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Any special recommendations for teachers? (Reader's query)

Sandy writes:

What do you suggest for teachers with only 1½ hours of “focused” work time during the day?  Yes, we work more than that when we go home.  But the rest of our daily schedule is in class which requires an immediate response time.  And, while we are in class, the todo list is quickly turning from active to backlog.

The 1.5 hours are spent doing tasks that must be done at school or during the day, ie calling parents, making copies, setting up for class, lesson planning.

My schedule is tight and creativity occurs sporadically. But it is so important to find ways to be innovative in the classroom.

In my answer I’ll concentrate on the 1½ hours that Sandy has during the school day. How can she ensure that what needs doing gets done?
The things Sandy mentions in her email that she needs to do in this time are:
  • Calling parents
  • Making copies
  • Setting up for class
  • Lesson planning
  • Creativity

Since I don’t expect she has covered everthing and in any case there will always be unforseeable calls on her time, I’ll add another category - “Miscellaneous Tasks”

That means that she has an average of 15 minutes per category. How can she make the most of this?

This sort of concentrated period of time cries out for a routine to be established. If she does this, it will help her to avoid wasting time or getting distracted. Time is tight and anything wasted will be difficult to catch up with.

The more invariable this routine can be made the better.

So what I would advise is to arrange the tasks in their order of priority, which at a guess I would say is:

  • Setting up for class
  • Making copies
  • Calling parents
  • Lesson planning
  • Creativity
  • Miscellaneous tasks

She gets the preparations for the next class out of the way first so that she doesn’t have them hanging over her.

She probably already knows what needs doing under each heading except “Miscellaneous Tasks”. I suggest she makes a Dynamic List for that. “Creativity” needn’t take long if she uses one of the Questioning techniques I recommend.

Another advantage of a routine is that it gives a good basis for weeding activities if Sandy consistently fails to reach the end of the routine in 90 minutes. It’s all the time she has, so it’s essential that the routine is pared down to the minimum.


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February 2016

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January 2016

£20 “Donation of appreciation to Mark”

£10 “Thanks”



£5 “Thank you for sharing your work”

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Setting up systems (Reader's Query)

Kenny writes:

If you’re up for another article my next question would be the idea of systems and how you go about setting them up and their power. At the moment I’m working on creating systems in my life to make me more effective and efficient in my life.

There’s a good example of how to set up a new system in my earlier post What stops me from finding things quickly?

If you’re having problems with an existing system, then the first step is to examine it to see where it’s going wrong. So for instance to stop yourself from losing things the first step would be to look at what you are doing at the moment when you put things down.

My speciality is losing my glasses. When I look at what’s happening, what am I doing? I put them down anywhere without really thinking about it, And they frequently get covered by clothing, papers or files so that they can’t be seen.

This is a very simple example and more complicated systems will of course take longer. Nevertheless the basic procedure remains the same.

Ideally you should have systems ready before you need them, rather than try to put them right after they are causing problems.

As far as daily routines are concerned a “no list” system will naturally lead you into effective routines because your mind will naturally follow paths that have proved successful. For instance my routine for writing blog posts evolved effortlessly just by making small amendments to the same repealed sequence of actions each day.


An Effective "No List" System? Yes!

You may recall that in my article about what is required in an effective “no list” system I said that I was in the process of developing a new time management system based on the “no list” method. I reported that I had got as far as the following:

Re-entering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple re-entered tasks.

Simple to work. Yes.

Urgent stuff. Not as good as I’d like. This is the main failing, though I don’t want to give the impression that it makes the system unworkable - far from it.

Keeping the list short. The list is always kept short and  relevant throughout the day.

Getting tasks done. All unfinished tasks get worked on multiple times during the day.

Remembering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple task entry.

Not deceiving yourself. Absolutely ideal for monitoring exactly how much you have succeeded in doing during a day.

