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« Autofocus Beta testers | Main | Keeping up with the discussion »

Building the List Organically

One of the things which is coming out of the discussions about Autofocus for me is that it is not advisable to start off by transfering every single task that you had listed in your previous time management system. This is particularly so with systems like Getting Things Done, where one is encouraged to keep lists of things which are “someday/maybe” items.

It’s not that Autofocus is incapable of handling long lists of items like this. It’s that the way it will handle them is usually by causing most of them to be dismissed. There is also a problem in the effect of a long list of items on the owner of the list. For someone just beginning on the Autofocus way to have a huge number of undigested items all at once can cause feelings of overwhelm.

Certainly someone who has been using Autofocus for a while will have plenty of items on their list. Currently I have 103 tasks spread over 14 active pages. But they are all related to things which I am currently working on - in other words they are fresh in my mind and part of a general movement. It doesn’t feel like overwhelm, more like being in the flow.

So my advice is not to start the list by entering every possible thing you can think of, but instead just list a few items, start work on them and add others as you think of them or as they come up. You will quickly build up a list of tasks which are currently viable for you. When I started the Autofocus system myself, I started with just three items: Email, Tidy Desk, and Wash Up. By the time I’d completed those three items the list was already over a page long and growing fast - but the point is that what was on the list was currently in my mind and relevant.

Reader Comments (17)

I like this idea. It's exactly what I didn't do. Any advice since I've already started? I guess I should just let the system sort it out, right?
January 9, 2009 at 15:38 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Jones
As a GTD "practitioner", this is what I have been struggling with. How to insert my Someday/Maybes, Projects, and Waiting For lists into AutoFocus. I think the next phase of the beta could include "migration" instructions (possibly tester-contributed) from GTD, DIT, TWC, etc. to AF.

- Someday/Maybes are automatically dismissed before entering AF
- Date-specific tasks can stay on the calendar (i.e. GTD hard landscape)
- Waiting For items will depend... when to followup next?
- Projects sound like they can go right into AF and just go with the "little and often" approach, but this is a big paradigm shift from GTD where there is a separate list of projects that drives all the action lists with Next Actions.
- Agendas (for people or meetings) - what to do in AF?

I really want to embrace AF and have written new tasks into AF, but I still am uncomfortable with the idea of having it only replace part of the lists I use with GTD. I don't want to manage 2 task systems. 1 calendar, 1 task system, 1 email system, etc.

Any other best practices former GTD-ers?
January 9, 2009 at 15:42 | Unregistered CommenterBrian
I keep separate agenda lists for those whom I work closely with but then put in my AF "Call so and so" or "Email so and so with agenda items. These agenda items are on 3x5 cards in my AF pocket Moleskine . This way I don't need to go through 10 pages trying to find all the items that I need to talk about with my wife and this also eliminates me calling or contacting a coworker numerous times in order to take care of individual items.
January 9, 2009 at 16:15 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan B
This potentially solves one of the major problems that I have had with starting AF so far. I transfered my (very long) list of next actions from my previous (mostly GTD) system, as recommended in Mark's original instructions. Slogging through that list, trying to make progress on something on each page to keep from dismissing things that I want to keep around, is really slowing me down and causing me to resist the system to work on things that are more current and pressing. Starting with a blank list and gradually adding things as I think of them (and perhaps making review of the old list an AF action to insure that those old actions gradually filter in if they are still relevant) sounds like a better solution. I will try this, starting with a clean slate, right away.

(And I expect it will work wonderfully. I had a similar system that I developed myself that worked for me for almost a year --- the longest I've ever gone without needing a major system overhaul. It eventually got clogged up with tasks I was resisting, though. I think the dismissal rule and rewriting tasks after making some effort on them --- my rules didn't allow rewriting at all --- will solve the problems that I had with my system. Maybe I'll never need a major system overhaul again!)

To add to Brian's ideas, I think that the "Dismissed Actions" somewhat play the role of GTD's Someday/Maybe list. But they're slightly different and, personally, I might still be inclined to keep a Someday/Maybe list separately. (Some dismissed actions may be Someday/Maybe items to which you hope to eventually return, while others have been dismissed because they became irrelevant.) And I think you should definitely still keep a calendar. I agree about Waiting For... Things that require prompt followup (within a couple of days) should probably stay on the AF list. I'm inclined to put other things into a tickler system, perhaps.

My biggest remaining problem with AF: What to do about contexts. Mark suggests a separate system for each "location" (is that a context? not really, as far as I can tell.), but that really doesn't work for me and the way that I work. Simplifying slightly, this is because a large portion of the things I have to do are things that I do on the computer for my work. And I spend a lot of my computer time away from my office (on travel or just working somewhere else). Hence, that list really needs to be available to me *wherever* I'm working. But there are other things that can only be done at the office or at home. And even if I kept three books (one for office, one for home, one for computer/mobile), I wouldn't know which book to look at --- if I'm in the office do I work from the office book or the computer book?

