Creating a To-Do List that Actually Does Something for You

My father told me years ago, “to be conscientious about one thing only means that you are ignoring many other things.”

I am sharing in this post the tool that I recently discovered that has made more difference in writing a daily to-do list that is effective in both (1) knocking items off my list of action items, and (2) ensuring that the action items completed are balanced across multiple long-term goals.  That tool is Peter Bregman’s six-box to-do list.

Over the course of my career, I have tried many, many different systems for to-do lists.  I have tried notebooks, index cards, Getting Things Done (“GTD”), a dozen different task list apps on my phone and computer.  After about 15 years of practicing law, I settled in large part on GTD in a paper notebook, because the “capture it all” and “context for every item” aspects were invaluable to me.  For those who are not familiar with the details of David Allen’s GTD system, the system depends upon a few pillars.  First, all information in your life needs to be collected.  This represents to-dos, calendar appointments, projects, and items you have delegated or are waiting on.

Once items are collected in the GTD system, they are categorized and organized into contexts.  First, what is the item?  Is it a project, an appointment, a task, or an item for which you are awaiting a response?  Second, for whom is the item to be completed, or with whom are you working?  Is it for your business partner, your associate, your assistant, your wife, your child?  Third, when do you need to complete it?  Now, soon, later, or someday, or are you waiting on it?  From these data points, you can construct a list each for projects, action items, and waiting on items.  For action items, you will have separate lists for each area of responsibility in your life: office, computer, errands, home, wife, etc.  These categories are completely subject to your discretion.  Once up and running, you will have a calendar for appointments, and a series of lists in GTD.

I have run a GTD system for a number of years.  But I still kept running in to the same key problem. First, with a project list in the dozens, and action item list in the hundreds, I struggled with prioritization.  I usually can complete approximately 4-6 important items per day.  If I have 40 items of high priority, which items win out?  What criteria can I use to make that choice?  How do I ensure that the work I focus on advances the goals that are important to me?

I made two changes during this past quarter that have drastically helped with this problem.  The first, is that I abandoned my paper notebook GTD system and moved it to Evernote.  Evernote provides a very large advantage over paper: it is searchable and sortable.  Each day, I can search and sort my action items in Evernote by priority and context.

This brings us to Bregman’s simple and ingenious six-box to-do list.  Given the overwhelming amount and complexity of the information in my Evernote GTD system, I needed a tool that would allow me to review my high-priority action items, and then decide what to do every day.  Bregman’s blueprint solved this problem for me.  Bregman advocates that each of us needs to spend time periodically determining what our top five long term goals are.  His suggestion is then that we should spend 95% of our time focusing on work that advances those goals.  The goals are up to you – a particular project, business development, writing a novel, finishing an advanced degree, learning Finnish – you are the master of your goal list.  The point is that if you have an important goal, you need to ensure that you are doing work each day towards those goals.

Bregman’s template requires you to divide an index card into six boxes.  The first five boxes are for each of your five long-term goals.  The last box is for “the other 5%.”  When I adopted this system, the five goals I had were: (1) work for existing legal cases; (2) obtaining and developing new legal cases; (3) researching and promoting my ideas; (4) presence for my family; and (5) taking care of myself.

Each morning, I open up Evernote, and I search for all tagged notes with high priority.  From those, I search across my context tags (@work, @calls, @wife, @home, @errands), to make sure that I understand my potential priorities across all spheres of my life.  I then select two or three items from my action item list for each of my five goals.   A sample list looks something like this:


This allows me to make sure that as I accomplish my key 4-6 items per day, that I am working across multiple goals.  It forces me to do work on existing cases, while also developing new business, and while also protecting my time to work on research and writing.

The most important thing that this six-box list has done for me, though, is to create a visual cue to remember that the very most important things in life are things that can easily be squeezed out if you do not protect the time to do them.  Time with family, being present for your spouse and children, exercise, meditation, and new learning are all spheres of life that too often are ignored in favor of traditional “work.”  By identifying my specific goals across various areas of life, I have found that this system allows me to be both productive, but also fulfilled in all aspects of life that I have determined matter to me the most.

My father was right.  In being conscientious about one thing, you do ignore many other things.  The trick is to ensure that you do not ignore any part of your life that matters to you, and conversely, that you do not spend time on things that do not advance your goals, to the detriment of your goals.