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Backlog Method

I’ve written many times over the years about the correct way to clear a backlog:

1) Isolate the backlog

2) Get the system for handling new stuff sorted

3) Keep working away at the backlog

People who don’t know this method usually try to clear a backlog by using step 3 on its own. But without doing step 1 first, all that will happen is that the backlog will fill up as fast as you clear it. Even if by some heroic effort you do succeed in clearing the backlog completely, if you haven’t done step 2 you will have a new backlog within days.

This backlog method can be used in many ways which may not be obvious on first sight. Here are a couple of examples:

Tidying an Office

You need to tidy your office. What is untidiness but a backlog of tidying? So carry out the three-step procedure.

1) Dump everything that is out of its proper place (or doesn’t have one) in a pile in the middle of the floor.

2) Work out a routine for cleaning and tidying your office every day. Stick to it religiously.

3) Work on clearing the pile bit by bit.

Getting out of Debt

What is debt but a backlog of money? So three steps to getting out of debt.

1) Consolidate all your debt into one loan, and refuse to take on any more debt of any type.

2) Cut your expenditure so that you can live within your income.

3) Make regular payments towards paying off the loan (capital as well as interest).

I am now working on a time management system which extends this principle to our normal daily work - even where there isn’t a significant backlog. It’s so far proving very powerful. More details soon!

Reader Comments (21)

JMHO, but it seems to me that the most critical step to getting out of debt and keeping to your budget - whether time, money, or space - is identifying what is a "need" vs. a "want".

Does that mean prioritizing is on the Autofocus horizon? (please say yes)
August 31, 2009 at 18:30 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline
Mark - rational solutions for emotional problems rarely work. And if they do, the change rarely outlives the novelty of the life-hack.
August 31, 2009 at 20:22 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum

<< it seems to me that the most critical step to getting out of debt and keeping to your budget - whether time, money, or space - is identifying what is a "need" vs. a "want".>>

Which is part of step 2

<< Does that mean prioritizing is on the Autofocus horizon? (please say yes) >>

August 31, 2009 at 22:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< rational solutions for emotional problems rarely work. And if they do, the change rarely outlives the novelty of the life-hack.>>

And emotional answers to emotional problems do work?
August 31, 2009 at 22:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"And emotional answers to emotional problems do work? "

No, but that's why therapists are advised to be careful before dispensing with answers/advice. And why coaches - the one's I've spoken with anyway - are often frustrated with their clients inability to sustain short-term change.

An excellent book on this topic:
Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
by Dr. Peter Kramer
September 1, 2009 at 2:23 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum

<< rational solutions for emotional problems rarely work. >>

I think this is a piece of received wisdom that really needs challenging. My experience as a coach was that emotional upset is frequently caused by bad systems, not the reverse.

You can test this for yourself if you like. Try spending a month using no form of system at all for anything, but simply doing what you feel like doing at any given moment. Usually what happens is that your life descends into chaos and you become overwhelmed by all the things which you haven't done. Your emotional state becomes one of frustration and denial.

Since many people have never been taught to live any other way, and have lived in this state for decades it's not surprising that it takes a bit of time and effort to sort it out. But my experience as a coach was always that if you can "make it easier to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing", then dramatic improvement could be seen in a remarkably short time.

The most difficult client I ever had was a 60-year old Professor of Psychotherapy who blamed everything on his difficult childhood and would never make the slightest effort to do anything differently from how he had always done it. I remember trying the "difficult childhood" tack out on my own coach once, and her response was "We all had difficult childhoods - get over it!"

I did.
September 1, 2009 at 11:40 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
>> I remember trying the "difficult childhood" tack out on my own coach once, and her response was "We all had difficult childhoods - get over it!"

I've heard coaches and other brief therapists say similar things. Of course they rarely, if ever, have the academic or clinical experience to back up their claim, but it's a widely held belief.

I'm defended my stance about the past influences the present. And that I believe, and continue to witness, how long term work creates lasting change for my clients, their partners and families. I've come to the conclusion that "coaching" without long-term emotional work is trite (with poor prognosis for long-term change), and that long-term work without behavioral techniques is navel-gazing.