My current solution is to keep one book (because that's what I had done in the system that I developed myself), but to change the dismissal rule slightly. If I come to a page and I don't action anything on it, then I must dismiss those tasks WHICH COULD BE ACTIONED IN MY CURRENT CONTEXT(S). So, if I'm at the office (with my computer) and I come to a page on which the only active tasks are "Draft Report on Project X", "Read Book Y", and "Clean Bathroom" and I choose not to draft the report or read from the book, then I dismiss those tasks. But I don't dismiss "Clean Bathroom." The next time I hit that page when I'm working at home, though, I must either work on the bathroom or dismiss the task. (Actually, I'd better do some bathroom cleaning. If I dismiss "Clean Bathroom" from my system altogether, then my wife will kill me.) The only danger here is that you never work your system in a certain context and so allow some tasks/pages to atrophy forever. I haven't had this problem yet, but I'm thinking you could avoid this by instituting a rule requiring that such tasks be either dismissed or scheduled (in their associated contexts) on the calendar at a specific time. I'm thinking this rule might should be invoked a certain amount of time after starting the page in the system. I'm not (yet) sure what the right amount of time is, but I'd guess that it's somewhere between a week and a month.
January 9, 2009 at 16:53 | Unregistered CommenterAllen
Thanks for this posting, Mark – it came just in time for me. I'd transferred my Potential Current Initiatives list (from DIT) into Autofocus, and my heart was starting to sink every time I turned to those pages. When I read this blog posting this morning, I decided to go back and take out all the tasks that I wouldn't have entered organically by now anyway (which boiled down to just three or four tasks), and I feel quite relieved about it.
January 9, 2009 at 17:53 | Unregistered CommenterMartin
I plan to do a longer review of the system, but the waiting for aspect is one I have thought about. I really like the idea of one tool and since there is no real way to put future reminders into the AF system, I simply have been writing a W next to things like call Bob. After I make the call if Bob is not there I write W to indicate I am waiting for a return call. This gives me a way to track it since the item is not dismissed nor is it complete. As I scan a page, I see it and can then add Call Bob again to the end of the list.

January 9, 2009 at 18:00 | Unregistered CommenterGerry

My feeling is that since it's in there and you've started that you can let the system sort it out. But it will probably do so by rejecting a lot of the items.
January 9, 2009 at 18:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

If I have an item "Call Bob", I will cross it out if Bob is not there and re-enter it at the end of the list as "Bob returned call?" If after a day or so he has not, I will cross that out and put an entry "Chase Bob". If he has returned the call I simply cross the query out.

I think it is important that *any* action by you on an item results in a re-entry. Making a call, even if the person isn't there, counts as action on your part.
January 9, 2009 at 18:46 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark wrote:
If I have an item "Call Bob", I will cross it out if Bob is not there and re-enter it at the end of the list as "Bob returned call?" If after a day or so he has not, I will cross that out and put an entry "Chase Bob". If he has returned the call I simply cross the query out.

- This is how I'm handing things as I add to my list, so at least I am getting some things right! I did do a dump of all my tasks into AF at the start, and I think this is what baulked me to start with but as my list was not *that* bad ( about 150 items) after the first week I'm now getting on top of it and the system is indeed sorting itself out. However, I am actually finding it a great way to get some of those " might be nice one day" tasks inserted, because it is actually making me make the time and space to work on some of these projects which I have had in mind for some time, in some cases years, but never got off the ground. My list is at the point now where the earlier pages have so many crossings out that the dreaded procrastinated tasks have simply *got* to be started on, and I suspect once I have cracked those by getting started on them I will have been let free. I'm looking forward to it!
January 9, 2009 at 19:27 | Unregistered CommenterCarole
I had just done my yearly review JUST before starting AF which means overhauling my system and trying something new. I had set up Remember the Milk (RTM) for all my projects and to-dos and using printing out a daily to-do list. It was going relatively well, so when I saw your post about asking for beta testers I was curious but extremely hesitant. I really didn't want to start again and if AF didn't work out, go through all the hassle of resetting up my old system. But I was already starting to get a little down at having to re-write items that hadn't been finished at the end of the day.

So I decided to just add what I had left to do on my daily lists and then add anything that came about in my head and see how that went (ie beta test it). As I work through my projects, I've been adding the next actions I can think of into the system. Most of my work is done in one place but I keep a separate page for errands and 1-2 other places I'm in regularly.

The beauty of AF is that is lets you grow the list organically, I don't need to spend a week hauling everything over and doing mind dumps and then organising everything. Just when something pops in my head, it goes into the list - sometimes those things shouldn't be in AF at that time (eg someday task or a scheduled task) and then they get taken out and crossed out when I next pass over them. Simple.