I was in fact satisfied with everything except how the method dealt with urgent tasks. I’m pleased to say that I’ve now solved that problem too.

Using the system (including even its imperfect state) I have now blogged for 17 continuous days, set up a Facebook page, replied to 52 comments within a few hours at most, initiated reader’s questions, and advanced many things in my private life - all without any resistance or procrastination.

All I’ve got to do now is to work out how to make lots of money out of it!



What stops me from finding things quickly?

A question from Will:

“What stops me from finding things quickly?

I’m looking forwards to finding out what my answer to this question will be because I spend my life losing things!

So, as I don’t have any ready-made answers, I am going to have to go through the procedure outlined in Secrets of Productive People for finding answers to questions like this. So I start by writing “Finding things?” at the top of a new note in Evernote.

These are my first day’s thoughts:

Don’t lose them in the first place!
A place for everything and everything in its place
Knowing what to do with everything
Put things down mindfully
Keep a record of where you put important things

And my second day’s thoughts:

Electronic tagging
Tidying as a frequently recurring task
Routines, e.g. empty pockets when hanging up garments
Regular emptying of briefcase, handbag, etc.

Inspired by these thoughts, I am going to start taking some action. I think the key to this is tidiness, making sure that everything is in its place. That will definitely require some sorting first, but once I’ve got things sorted, I need to tidy several times a day. This basically consists of putting things back where they came from, with the result I hope that it will be much more difficult to mislay things, plus those articles which are in the wrong place will stand out.

There are some places where stuff tends to accumulate and remain hidden. These are places such as briefcases, pockets, handbags, backpacks and so on. I will institute a habit of emptying them out whenever I’ve used them.

[As well as “things” which get lost, there’s also a problem with paper. I already scan all of the paper I can into Evernote and I make sure it’s tagged so I can find it again. I have a clear filing system for everything that can’t be scanned. I also save webpages I want to be able find again to Evernote.]

If I didn’t have to have this post ready for today, I’d probably have done at least one more day of questioning.


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My Book Challenge - Update

After eleven days how far have I got with my challenge to read only one book at a time? Well, I’ve stuck to the rule with Andrew Roberts Napoleon the Great, but progress has been slow. This is partly due to the fact that the book is much longer than I expected it to be, but also because it is very detailed and dense. It is most emphatically not the sort of book one can read as a novel!

I’m now on page 132, which is a bit over eleven pages a day. I’ve read roughly 46,000 words - about the length of The Great Gatsby, which I read last year and, as far as I can remember, took me only three or four days to read.

I’m beginning to think that it would make more sense to have one fast book and one slow book going at a time, rather than just one book. I don’t think this would necessarily make the slow book go any slower. The trouble is that most of the books I want to read are slow books!


Why "no list" systems work

Why do “no list” systems work, in spite of all our fears that we are going to miss something important?

And come to that why does a “no list” list work better than just not having a list at all?

I’m no psychologist, but my observations of myself, clients and the reported experiences of people writing in the forums on this site lead me to think that our minds like things like this:

  • routines.
  • tasks which they know how to do
  • questions - just so long as they don’t feel under pressure to find a “right” answer
The sort of things our minds don’t like on the other hand are:
  • unfinished tasks
  • feeling out of their depth
  • having to work for too long on one thing

They like freedom

They like to be challenged but not overwhelmed

They like building connections

They avoid things which they are afraid of, and they are afraid of being taken out of their comfort zones.

The very worst thing you can do with your mind is to overwhelm it with a huge list of stuff to do with not enough time to do it. This results in resistance and avoidance, either by giving up altogether or working on trivial stuff.

On the other hand the best thing you can do with your mind is to let it get on with what it wants to do but record it so it can see and learn. Your mind loves building things and it loves progressing things.

A “catch all” system always ends by either building resistance to the list, or by processing endless amounts of trivia.

