Do you make a list of six tasks each day, rank them by priority, and then work through them, in order? Alan Zimmerman, author of The Payoff Principle, reminded me of this classic advice. He calls the list your “6-Pack.” Many successful people say that this practice — making a list of six items to then do in priority order each day — is the foundation of their productivity.
I’ve come around to agree that this is a great technique for improving productivity, but only since I figured out what goes in your 6-Pack and what doesn’t.
Short version: Only put delimited tasks in the list that won’t get done by default. Don’t put scheduled events and creative projects in it. The 6-Pack highlights critical items that need extra attention to get finished today. It’s important to use it for that specialized purpose.
I think it’s obvious why I don’t recommend you include meetings or appointments in your 6-Pack. A meeting or an appointment with another person may be highly important, but it’s not at risk. The event is going to happen unless there is some emergency. Your 6-Pack needs to be reserved for urgent tasks that might not be completed today.
You may be thinking, “But don’t I need to prioritize meetings?” Yes, and the time to prioritize an event is when you put it on your calendar. When you block out that time, you commit to work around it. You reduce your discretionary time. It needs to be worth it. If you don’t want to be overscheduled, you need to say “no” before putting something on your calendar. Then when you make a list for your 6-Pack, you work around those priorities.
Don’t include open-ended, creative projects in your 6-Pack
Similarly, I don’t recommend you include open-ended, creative projects in your 6-Pack. Whether such projects consist of writing, or design, or data analysis, or something else, they will be difficult to predict.
Open-ended, creative work often involves unforeseen setbacks and bouts of uncertainty. When you start, you don’t know how hard the task will be. It is common to discover you need to change the goal, or you need to adjust the time budget. Learning to plan creative work so that you don’t overdrive your headlights or set unrealistic goals is a skill in itself.
The uncertainty of open-ended, creative work makes it incompatible with the idea of the 6-Pack. The items in the 6-Pack are supposed to be done in order. You keep working on one item until you finish it, then you go on to the next item.
But what do you do when a creative, open-ended task doesn’t finish as planned? If you put creative work early in the list, it could expand to fill the time. You may never get to other critical tasks in your 6-Pack…such as paying your bills.
Creative work clogs up the list. Putting creative projects in your 6-Pack makes it unlikely that you will finish all six items, which radically reduces the value of the list.
A 6-Pack works in conjunction with other productivity tools
The beauty of a 6-Pack is that it helps you get a set of delimited tasks done. It is not the only productivity tool to use.
Specifically, creative, open-ended tasks often need a special kind of planning. That’s because they require the energy, focus, and freedom to adjust course. For example, if you try to do creative work later in the day or after a tendentious meeting, you may be too tired and frazzled to dget anything done. Or if you’re under pressure to finish on a short deadline, you may find it difficult to be creative.
This is why I and many other people recommend that you manage creative work separately using your calendar. Schedule time blocks for creative work for the best time each day.
Do you work best early in the day, when you are fresh? Or are you a night owl? People differ in this regard. But everyone works better when they have a block of 2–4 hours at a time to do creative work.
If you put that block on your calendar and build boundaries around that time, you’ll get much more creative work done. With the right processes in place, you can start and stop being creative on a schedule.
What is a “Delimited Task” to include?
This leaves us with the tasks that do go in the 6-Pack: delimited tasks that won’t get done by default. They need to fit into the discretionary time you have during the day.
By delimited tasks, I mean tasks that meet these three criteria:
1. You know exactly how to do the task. (If you don’t, then it’s a creative task.)
2. You are morally certain that you can complete it in less than two hours, i.e, one sitting, i.e., you believe you can estimate the time for the task.
3. You are confident that you can reach completion under your own power. You don’t need another person or an outside resource to finish.
These three criteria ensure that the task can fit into the bits of time you have, and that you will have some control over finishing the task. If the tasks are too large, they need to be broken down into bite-size pieces so that they are manageable and completable.
They “won’t get done by default” because you know that you will have a lot of things vying for your discretionary time — interruptions, email, phone calls. If you want to get these items done rather than just react to what’s coming in, you will need to make a special effort to do them in the periods between scheduled events and creative work.
Incidentally, this means that you need to adjust your 6-Pack to make sure the list as a whole is compatible with the amount of discretionary time you have that day. If you believe that the 6-Pack tasks will take more than the time available, you need to change the choice of tasks for the six-pack — or you need to cancel a scheduled event. The 6-Pack needs to be made up of tasks that are small enough that you believe you can finish them. Otherwise, what’s the point?
When you go into the day, you have only limited discretionary time. Much of your day will be filled with events and creative projects. If you want to make sure that you use your discretionary time well, make a 6-Pack first thing in the morning and use it to guide your decisions throughout the rest of the day.
P.S. I first found out about a “6-Pack” idea long ago from Chet Holmes. Read about it here.