My point above is that backlogs occur for many reasons. Many emotional. And that "Stick to it religiously" is the very thing that most people have problems with vis-a-vis "systems". Of course, the proof is in the pudding as every couple of weeks a new thread is started about how people refuse to glance at their AF list/book/software. You're advice (and Allen, Covey, Sher, etc) is to "just do it". Nothing wrong with that, but it clearly doesn't work (for some - perhaps many). Once again, the proof is that waves of people flock from system to system always hoping that this time, maybe, I'll be thin, organized, lovable and rich. The pattern, and result, is quite predictable.

However, I use your system for it's simplicity and focus on intuition. But I do so without the illusion that, without doing AF (or any system for that matter), my life would:

"descend into chaos and become overwhelmed by all the things which I haven't done."
September 1, 2009 at 14:29 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum
Ugh, grammar. I wish squarespace provided an edit button.

Second paragraph should begin with "I've...", and I'm sure there's a "they're" that should be "there".
September 1, 2009 at 14:34 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum

<< You're advice (and Allen, Covey, Sher, etc) is to "just do it". >>

No, it isn't. That doesn't bear even the remotest resemblance to what I say.

My method has always been to explore with them where their system is going wrong. There are of course limits to how much this can be done on a written public Forum, but if you look back through the threads you will find there are just as many people who have suddenly found the right method for them and everything is transformed.
September 1, 2009 at 14:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<< I wish squarespace provided an edit button >>

It does have a preview button.
September 1, 2009 at 14:42 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"Stick to it religiously"

That suggestion sounds remarkably similar to all other systems. Actually, I'd suggest that any system should work wonders with such discipline.
September 1, 2009 at 16:19 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum

<< I'd suggest that any system should work wonders with such discipline >>

I'm sure that in your business you have systems. At a guess, you probably have a booking system for your clients, probably another one for client records, another one for your accounts and so on.

All these systems depend on the person who is running them adhering to the system. Assuming that in your business you're doing it all yourself, if you don't book clients in properly, or take and file notes properly, or send out invoices properly, the result will be double-booked clients, embarrassing gaps in the case records, and no income.

When these negative results occur, how do you feel? Probably angry and frustrated.

So what's the best answer?

a) embark on a year's work with a therapist to deal with your feelings of anger and frustration.


b) redesign your booking, filing and invoicing systems so that they work properly.
September 1, 2009 at 17:46 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

Thank you for sharing in advance your thoughts on yet another piece of the puzzle of keeping life in balance.

Having read DIT and enjoyed the principles coming together it is great that we will be able to successfully add backlog management to the new AF system.

Until you reveal the secret method for backlogs, I will just stop my current AF list, Write backlog on it and start AF from scratch with "work on Backlog" as one of the tasks.

I am sure there is a lot more t it than that, but I have been stopped in implementing AF comfortably a couple of times by carryover thinking from GTD - that you must write everything down somewhere to free up your mind - and it creates tension with the need to absolutely dismiss items in the list.

I love the fact that you are willing to post the thoughts while they are still work-in-progress or testing, and hope you will continue to do so for us, despite all the knee jerk nitpicking that seems to take place as soon as you post.

I hope that others will read and spend some time thinking about your post content rather than feeling a need to disprove them before anyone else posts. I have seen several other blogs cease to become useful when the crowd of "First commenter" types get in there.

Blogging is a bareknuckle sport these days, but I know there are a lot of folks out there who try to learn from your online coaching. Please keep it up, even if it means closing comments shortly after posting.

September 1, 2009 at 19:26 | Unregistered CommenterRoger
Mark, I didn't mean to nitpick as Roger says above. It's just that his comment:

"carryover thinking from GTD - that you must write everything down somewhere to free up your mind - and it creates tension with the need to absolutely dismiss items in the list."

is where I have also had issues with in operating AF. My mind is more clear when I have less on my list rather than more - and more of the things that are important to me, rather than trivial. I didn't do GTD very well or very long, but that dumping tendency has caused me more problems...

I look forward to the backlog method as I still have a lot of decluttering to do and tend to easily disintegrate into a mess at home too if I don't have a system, which AF has been a huge help with in the last 8 months. Fortunately, it hasn't required a lot of self-discipline, as the only thing I'm committed to is opening up my book every day. Every time I'm tempted to not do that one simple thing, I have to remind myself that "good" days are when I work with AF and "bad" days are when I don't.
September 1, 2009 at 20:33 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline

Thanks for your thoughts. Your proposed action with your list is not that far from what I am proposing as my new system - though not identical.