A “no list” system on the other hand concentrates on what you are actually involved in, and because you are actively involved in the work your mind works with enthusiasm. And because the system actively constructs the list of what you have done, your mind is able to learn and adjust for maximum creativity.


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More about "No List" Systems

“Any system that lets you wallow in the fantasy that one day you’ll get it all done isn’t just useless but dangerous, lulling you into frittering away your time.” (Oliver Burkeman)

As those who’ve read my book Secrets of Productive People will know, I advise people to throw away their to-do lists and rely on a “No List” system. There are two main reasons why I come down on the side of the “No List” system, one positive and one negative.

  • The negative reason is that to do lists have an irresistible tendency to expand. This destroys real focus. I have taken “catch all” systems about as far as I can with AF and FV systems, but I’ve still never really succeeded in solving this problem with them.
  • The positive reason is that a “No List” system has a remarkable effect on one’s mind, creativity and motivation.

A “catch all” to do list typically gets longer and longer, and even if it does level off it will still contain considerably more work than can be done in a day. The person using the list will typically lack focus and will not be progressing anything like as fast or as consistently as they would wish. This type of list may produce an illusion of work being done because a large number of tasks get actioned, but frequently all that’s really happening is that a lot of trivia is getting processed . As I say in the book, the ever-expanding list “refers to a never-never land where you magically get time to do all this work”

By contrast, the person working a “no list” system will quickly find that they quickly get into a routine. This routine can be consciously altered so that it works better and better, thus getting the routine work out of the way quickly. This then leaves more time for the important work. The “no list” user finds it easier to concentrate on a few key projects at a time, rather than diffuse their effort across multiple projects of varying importance.

So in the one case the result is haphazard working coupled with diffuse focus and intermittent effort. In the other case the result is stable work routines coupled with concentrated effort on the key priorities. Which to go for?


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50 Likes already on my new Facebook page for this website.

Does anyone know how to turn off the feature which shows a short extract when you post a link? Instead of extracting the main text, it’s showing the right margin!

[Update: Problem now solved. Thanks!]


Themes from "Secrets of Productive People": Questioning

Sue writes:

I purchased your book recently and although only a short way through, have been able to make some extremely good changes to my way of working. Thank you!

Where I feel I have stalled so far is understanding exactly what the intelligent questions might be to ask myself when starting out on a new project. I appreciate that this is something you feel people should work out for themselves and I can understand that; everyone is different, works in a different way, has different needs, etc. And we need to think for ourselves!

However, I feel it might help me to start if you could explore this area a little more, possibly give the odd example (I have already read the appropriate chapters.) My ‘work’ is now my old hobby, as I am retired; I am working as a textile artist. Any insights you have would be most welcome.

Questioning is at the heart of everything in the book so it’s important to get it right. Obviously as Sue says everyone is different, but neverthless the simpler one makes this process the more effectively it is going to flow into one’s work in a productive way.

Remember that the purpose of questioning is not so much to produce a list of good ideas, but to motivate and engage your brain in the work. The good ideas will certainly come, but they will come as a result of your greater engagement.

So let’s have a look at how this might work. I’ll give an example of how being appointed Marketing Officer for the local chapter of a national social and networking organisation might work. Although I shall fictionalize the details that is exactly what has just happened to me in real life!

I use Evernote for this exercise (though anything will do), and I have a Notebook in it called “Questioning”. What sort of questions do I need to ask myself about Marketing?

I shortcut that whole discussion by just opening a note with the heading “Marketing?”

Then I used my favourite questioning method, which is to list the five best ideas I can think of off the top of my head. My first day’s list went as follows (I’ve expanded the entries so they make sense to other people):

Issue personal invitations to suitable people
Members invite personal guests to events (chapter pays)
Design a decent leaflet
Publicize events in local newsletters
Subsidized events

Now I left this for 24 hours (can be less) and opened another “Marketing?” note without looking at the first one. It doesn’t matter whether some of the points are the same as in previous days or are completely different. In this case they were all different.

