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« Clarification: Speed of movement | Main | Autofocus system - instructions »

Clarification: "Standing Out"

It’s clear from reading the comments that many people are having trouble with the concept of a task “standing out” when one does a pass through a page. This is a difficult concept to grasp for people who are used to using an analytical frame of mind, but it is essential if you are going to use the system correctly.

Here’s a little exercise to help you grasp what I mean:

Arrange six or seven coins in a row in front of you. They can be all the same or a variety.

Starting from the left hand end run your finger quickly along the row, making a very slight pointing movement towards each coin.

Now start again from the left-hand side and move your finger more deliberately along the row, pointing quite definitely at each coin. In the course of this pass, pick up at least one of the coins and put it to one side. Try not to anticipate which coin or coins you are going to pick up.

Now start from the left again, and do exactly the same but this time you can pick up any number of coins from zero upwards. If you picked up no coins by the time you reached the end of the row, stop. If you’ve picked up one or more coins, keep going until you either pick up no coins on a pass or you have run out of coins.

This is exactly the process that you go through when dealing with a page (except of course that you are moving from top to bottom, rather than from left to right). Get the hang of what it feels like to pick an item without making a conscious choice.

Reader Comments (27)

Thank you Mark. These are the very two things that concerned me, especially as I didn't get off my first page today. Thanks for all your dedication to answering so many queries so quickly. Taragh
January 7, 2009 at 0:50 | Unregistered CommenterTaragh
Well, I'm thinking maybe I need to write more clearly. Or it's my handwriting. Or I need to print out pages with fewer lines.

My words all run together and it takes me a while to "read" the items. Makes it hard to to the 'run through' that I want to.

Also, a lot of my work as a psychiatrist involves calling back patients and other providers who have left detailed messages of all sorts. So if I try to run through all the notes I've taken from the messages, it's more than 1 line per item. Makes it really hard to tell the TO DO item with in. (Call them back, call someone else, document something else, call in meds, check somethink in the chart...)

So, I'm toying with the idea of transcribing messages in one place and then having the Autofocus list be separate and have the gist of the TO DOs distilled into a few words which could be more easily scanned. (ex: Call xxx to reshedule). Of course, then I'd need a way for the two to reference each other.
January 7, 2009 at 3:04 | Unregistered CommenterLena
"pick up any number of coins from zero upwards"

I'm a little puzzled by this, as I thought the idea was to move down the list until *one* item stood out to be done, so to speak. Can you clarify, please?

Anyway, after a day using this at the Studio, it worked very well. Still concerned about what will happen to my Current Initiative, though.
January 7, 2009 at 6:46 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence

No, the aim is to move down the page until one tasks stands out, and then when you have done it continue to move until another task stands out and so on. Each coin represents a task "Pick up coin", so the exercise exactly reproduces the process of dealing with a page of tasks.
January 7, 2009 at 9:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark

I didn't have any trouble with the concept of "standing out" but maybe it's just a case of semantics.

Perhaps the phrase "run down the list until an item CATCHES YOUR ATTENTION" would be clearer for some - especially non native English speakers?

I'm loving the system and am running it much better today due to less chucking unlisted items at it (I'm now adding almost everything straight to bottom of the list) and also waiting till items come round before doing them i.e. checking this site and forum!
January 7, 2009 at 11:49 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

Yes, I'm already starting on a re-write of the instructions to make them clearer.
January 7, 2009 at 11:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hello Mark (and others)

Another thing I wanted to check. When you have worked on an item on a page, and finished working on it, do you then start the pass of that page from the top, or continue down the page from where the task was that you worked on. For example, if you went through a page, and a task half way down stood out and you worked on it, would you then continue looking at tasks from half-way down the page or would you go back to the top of that page?

Hope that makes sense.

