBR article:

I’ve created a to-do list that’s made of six boxes — one for each of my five areas of focus and the 6th labeled “the other 5%”. That other 5% box is like sugar — a little might be OK but your day should never contain more than 5% of the activities that don’t fit into your five areas of annual focus.

I’ve used this to-do list format, almost exactly as Bregman describes it, regularly in my bullet journal:

What’s so great about a to-do list with boxes?

Well, it starts with what’s wrong with the traditional, linear to-do list.

Here’s how Scott at Life-Long Learner describes the main issue with linear task management:

“I want to simultaneously be a good human-being, son, brother, friend, and employee amongst other things. All of these aspirations require effort. Yet it’s nearly impossible to make sure I allocate enough energy towards all of these ambitions using a linear To-Do-List.”

Scott, brother, I hear ya. My goals are more about being an okay-but-judgy person, furthering the ginger mission, speaking Spanish at a higher-than-kindergarten level, using hyphens whenever possible, always having a cup of coffee at hand, and producing written works at a wildly prolific rate, but still, same problem: so many ambitions, so little time.

A linear to-do list, which is what a lot of people use by default, (side note: whenever you’re using a tool or method by default, you’re probably being inefficient) does not help me sort and prioritize my tasks according to my real values and goals (which as you can see are vast and deep and very important).

A boxed to-do list helps with that prioritization. I hate that word. I’m going to say it again. Prioritization. Ugh. It’s so awful. It’s like picking at a hangnail. It hurts but I can’t help it. Prioritization. Pri or i ti za ti on. 

How a boxed to-do list helps

Okay, so, stupid question: Why do you use a to-do list?

The basic purpose of a to-do list is to help you identify and complete your tasks. The 6-box to-do list takes the functionality of a linear to-do list further (so much further!) by helping you to

  • Be conscious about your tasks and their context in your life: You have to choose 5 main areas, which forces you to, uh, choose 5 main areas. You can’t work on all the projects and do all the things with this to-do list. Nope. You have to decide on your most-important projects or focus areas and think about your tasks in context. No more making a big, uncategorized list of everything you can think of that you might need to do, and then weeping and eating chocolate in bed because there’s no way you’ll ever do it all. Stop that. That’s no good. (I mean, eat the chocolate, that’s fine.)
  • Prioritize your tasks according to your long-term goals and big projects: You can’t put a random task on the list; you have to assign it to an area. You have to. There’s nowhere else to put it. No fair using the margin of the paper. That doesn’t count.
  • Keep your daily task list realistic: Even if you use a full sheet of paper for your to-do list, dividing it into 6 sections automatically limits the number of tasks you can put on it for each day.
  • Be aware of and limit intrusions and obligations: I don’t know about you, but other people’s stuff is always creeping onto my task list. Sure, yeah, I made these children and feeding them lunch may seem like a parental duty, but I am an independent woman! An autonomous being! I have priorities! If my 5% box is already full, well, sorry kids: no lunch today. (I’m just kidding, don’t call the DFS. Family gets its VERY OWN BOX.)

If you keep these important benefits in mind, you can use the concept of a boxed to-do list beyond the original template. Almost to infinity. Not quite. But close.

Features that provide the benefits

Time for a little copywriting talk!

In copywriting, you don’t focus on the features of a product; instead, you focus on the benefits. Benefits sell. Benefits make people happy. Benefits are better for conversion. That’s because all of us are basically self-interested assholes wrapped up so tight in our own needs and interests that we don’t care about anything that doesn’t directly benefit us.

“Oh, your little widget has 29 technologically advanced features and is made of diamond-dusted steel bathed in the waters of the hyporheic zone of the River Styx? I don’t care.” 

“Oh, your little widget will help me lose 5 pounds in a week so I look better than my cousin Stacy at the next family reunion? I’ll take two.” 

The benefits are the advantages that customers gain (hypothetically) by using the product (and its features).

Let’s reverse engineer this boxed to-do list, by flipping the copywriting methodology. We’ve got the benefits listed, above: let’s figure out which features bring us each benefit, and then we can play around with other ways or creating those features, so they fit in with our preferences or tools or limits or whatever.

  • Benefit: Be conscious about our tasks and their context in our lives.
  • Feature: A limited number of focus areas or categories. You can use categories on any kind of to-do list, but the problem is that those can be unlimited. Really. And what are you going to do with unlimited categories? Forget some of them, neglect others, get overwhelmed, and focus disproportionately on a few while feeling guilty about the rest.

  • Benefit: Prioritize our tasks according to our long-term goals and big projects
  • Feature: Limited number of main areas, each designated by a box, so there are no place for random tasks, so each task must belong to a focus area. It either belongs to a focus area or it goes in the 5%.

  • Benefit: Keep your daily task list realistic.
  • Feature: Boxes. Only 6. And limited in size by whatever tool you’re using. (And after a while you learn realistically how many items/box you can get done in a day.)

  • Benefit: Be aware of and limit intrusions and obligations.
  • Feature: Only 6 boxes. Anything that doesn’t belong to a focus area gets shoved into the 5% box. It gets full fast, which means you have to filter what goes in there. You get better at saying No.

TWO MAIN FEATURES, friends!

  1. Boxes
  2. Only six of them

So many benefits!

The boxes are visual cues. They remind you that you have a few areas or projects that matter more than everything else that could possibly be out there.