The national magazine should be a marketing resource
Marketers job is to sell the organization to a certain group of people
Stress benefits to prospective’s members own organizations
Articles of wider interest
Letter to Editor of national magazine

 It was this stage that the ideas started generating some action, particulary about the national magazine. This is exactly what should be happening.  You are not making a list of actions to tick off. Writing the lists should generate the desire to take action on the ideas that catch your fancy.

So I now put it away for another 24 hours and repeat the process. I do this every day for as long as I feel I’m getting benefit from it.

After a week or so I might read back over the lists to see whether there are any ideas which could be taken further, but it’s important not to keep looking back at old lists. If you become reliant on the lists, your creativity will nosedive.

You may of course find that your question raises issues which need a question of their own. In that case just start a note with the subject plus a question mark, e.g. “National Magazine?”


If you’d like your question about “Secrets of Productive People” answered, please sent it to me using the “Contact” tab in the Top Menu.


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Secrets of Productive People

I want to run a series exploring some of the themes from my latest book Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done (Teach Yourself) . If you would like me to write further about any particular subject covered in the book, then please contact me using the Contact tab on the top menu.


"Articles" Category

I’ve just gone back over several years’ worth of blog entries to bring the “Articles” category up to date. There are now 174 articles marked up in this category.

The idea is that by clicking on the “Articles” button in the top menu you can get just the main articles in the blog without having to read all the less important stuff in between them.

It’s encouraged me to read back through the articles and I even amazed myself at the number of hidden treasures I’d forgotten all about.

So get reading - you’re in for a treat!

And if you’re too lazy to press the link in the top menu, here it is right here!


Types of Lists IX - An Effective "No List" System?

I put a question mark in the title of this post because I admit that I have not as yet succeeded in designing a system which fills all of the requirements I set myself.

How far have I got? Here’s my assessment of my new system so far.

Re-entering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple re-entered tasks.

Simple to work. Yes.

Urgent stuff. Not as good as I’d like. This is the main failing, though I don’t want to give the impression that it makes the system unworkable - far from it.

Keeping the list short. The list is always kept short and  relevant throughout the day.

Getting tasks done. All unfinished tasks get worked on multiple times during the day.

Remembering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple task entry.

Not deceiving yourself. Absolutely ideal for monitoring exactly how much you have succeeded in doing during a day.

Once I’ve improved how it handles urgent tasks this system will be amazing. It’s pretty amazing already!

This is the last in my series on Types of List.


If you found the series interesting and would like to support this website, especially the development of the effective “No List” system, then please give by clicking on the Donate button below.



My Book Challenge - Update

I’m getting on well with Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great, but maybe I would have done better to have chosen a book for demonstration purposes which wasn’t half the length of War and Peace!

I hadn’t quite realised how many words there would be in a 1½-inch thick paperback on thin paper with very small print.

However it’s very interesting - Napoleon’s life puts any novel in the shade. And I am now on page 97 of 820, which is about 35,000 words read - about the equivalent of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m sure I got through that a lot faster when I read it thirty years ago, but I wasn’t looking up every person and place in Wikipedia as I was going along!


Types of Lists VIII - The Dynamic List

The Dynamic List is similar to the Open Daily List except that it refers to one project only. It is a way of ensuring that your action on a project is up to date with your latest thinking on the subject.

The technique is simplicity itself:

1. List some of the things you need to do for the project

2. Start working on them in any order.

3. Add new things as you think of them.

The list is valid for one day only. You should construct a new list the following day.

If you need to refer to notes, reminders, etc, then that should itself become a task on the list (e.g. Check Project Notes).

Dynamic lists are extremely effective, but unfortunately I have not yet succeeded in constructing a whole time management system out of them. They lose effectiveness when not constrained by the limits of a single project.



An effective “No List” system?


Types of List VII - What do we need in a "No List" system?