Ben H
January 7, 2009 at 12:35 | Unregistered CommenterBen H

The way I envisaged it is that you would continue down the page from where you did the task, so you are continually cycling round the page.
January 7, 2009 at 14:00 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Another way of putting it is that you can let the item "choose itself". But whatever you call it, the experience of an item "standing out" will differ from person to person.

It might appear brighter, more colourful, larger, closer, louder, friendlier or more solid; it might pull you in to itself, or it might make you twitch in readiness.

It might therefore be helpful to encourage people to discover for themselves their own way of knowing what is "standing out".
January 7, 2009 at 17:26 | Unregistered CommenterGez
A Sharp Intake of Breath

Reminds me of a crisis system I ran a few years ago, before GTD, DIT, Palm Pilots, e-mail and Outlook...

Every issue went in a tray. If there was no related paperwork I simply wrote one line on a sheet of paper and added it to the tray.

I would skim through the tray each morning, or when an item was finished, and every now and again something would surface and I would take an involountary "sharp in take of breath". That was the one to work on!

Progressed uncompleted items went back in the tray for a later trawl ~ the equivalent of re-entering them on the list. This was fine short term, and specifically for a crisis situation. AF looks like working better, and won't break the filing system or the tray!
January 7, 2009 at 17:50 | Unregistered CommenterMike
The first day I started using the system I was still recovering from a nasty cold. Perhaps I was still a bit feverish, but as I started to look down the list that I had only just compiled at that stage, there were items that literally seemed to have been written in dayglow ink, or were jumping up and down on the line they were written on, or seemed to have multicoloured lines round them, like in a children's drawing. It was really quite fascinating...

Obviously, I don't expect everyone to have such vivid visual experiences, and I have calmed down a bit myself now that I'm more or less back to normal health, but I do still get this sense that an item on the list speaks to me in some way or other, telling me loud and clear "I'm next".

The thing that I'm a bit wary of, and not sure whether I should allow it is that, sometimes, I already get the next thing queueing up, so while I'm doing the thing that said "I'm next", I've already decided what to do after that, without even resorting to the list again. Perhaps that's jumping ahead?
January 7, 2009 at 22:15 | Unregistered CommenterBetti
Hello Mark.

You mentioned above that you are working on an update to the instructions. Any diagrams in the pipeline, by any chance ? Lots of people 'get it' more easily with pictures...


January 7, 2009 at 23:35 | Unregistered CommenterDave
It's one of the things I'm considering, yes. No promises though!
January 7, 2009 at 23:58 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Wow Betti - what cold cure are you taking!! :-)

I know what you mean about other items lining up - what I've found is that AF somehow frees my mind up so that while I am working on one task my mind is already working on the next steps. If I recall rightly Mark mentioned such a process in his first book (How to get everything done .....) Pre AF my mind was usually focusing on the task at hand but in a very grumpy manner as if it was saying "I really do not want to be doing this ....."
January 8, 2009 at 0:16 | Unregistered CommenterChristine B
Hi Lena

One of the things I do is produce systems to manage "stuff", whether client contact systems, filing and administration systems, or credit control systems. I am finding AF useful in guiding me where I need to perhaps tweak some of my existing systems. If you use, for example, a database to manage your client records then perhaps you could just enter a task of "update record for client xxxx" with a brief description, or perhaps you will find that AF highlights a need to review an existing system as a separate task. Hope that may help?
January 8, 2009 at 0:21 | Unregistered CommenterChristine B
Hi Lena

To avoid the problem you're having of everything running together I've put a small dash (or hyphen) in front of each new item. This way I can run down my list and see each item separate to the next, especially useful when some of my items run over more than one line (2nd and very rarely 3rd lines don't have a dash in front). I try to keep items as short as I can but sometimes I need to use a few more words than will fit on one line.

Hope this helps?
January 8, 2009 at 15:47 | Unregistered CommenterHannah
Perhaps another way of expressing it would be to say "Which item feels loud in me?" and then "How can I see it as an opportunity to be creator rather than victim of?"

