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« Getting My Stuff Done | Main | How to Phrase Task Items »

The Hidden Power of Procrastination

The price we pay for the things we succeed in doing is the things we leave undone.

I came across John Perry’s hilarious article Structured Procrastination the other day. It is in the finest tradition of humour which tells more truth than the serious articles. Another great exemplar in the time management field is J. Northcote Parkinson’s Parkinson’s Law.

Reading John Perry’s article cast light on something which had puzzled me for years. To describe what it is I have to go back to the first time management system I ever invented - something like twelve years ago. This was a form of open-ended To Do list. Unlike the standard advice about To Do lists I made no attempt to order it or prioritise it. Nor was I particularly careful about what I put into the list. Anything which occurred to me or crossed my mind went into the list. So the result would be a long list which contained everything I could think of. And as I thought of new stuff all the time, the list would grow rapidly.

Since the list was not prioritised in any way, my method of working the list was to go through it continually from one end to the other. Whenever an item “stood out” to me I would do it. Any recurrent items like “Email” would be re-entered at the end of the list once completed.

This type of To Do list was extremely efficient for getting a lot done. However the disadvantage was that a lot of items didn’t get done. Some items would stay on the list for weeks.

What I realised after reading John Perry’s article was that the items which don’t get done provide the motive power for what does get done. In other words the price we pay for the things we succeed in doing is the things we leave undone.

Reader Comments (9)


Ah, I remember reading this years ago in this forum, but it never sunk into my mind...probably because of the dismissal-focused mindset we all had before. But now, with the no/discretionary dismissal mindset some of us here had recently, I can see how can this work.

January 21, 2012 at 22:21 | Registered Commenternuntym

I wonder if a "Reverse AF2" would have this effect. Reverse AF2 in that

1) You never dismiss, only cross out something you've done.
2) Start scanning always from the beginning of the list.
3) Do something that seems ready to be done.
4) Cross out the item when done; re-write at the end if needed.
5) Go back to step 2.

THAT is one very simple task management system, easily done with any kind of notebook; no need for a notebook that's 25-35 lines per page, no second column, or whatnot. No need for a highlighter. Theoretically very responsive to urgent items too: go to the very end if needed, skipping all the other pages, since those tasks in the end are already ready to do. And also in a very convoluted way, has an internal gauge of how productive you have been: the number of undone things at the beginning of the list.

"What you haven’t done is the price you paid for what you have done."

January 21, 2012 at 22:52 | Registered Commenternuntym

Yes, I tried it both ways at the time: starting from the beginning for each task and starting from where one had got to.

I don't remember it actually making that much difference which I used.
January 22, 2012 at 1:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This 'Reverse AF2' is actually like AF4 which isn't bad at urgent stuff. It's bad at persistence, though: if you start a thing, it goes to the end, and you can't resume until you bypass every other thing listed.
January 22, 2012 at 13:09 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

An update: since the last time Mark and Alan had posted here I have been using my AF list as Mark had said: going through the list, starting each time from where I stopped last, with no dismissal process, no other distinctive marking save an > for each item to denote where each started (since my notebook is pretty narrow, there are some items that are two lines long, and thus I need a way to mark the beginning of such items), crossing out deleted items with a horizontal line, and noting with a date on which line at the end of the list I started the morning.

The list has grown to 17 pages full of done and undone tasks (some pages having just one or two undone tasks left), all messy.


It is so simple, it catches everything, and it has no problems with "urgent" items (as was defined before, not as Mark is defining it now). The simplicity is definitely a whiff of fresh air for me, as I have been experimenting with quite complex systems before. Since I go through each page only once per pass, I go through the whole list at least once a day (once is actually very rare; I usually go through the list many times a day). The mess, on the other hand, I think helps with the "standing out" process. I don't know why, but it seems to me that it does. And the number of undone items? Well, as long as I remember the dictum

"What you haven’t done is the price you paid for what you have done."

they are not a source of anxiety, but actually a sense of I am doing the right things. Especially when I noticed what types of tasks I weren't doing.
January 29, 2012 at 4:37 | Registered Commenternuntym

It sounds like you are having more success with it than I did. But maybe that's because I hadn't appreciated at the time that the undone tasks were providing the motive power for the other tasks to get done.
January 29, 2012 at 11:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I work in a very similar way using the AF list with a few simple modifications to cope with the number of people asking me to do stuff. I have found that by simply numbering the pages and items within the page I have a continual list of tasks in the order they crop up. I also add the date when the day changes so I know which items were added on what day. I am currently on page 205 and keep these in a loose leaf file. When reviewing an undone task that I want to move on I try to re-phrase or chunk it and then add it as a new item on my current page. This does help to try and get some action and the older pages are then just archive info for me to refer to. The joy of this is the simplicity and I have understood over time that some things on the list never get ticked off. They are still there to refer to periodically and if necessary / following a periodic review may get added to the end with new purpose. Reviewing back over these items is also interesting as the perceived urgency at the time is not always correct
January 29, 2012 at 12:22 | Unregistered CommenterTony

Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?

1) How long approximately has it taken you to get to p. 205?

2) Have you been consciously aware of the "items which don’t get done provide the motive power for what does get done" effect?

3) Have you found that through working the list new priorities and goals have emerged naturally?
January 29, 2012 at 12:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
It has taken me just over a year to get to page 205. I have between 20 and 25 items per page and when I file associated info I can refer to my list (for example 205.12) which is helpful when asked 2 months later by someone for info. As long as I know approx when the job was done I can scan the pages real quick and the referencing is easy to get further paperwork if required.

Regarding the motive power for what does get done effect? I haven't thought about this really before but maybe the list process does create a drive of its own. I procrastinate now as much as I always did but at least I am aware of what is not getting done. The one improvement for me is limiting myself to loose leaf sheets. I only ever have 2 pages out of my file (otherwise they will get lost). Over the last 12 months I haven't lost one page which for me is amazing but because I refer to it all the time I don't seem to loose it. Then when I archive the page in the file I don't have time to transcribe all the undone jobs. I do however rephrase any urgent items as I know that if they are not on my current page list they may get forgotten. This gives an unusual quick focus that doesnt take more than a few minutes. Maybe 2 tasks from 10 undone get added and the rest have to be done during a periodic review. It is haphazard but does work for me. The rephrasing is critical so the new list item is never identical but is re-focused in some way.

Your question about "new priorities and goals have emerged naturally": Not really, this would be great but in its current form this doesn't really happen. If I am working on a project I can review individual tasks and summarise them easily enough but this is extra work. The AF list doesn't do this. Tracking goals doesn't happen automatically either. There is also a danger of ticking off work but not moving towards a personal goal. Mark maybe your FV will bring us close to a more perfect solution - Keep up the good work.
January 29, 2012 at 13:06 | Unregistered CommenterTony

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