In the previous articles in this series, my conclusion was that the “No List” list is the way of the future. But a list on its own is no use. We need a decent system to operate it.

Let’s have a look at what we would like to see from our “no list” time management system:

Re-entering tasks. A lot of the “no list” systems so far developed don’t include provision for re-entering tasks immediately. I think this is essential because the most effective way of dealing with a major task is with frequent bite-sized chunks. It’s how I’m writing this blog post for instance.

Simple to work. It needs to be simple to work. This is by and large a characteristic of “no list” systems so shouldn’t be a problem.

Urgent stuff. It should be possible to deal with an urgent task without leaving the system. This can be difficult to reconcile with the first requirement “Re-entering tasks”.

Keeping the list short. The whole point of a “no list” system is to stop the list growing long and irrelevant.

Getting tasks done. Once a task is on the list it gets done quickly. There should be no compromise about this.

Remembering tasks. A “no-list” system encourages you to think frequently about what needs to be done. However they are not good at processing more than two or three at a time. They are somewhat rigid about how you can enter tasks. I’d like to see some way of improving this.

Not deceiving yourself. “No list” systems make it virtually impossible to deceive yourself about how much you are actually doing. Any system which gets in the way of this should not be allowed.

Writing this blog post has made me realize that I have left out one contender from the Types of List - the Dynamic List. So tomorrow we will have a look at that.



The Dynamic List


Types of List VI - So which is best?

So which type of list is best? The answer to this question will be different from person to person because different people have different temperaments, circumstances and requirements.

But if we look at it from the point of view of which type of list is going to dominate in the evolutionary struggle of list versus list, then we may be able to come to an answer. For a long time now the “catch all” system has dominated when it comes to time management advice.

However useful “catch all” may have been in the past I think it’s days are numbered. The reason for this is the changing nature of work and leisure.

To go back a few hundred years, for the vast majority of the population their to-do list, if they’d written one, would have gone something like this:

Get up
Plough fields all day
Go to bed


Get up
Make shoes all day
Go to bed


Get Up
Do housework all day
Go to bed

Nowadays thankfully life is far more varied than that. But it comes at a price.  At least in the developed world the amount of choice we have both in our work and in our leisure increases day by day and the means of communication are multiplying too. We will soon have people entering the workforce who have never known what it is to live without a Smartphone.

This amount of choice poses a huge problem. The tendency is to try to follow up every opportunity that presents itself, regardless of the fact that it’s actually impossible to do so.

What we need is a time management method that a) encourages us to focus on a few things that are really important to us, and b) discourages us from doing other things that get in the way of the important stuff.

In this day and age time management needs to be at least as much about stopping yourself from doing things as about doing things.

The perpetual busyness and sense of overwhelm which afflict so many people is an illusion. All of us fill 24 hours a day with something - no more and no less. Our effectiveness will not come from succeeding in working 36 hours a day however hard we try to.

The secret is focus. We must each decide what our priorities are and ruthlessly weed out everything that doesn’t support those priorities.

It is the list that supports focus that will win the evolutionary stakes.

Let’s arrange the types of lists in the order in which they produce and support focus (least to most):

  • Daily Open List. Lacks the focus of the daily and weekly lists. Can also result in only trivia being processed.
  • “Catch all”. Positively encourages lack of focus. Also highly unmotivating due to the weight of undone stuff.
  • Daily and Weekly Lists. Encourage a greater degree of focus. But still a tendency to leave a lot of work undone, often the most challenging.
  • No list at all. Done properly this relies on well-thought out systems and routines. If these have been optimized, using no list at all can provide a good degree of focus.
  • No list” List. Facilitates the provision of systems and routines. Keeps focus firmly on what can be done during a day. Provides record of what has been done to base future days on.

My verdict:

“No list” Lists are challenging but the most focused. I am convinced that the future of time management lies with them.



What do we need in a “No list” list system?