The perspective is not "I have to do X or something bad will happen" but rather that there is some sense of satisfaction in going with an impetus or urge to do X. And even though objectively there could be a negative outcome in our perception it can be regarded differently - a move from "half empty" to "half full".
April 18, 2014 at 19:00 | Unregistered Commentermichael
December 6, 2017 at 23:10 | Unregistered Commentermichael

"The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes." Takuan Soho

I think Western people have a tendency get hold of the wrong end of the stick here. They think "no mind" is a substitute for training, whereas it is actually the result of training.

If you or I were to stand in front of an opponent with a sword, we could empty our minds as much as we liked and we'd still get cut to pieces - literally.

Takuan Soho is describing the mental state of a swordsman who has been through intense training so that every move is instinctive. He has to then trust his instincts and not interfere with them consciously.
December 7, 2017 at 0:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This is what Charlie Parker had to say on the subject-

"You've got to learn your instrument. Then you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."
December 7, 2017 at 10:18 | Unregistered Commenterjimp

Great quote!
December 7, 2017 at 10:40 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I think all the other methods help train us to use Standing Out. For some of us, though, the learning curve is so long that it might be better to stick with the safer methods.
December 12, 2017 at 21:32 | Registered CommenterCricket

<< For some of us, though, the learning curve is so long that it might be better to stick with the safer methods.>>

Don't your "safer methods" have a learning curve?
December 12, 2017 at 22:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes, they do have a learning curve, but I it's much shorter, and there's more of a safety net. Standing out just doesn't work for me. I need a shorter list of what I should be doing, complete with time-estimate sanity check and short-term deadlines. Without them, the wrong things stand out.

I was going to say that the learning is mostly mechanical for the safer systems, rather than training your instincts, but more thinking has changed my mind.

Beginners with any system tend over-do it. Throw too much at it. Plan too many details too far in advance. Spend more time with contexts than doing.

Overall, they expect the system to solve the problem, even though the problem is self-discipline or too many commitments. Time estimates have saved my sanity more than once.
December 13, 2017 at 1:38 | Registered CommenterCricket

I realise that different people are affected in different ways, but I wouldn't describe your methods as "safer". Following similar methods in the past lead to disaster after disaster for me. And it wasn't until I learnt to follow more intuitive methods that I managed to be able to consistently trust myself to carry through on projects.

"Standing out" in conjunction with "simple scanning" is about as intuitive as you can get while still having enough framework to give shape to what you are doing. When I use it I find that projects get worked on, routine matters are kept up to date, backlogs are non-existent, what is important get dealt with, what isn't going to run gets quickly disposed of, and resistance is practically non-existent. Added to that the volume of work I can get through is huge.

All without any categorizing, prioritizing, etc.

It does however require a major shift in attitude. You have to trust that your intuitive subconscious mind (or whatever you like to call it) is better at organizing your life than your conscious mind. It's easy to see that this is the case because when your conscious mind, following rational principles, makes a choice which your subconscious mind disagrees with one often feels the subconscious mind kicking-back . This manifests itself as guilt or resistance or other negative emotions.
December 13, 2017 at 10:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I think you hit the nail on the head with that post!

What is interesting is the shift needed to get into that state of mind where one simply does things without hesitation. Like you say above, the work you can get through is huge when that happens.

I think I have myself now made that shift over the last few months, but it has not been easy.
I'm wondering if long term, is the time management system that has the most influence on that, or if it is the user?. i.e if the user cannot make the shift out or organising, procrastination and not "doing" then no system however good it is will work properly in the end.

I'm thinking now it took me quite a lot of practice, a lot of determination and blood, sweat and tears etc, to achieve it. However, now it has become such a habit it seems easy. Just wish I had discovered that 20 years ago!
December 13, 2017 at 13:13 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog

Yes, I think you're right - the attitude of the user is more important than the precise system they are using. However, as some of the discussion in this forum has indicated recently, the system itself has a training effect.
December 13, 2017 at 14:51 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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