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« Some Reflections on Yesterday's AF4 Demo | Main | The List after Today »

Preliminary Instructions for Autofocus v. 4

Here are the preliminary instructions for AF4 as demonstrated yesterday. I will write them up in more detail later, but basically everything you need to work the system is here.

I will give the system for paper and pen, but it is easy to adapt the system for electronic use.

You will need a ruled notebook.

1) Draw up your list of things to do with one task per line. (If you already have a list you can continue to use it). You don’t need to put everything on the list at this stage as you can add other tasks as and when you think of them.

2) Draw a line at the end of the list. Everything before this line is known as the Backlog. As you think of new tasks add them after the line. Everything after the line is known as the Active List.

3) You start with the Backlog. Look through the tasks in the Backlog in order and work on any tasks which feel ready to be done. Delete each task when you feel you have worked on it for long enough, and re-enter it at the end of the Active List if you need to do more work on it.

4) When you come to the line, do not go into the Active List. Instead return to the beginning of the Backlog and continue to move through it in it doing any tasks which feel ready to be done. Keep circulating in this way, until you have done a complete pass through the Backlog without any tasks being done.

5) You now cross the line into the Active List. Move through the Active List in order working on any tasks which feel ready to be done.

6) When you reach the last task on the list, you then go back to the beginning of the Backlog and repeat the process from Step 3.

7) When you have crossed off all the tasks in the Backlog, you draw a line at the end of the Active List and this now becomes the Backlog.

So just to recap:

Your list is divided into two parts, the Backlog and the Active List. You circulate round the Backlog until no more tasks seem ready to be done. Then you do one pass through the Active List. After that you return to the Backlog. Once you’ve done every task in the Backlog, the Active List becomes the Backlog and you start a new Active List.

Deleting undone items

After you have been working on the Backlog for some time it may be reduced to a few tasks which for some reason or other you are reluctant to tackle. At this stage you may find that when you go back to the Backlog from the Active List you do a complete pass of the Backlog without doing any of the tasks.

If this happens, you should delete all the remaining tasks in the Backlog using a highlighter instead of a pen stroke, and then proceed as in Step 7 to make the Active List the Backlog.

The next time you come to the beginning of the list, you should finally cross off the highlighted tasks by deciding what to do with each one in turn. You may elect to abandon it, re-enter it on the Active List (with or without re-phrasing), or put it into a reminder system for review at a later date. In making the decision what to do with each task, you should look at the reasons why you haven’t done it yet.

Other implementations

It’s perfectly acceptable to use sheets of ruled paper rather than a notebook. You need two lists, a Backlog and an Active List. If you have undone items to review as in the previous paragraph, you will need to keep the old Backlog list until this has been done.

Electronic implementation is easy, as seen on my example yesterday. Rather than use Strikeout for actioned items, you can simply delete them. There’s no need to put new tasks in italics - I did that purely for demonstration purposes. You might want to use Bold for the current task, as it helps to find your place again.

Reader Comments (58)

Wow Mark that sounds really good. It uses the DIT method of above and below the line, it is easy to understand which is great.

What happens if you continue to do things in the 'first list' every time you do it and therefore don't get to do anything in the active list? Can you make a decision that say at 2pm you switch to the active list?

Very intriguing and I would be interested in giving it a go......!
September 5, 2009 at 12:00 | Unregistered CommenterNick
"What happens if you continue to do things in the 'first list' every time you do it and therefore don't get to do anything in the active list?"

That's my concern too. I've got a lot of stuff on my Backlog list, and could keep working on it all the time. I think I'm just going to check the Active list informally from time to time to see if there's anything urgent on it. (I've got into the habit of looking through the whole list at the beginning of each day and putting an asterisk beside anything that really has to be done that day, so I don't miss anything urgent. I erase the asterisk once the task is done.)
September 5, 2009 at 12:24 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette
Nick and Annette:

My advice is not to make changes to the system before you have tried it out. Try it first for a week or so and only then make any changes you think are necessary. Everything in the system is there for a reason, and is the result of a lot of testing and experimentation.

In response to your specific question, if you look at my demonstration yesterday you will see that I moved very fast through the Backlog. That's because your mind knows very well that there is stuff to be done in the Active List. In fact I moved from Backlog to Active and back at least three times during the day.

Annette: you might want to start a new list for AF4 rather than use your existing one if your existing list is very long. That is because the best way to break a new system is by overwhelming it before you've got used to how it works. The best way to start a new list is to write a short list of things which you are currently actively working on, and then add tasks to it as you thing of them or as they come up in the normal course of work.
September 5, 2009 at 12:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi, and thanks again for your work on these techniques! It's interesting to see how this new version is actually quite different from the others. I need clarification on one thing. It's about point 6. To verify my understanding, you mean we go to the active list, start at the begining, and do the first task, if any, that feels ready to be done. After this task is done, we keep going below in the active list, maybe doing some more tasks or maybe none, but as soon as we've looked at all the items on the list we move back to the backlog. Is that right?
September 5, 2009 at 12:39 | Unregistered CommenterCharles
Mr. Forster,

Can't wait to try it out! Thank you for providing this to us.

Two questions for clarification:

1) Do you intend that one starts each morning at the top of the backlog (the first unactioned item) or do you start where you left off either in the backlog or the active list?

2) Could you explain the purpose behind highlighting the items above the line? Once you pass through the backlog without doing any of them wouldn't all remaining items in the backlog (above the first line) be up for deletion or reenter the next time around? Could the line be the indicator instead of highlighting?