Visual cues are helpful in learning, because we are slow to change. We are often slow to understand. Pictures (a.k.a visual cues) help. Know why I started drawing little pictures to go with blog posts? To help myself understand what I was trying to say. Really. I didn’t do it for you guys, ha!

After you use a boxed to-do list for a while, you start to think of your life as a set of focus areas. You think of your tasks as part of these areas. You see how your tasks belong (and thus, help progress) a certain area or how they don’t belong. And you start to reject, delegate, or delay tasks that don’t belong in those focus areas.

The visual, boxed aspect also helps you see the proportions between your focus areas. If you have 10 tasks in Box 1, and only 2 tasks in another, and that ratio continues, you tend to notice. You see the disproportionate energy and time going to one focus area. That may be okay; it may not be. Seeing it, however, helps you to be aware of these ratios and proportional issues, so you can fix them if needed.

How to use this type of list

In the past, I’ve used a boxed to-do list in various formats, but mostly in notebooks (bullet journal is my note booking methodology of choice) or using index cards. I prefer paper for planning.

Sometimes I don’t need 6 categories, honestly. Sometimes one focus area of my life is the overwhelming one, sucking in about 95% of my energy and time, and having 5 other boxes staring at me is not helpful. In those times, if I’m smart, I’ll cut down the number of boxes.

Right now I’m using a digital version of the 6-box to-do list: digital sticky notes on my laptop. Looks like this:

As you can see, I’ve got three boxes. But I’m cheating, because you can see the minimized stickies: 7 of them. Which means I’m using a total of 10 boxes! WHAT! Such innovation. Such blatant disregard of the 6-box tradition!

Yes, that’s me, raising a ruckus wherever I go.

Anyway, I have three boxes that are my Today Boxes. One for Family, one for Work, and one for Completed because I like to keep track of what I’ve managed to do (or not do) in a day. Not much for today, so far, other than take the screenshot for this post so I can actually publish it.

The stack of 5 minimized notes below my Work box is how I sort out my writing. Generally I pick a focus for the day (Today’s is BLOG.) But each morning I skim through those stickies and copy-paste what I want to do today into my Work box.

The sticky notes disappear behind any other application I’m using (unless I change them to “floating” view) but I can click on the sticky icon at any time and pull them back into view. Since 85% of my work is done on my laptop, this is working for me…

I’m use the digital version of this 6-box to-do list in conjunction with my bullet journal.

The bujo combination

Bullet journaling is my consistent and favorite and most effective method of keeping my life and shit organized. I like playing around with other tools and methods (read: procrastinating), but I always return to a notebook and a bujo method of using said notebook.

These days, I crack open my bujo every morning to – get this – journal! Whoa. Three pages is my goal, a la Julia Cameron’s morning pages.

I also use my bujo for brain dumps (why does that sound so disgusting, can we come up with a better term?) and for running task lists and for sorting through the various stages and actions and milestones and need-to-dos of the projects or focus areas that I’m into right now.

Some focus areas don’t change: family, for example. Others do. I recently wrapped up a gig as VP of Content for a tech startup and returned to freelancing full-time. My focus areas have changed accordingly.

The bujo is the place for all the information: the ideas, the obligations, the hopes, the fears, the goals and plans, the reference notes, the tiny to-do items needed to keep a family and household running, grocery lists, menu plans, notes for the kids, ideas I’m not yet pursuing, etc.

The daily, boxed to-do list is where I take the most important stuff of my life, right now, and decide how I want to put energy into it today.

Future use: growth framework

I have a little idea I’ve been playing around with, which I’m calling a “growth framework” for now. It’s nothing solid yet, just some ideas and methods for keeping my life on a growth trajectory, by consciously choosing to focus on areas and tasks that help me grow.

I think it can work well with the 6-box concept.

I’ll share more on that as I develop it, unless it turns out to be dumb, which is always possible…

What could you do?

You, of course, can do lots of things with the 6-box concept. If you are a productivity person like me (and you must be, if you’re read this far), play around with the number of boxes and ways you use them.

For example, instead of setting focus areas, you could assign each box a time of day, or a context (I see you, GTDers!), or a type of work (deep work vs quick tasks).

Bregman’s method is based on annual focus areas, but yours doesn’t have to be. YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH YOUR TO-DO LIST, YOU WILD INDEPENDENT BEAST OF POWER.

You could use a box for each major project you’re working on, and update them as the projects are completed or moved out of your loop. (This is a great idea for people who, like me, might have a tendency to start too many projects at the same time.)

In conclusion, I would like to say

The main benefit of the 6 box to-do list is that it forces you to make conscious choices about where your time and attention goes. That’s scary, because once you decide — these are my focus areas, and these are the tasks that belong to them – you know what you have to do and have only yourself to blame if a) you choose wrong or b) you don’t actually do the tasks you’ve chosen.

But seriously? Isn’t it better to mess up or fail at the stuff that matters to you than let your to-do list be overrun by other people’s ideas of what you should do? Yes, of course it is! And I believe in you. I think you’ll make great decisions. And I think you’ll do what you set out to do. Try it!

I’d love to hear from you if you use the 6-box to-do list, if you tweak it (or not), and how it works for you.

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Few and consistent approach

This is an approach you can use to get what you want out of an area of life, if what you want is

a) to go deeper and be more focused in a particular area, or
b) to spend fewer resources maintaining a particular area.

If what you want is exploration, new connections, a widened network, increased and broader possibilities, access to a wide variety of elements/experiences, interaction… Continue reading

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