I don't think AF is meant to, or tries to, take the place of project management as there are plenty of dependent tasks that you can't do until something else is done and trying to manage that over several pages would be a nightmare. However, if it's a short burst of dependent tasks (eg a bigger task broken down into a few smaller ordered tasks) I don't mind entering them into the system as they are triggers to do the starting action.

Though I find AF works best with a paper notebook, I'm keeping RTM as it's a brilliant service that can be customised for lots of different styles. I'm using it for my project planning lists (ie lots of tasks that are future tasks and thus would break AF), my someday/maybe lists and tickler/reminders. I check it each morning to see if there's something that needs to be added to AF. I look over my project lists and someday lists in my review session and update AF as necessary.

As a final point, I also don't think AF makes any attempt to replace goals or other high level planning - it's about getting things done and making time to think about these things with enough free mental space.

So far, the system is working - the only procrastination is reading this forum ;-)
January 10, 2009 at 0:14 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine
I tried GTD a while ago for several months. The problem with GTD for me was that I started to procrastinate within the system itself - e.g. doing housekeeping and busy work to keep the system update etc. instead doing the real work (I have a hunch that this is why GTD has been so successful: It lets you procrastinate within the system itself). Therefore an instruction for a migration to Autofocus seems to me the wrong way to start with the new system. In fact, it's easy to just start it!! And that's the beauty of AF (and DIT as well): It lets you concentrate on your work not on your twenty-three context-lists. For me the someday/maybe-list was an excuse for putting off stuff that I had no intention doing anyway...
January 10, 2009 at 16:13 | Unregistered CommenterM. Romer
Hi Mark,

I have a question about page dismissal: When do you move on from a page leaving it active without dismissing it? What’s the time frame?

For example say you do a scan of a page.. nothing leaps out.. none of the items still there leap out however some items or even one you still hope to do in the coming week..

If you could do it today but you’re not going to yet .. however you think you might in the coming week do you still dismiss the whole page?

Should you dismiss them there and then and highlight them? Or do you keep the page active knowing you are hoping to do them soon?
February 1, 2009 at 17:41 | Unregistered CommenterPhelim

My advice is to stick to the instructions, which say that you should dismiss all the remaining items on a page if you don't do any of them on a visit to that page.

The reason for this is that normally you will have looked at that page on multiple occasions, so the items on it will have had plenty of changes to be done.

Dismissing an item doesn't mean never doing it. It means you should examine why you haven't done it, and if necessary re-phrasing it or breaking it down further.
February 2, 2009 at 14:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Phelim: I have a question about page dismissal: When do you move on from a page leaving it active without dismissing it? What’s the time frame?

Mark, I guess Phelim thought the same way as I did when I've first read your system -> that only way yo move to next page is HAVE ALL TASK ON THE PAGE DONE or HAVE THE REMAINING TASKS DISMISSED.

I didn't get the point that if you visit a page and MAKE AT LEAST ONE TASK you can move to the next page without dismissing items.

I guess it's the reason of how it's written:
5.Continue going round the same page in the same way. Don't move onto the next page until you complete a pass of the page without any item standing out [...]
7. If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it, then all the outstanding items on that page are dismissed
My first thought was automatically about the same page ...that I have to repeat scanning cycle as long as you can and if I can't I have to dismiss all remaining items before you move to next page... and I couldn' t get how you can go back to the first page cause I thought all pages I've already worked on are not active (everything done or dismissed).

Maybe you should add one more [DON'T] to the list :

February 8, 2009 at 23:15 | Unregistered CommenterKrewetka

"If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it" seems clear enough to me.
February 9, 2009 at 15:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
A few thoughts that should be helpful for GTD "practitioners":

Define what "current" means to you. My take on this is to define "current" as today plus a fortnight. Everything that can't get done within this time frame should go on a someday list, into a tickler file, on the calendar, a diary, an Outlook reminder, whatever.

Do your weekly review weekly and put it on your AF list as a recurring task. When you've finished your weekly review, tick it off and write "weekly review" on your last page.

"Empty paper inbox" and "Empty email inbox" should be recurring tasks on your AF list, too.
February 9, 2009 at 18:18 | Unregistered CommenterRainer
Mark: 'If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it" seems clear enough to me. '

Ok, I agree but maybe with phrase 'NEXT PAGE' instead of simply 'a page' it would be just clearer for newbies ? :)

I thought at first reading that it applies to current page as that I have to cycle through the page as long as I can do something or I have to dismiss everything before moving to the next one. I guess Phelim had the same problem :)

For me 'go to the page' included also going back to the same page while skimming for second time after marking first task as done.... I didn't get that rule 7 applies only to NEXT page.

P.S English is not my native language as you can see and I was reading quickly cause I was curious - maybe that's the problem. I got it right when I've read it again :)
February 9, 2009 at 19:18 | Unregistered CommenterKrewetka

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