Jacqueline and Avrum are both long-standing contributors to my Forum and their thoughts - positive and negative - are always welcome.
September 1, 2009 at 21:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

My original vision for Autofocus was for a system that you could put anything into without pre-selection. The system itself would then provide the sifting process so that what was really important to you would be done and everything else would be rejected.

However dumping a whole load of old unactioned tasks from other time management systems is too much to expect any system to be able to cope with.

I'm hoping that my new system will be closer to my ideal. So far it is looking good!
September 1, 2009 at 22:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"...and Avrum are both long-standing contributors to my Forum and their thoughts..."

Thanks Mark. Actually, I'm about to prepare a screencast of how I use Autofocus with OfficeTime and Evernote. I'm hoping to have it uploaded to YouTube by Friday.
September 1, 2009 at 22:20 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum

I'm looking forward to watching it.
September 2, 2009 at 0:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Roger and Jacqueline,

I absolutely agree with David Allen that capturing all of those things that are floating around in one's brain is freeing. It's fine to dismiss something if Autofocus has helped clarify the fact that I don't really need or care to do it, but for me there will always be lots of ideas about things that I might want to do at some point but am not ready to do now. That's not a backlog, of course--it's a someday/maybe list. Things that I'm not ready to dismiss absolutely go here, and "review someday/maybe list" goes into Autofocus. When I review my someday/maybes, those whose time has come go back into Autofocus.

September 2, 2009 at 17:30 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
I've been thinking about this post a lot. I absolutely agree with step 2 - if you haven't got time to do all the "today" things, then you'll never get to work on the backlog. This has been a big AHA! concept for me, and one that I'm going to be thinking about a lot more in the coming weeks/months.

I have a big worry about step one, though, when it comes to two areas - tidying up a messy office/workspace, or when you've got a backlog of tasks to be done that are piling up. I've done this kind of thing before: put all the crap that doesn't belong into a big box [or several...] and get a nice clean empty desk to work on. It's very nice, until a few days later when suddenly you're on the phone and you need *that* piece of paper and it's *somewhere* in that pile of stuff - usually buried somewhere towards the bottom... As for tasks, I don't see how you could isolate the backlogged tasks easily at all. I could see myself working away happily on the tasks of today when suddenly there's the Boss/SO/VIP in my face saying "what about that task that was due last week...?

Do you have any thoughts to address these concerns?

[thanks in advance...]
September 9, 2009 at 14:31 | Unregistered CommenterMerlin
This post and the discussion are excellent. Thank you all. I can identify with many aspects of this.

I have a creative-technical mind, in the deadline business, and require an everything-out desktop for visual cues. This can become disasterous when emergencies pile on.

I can report that I work on both the outward and inward issues of order / disorder. Becoming a firm believer that inner and outer chaos are a loop. Being able to create outer order can help create some space for inner order work, etc. The problem is the weight of being overwhelmed.

I really like GTD, but too much categorizing breaks down my ability to see everything. So this backlog system is captivating. I am writing this after the advent of AF4. I have been adopting this strategy in a program called Things on my iPhone and computer. Part GTD and part adapting AF4 seem to be resulting into something usable for me.

I have created an area called AFBacklog and just pile it in. Using tags or dates allows me to have them all there for the choosing or sorting. New items go at the top of the list -- not something I have control over.

For new work related urgencies I use the Inbox.

All items can be moved to Next or Today or Scheduled or the Backlog as needed.

I have set recurring tasks to pop into Today (like Mark's 10 minute plans) so I can check them off.

Since I need to use paper and pen for my vIsual reference, I review my master list on Things and put items in my plannerpad notebook -- it allows me to make my own categories on the fly each week. Have been using some of David Seahs ideas there.

It's coming. Thanks for all the thinking aloud. My internal chaos will always be trying to win out, but the sense of order gained is a grand tonic. By using this backlog idea / incoming idea, I can just get it out of myself and keep moving. Seeing how much is really getting done is very satisfying.
January 31, 2010 at 17:56 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

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