Which Approach to the To Do List Is Right for You?

6 min read
Vlad Kovalskiy
November 5, 2015
Last updated: August 17, 2019
Which Approach to the To Do List Is Right for You?
Ah, the to-do list. The ubiquitous task master that is required by almost all, no matter what field you find yourself in, no matter how fancy your digital planner is.

Technology has given us many versions of the humble to-do list: we can label by color, sort by category, assign priorities, set up automatic reminders. These features are useful, of course, until we end up spending more time managing our task managers than actually completing tasks.

If you're feeling stuck, take a look at these approaches to the to-do list. They can be applied digitally or in a low-tech, paper version. One of them just might help you start making progress and checking those items off. A cleared to-do list by the end of the day? That would be a win. 

The 6-Box List

The brainchild of Peter Bregman, the 6-box to do list is a piece of paper, or a digital document, divided into 6 sections, or boxes. To use the to-do list, choose your five top priorities. The 6th box is for "all the rest," a catch-all space for the odds-and-ends tasks that don't belong to a particular priority but can't really be ignored. Forcing all those one-off items to fit into a single box is a good way to limit them from taking over your life.

The Limited List

A to-do list for the day is not helpful when it contains an expansive list of items that couldn't be done in a week. In fact, by allowing your to-do list to mushroom to unrealistic proportions, you're telling yourself not to take it seriously. You might feel ambitious when you jot it all down, but you know that your time and abilities are limited. If you write down things you don't believe you can actually do, you quit believing that your to-do list is valid or useful. Because, really, it's not. The result? You ignore your list, spend your day procrastinating or reacting, and make little progress.

The answer is a limited to-do list, which forces you to focus on a limited, doable, believable set of tasks for a defined time: day, week, afternoon, whatever. If you find yourself constantly flitting from one task to another, working hard all day but having little tangible progress to show for it, this might be the right approach for you. Lim it yourself by setting a number of tasks (three or five) or a physically limited list (a post-it note or index card). Everything that doesn't fit on your list can wait. Self-limitation often results in great progress.

The Time-Category Approach

For those who deal with lots of inputs and last-minute changes on a regular basis, the time-category approach can be a lifesaver. With this approach, you divide your work (or your whole life, if you want) into big, top-level categories. Then make a list, or use a digital task manager, to capture all the to-do items for each category. All of them. Get it all out of your head.

When it's go-time, choose which category you'll work on, according to your schedule, your preferences, or where you see the most important needs. Set a timer, for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, and work nonstop, getting through as many items on that category's list as you can in your allotted time. When the timer rings, you can decide to a) extend the time you'll spend in that category or b) move on to the next category.

The Project-Based To-Do List

If you work mostly on a project basis, you know that it can get tricky trying to keep up with all the communication, changes, information, and to-do items for each project. Often it seems as if a single project has enough to work to keep you busy for weeks, and you're juggling multiple projects. Stressed much?

The project-based list can help you calm the chaos. Start by separating daily maintenance tasks--answering emails, doing paperwork, and returning calls--from project-based tasks. Then, assign a day to each major project. If you have more than five projects on your plate, get help! Or assign two projects per day.

Decide if you want to do project work first in the day, or maintenance work. Either way is fine, just set limits on your maintenance time, get through your list, and then move on to the day's project. Or allot enough time at the end of the day to complete your maintenance tasks. During project time, focus on the day's project; or, if needed, divide it between two projects. Follow the same routine each day: a portion of your day dedicated to maintenance tasks, the rest to project(s).

If one of these approaches seems to hit your pain points, give it a try. After a week or two, notice if your productivity has improved. If so, this just might be the best approach for you.

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Table of Content
The 6-Box List The Limited List The Time-Category Approach The Project-Based To-Do List
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