Would it save an extra step and avoid the need for carrying a highlighter? Also, in an electronic implementation highlighting might not always be available and so a different textual indicator must be used (such as bracketing). But in an electronic implemetion where actual deletion of completed tasks is possible (and not just crossing them off) you would seem to need highlighting even less since the items on notice for review would all be one block above the line.

But perhaps highlighting serves some sort of subconscious function? Is that the case?

Thank you!
September 5, 2009 at 12:57 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph
"Annette: you might want to start a new list for AF4 rather than use your existing one if your existing list is very long. That is because the best way to break a new system is by overwhelming it before you've got used to how it works. The best way to start a new list is to write a short list of things which you are currently actively working on, and then add tasks to it as you thing of them or as they come up in the normal course of work."

Thank you Mark. I've now made a new backlog list of 35 tasks, which might still be rather long, but I'll try it.
September 5, 2009 at 13:05 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette
I have a few concerns about AF4. Before starting, nomenclature: I'm using AF3 to mean the version where we started working backwards, and AF2 to mean the version before that. (Or did I miss a version while I wasn't looking?)

Secondly, AF4 seems to me to be going right back to AF2 in that once again we are working from the front, i.e. we are doing the oldest and (probably) least urgent items before doing the newest and (probably) most urgent ones. That is why AF3 works so well for me: because the new stuff you add to the list is usually the stuff you want (and need) to start working on asap. Mark, you got it so right with AF3 - why go back to working from the front again?

Thirdly, I've noticed that whenever Mark brings out a new version he deals only very briefly with the problem of transitioning from the previous version. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Transition from the old version is an absolutely essential part of any new version and must be dealt with systematically. Dismissing it by saying, "you might want to start a new list for AF4 rather than use your existing one if your existing list is very long. That is because the best way to break a new system is by overwhelming it before you've got used to how it works" doesn't help. The stuff on the existing list is there for a reason, and can't be treated as if it didn't matter.

Having made these criticisms, I appreciate Mark's efforts in providing us with these new versions and road-testing them. And I admit that AF3 does suffer from the significant problem of the "bulging middle", which AF4 might possibly solve. But I know I'd find it very difficult to plough multiple times through some 90 to 100 open items in my Backlog while knowing that the most urgent stuff is in my Active List. Sure, I could solve the problem (temporarily) by creating a new list, but what about the old items?
September 5, 2009 at 13:19 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Lewis
It may be cheating a bit (and I should try out the system before making changes), but you could add a task 'switch to active list' in the backlog. The best spot would probably be right above the line separating the backlog and the active list. When you come to that task and it feels ready to be done: do it. Just do not cross it out until it is the last task in the backlog, otherwise you have this "escape route" only once.

I am not sure about the naming. The 'active list' does not sound very active at all! :-) It is more like a someday/maybe/tomorrow list. The backlog seems the list that is most actively worked on. How about calling it 'new list', 'future list', 'not yet list', 'futurelog', 'frontlog', something like that?

Hm, I guess if you refer to the 'active list' as the list that is actively getting new tasks added to, it may work as well.

It is interesting to follow the evolution of AutoFocus. Thanks for sharing!
September 5, 2009 at 13:30 | Unregistered CommenterMaurits van Rees

<< I need clarification on one thing. It's about point 6.>>

You keep circling through the Backlog until there's no more tasks you feel like doing at the time, then you get *one* pass through the Active list. After that you go back to the Backlog.
September 5, 2009 at 13:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< do you start where you left off either in the backlog or the active list? >>

Yes, start from where you left off the previous day

<< Could you explain the purpose behind highlighting the items above the line? >>

The purpose is to draw attention to the items so that you don't forget about them, and also to differentiate them from the other tasks. As long as you achieve those two aims you can distinguish them in whatever way you find most suitable.
September 5, 2009 at 13:42 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< Or did I miss a version while I wasn't looking? >>

Yes, see

I appreciate your concerns, but if you work your way through the demo which I did yesterday I think you will see that they don't in fact apply. I used a list of 75 items, which was my genuine list. The list was my complete list and I worked on it in real time.

As for transitioning, all you have to do is to draw a line at the end of your existing list and you're off. If you don't like the new system after trying it, then you can just go back to the old one still using the same list.
September 5, 2009 at 13:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

thanks for pioneering the road to a simple way of staying on top of things.

The main problem I have with this system is the number of entries getting too large -> wasting time reading through them again & again (even if I can't action them at that moment).
A couple of questions:
1) how do you suggest we treat follow-up of delegation ? As action-point in the list or in a separate system?
2) What do you think about 2 separate lists for eg. office & home ?

Kind Regards
September 5, 2009 at 13:56 | Unregistered CommenterStefaan

I think your concerns will resolve themselves once you try it out. You might want to look at my demo yesterday to get the idea of how it works in practice.
September 5, 2009 at 13:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

1) how do you suggest we treat follow-up of delegation ? As action-point in the list or in a separate system?

If it's simply a matter of following-up an email or an action after a few days, then just put a task like "Bill replied to email re housing?". If it's something you want to follow up in a time period longer than a few days then put it in Outlook Tasks or similar reminder system.

2) What do you think about 2 separate lists for eg. office & home ?

Generally I advise a list for each location, though this has to be tailored to the specific needs of the individual. I work from home so I use the same list for everything.
September 5, 2009 at 14:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I love the new system so far, for the most part. I was following along yesterday, and trying it out myself. I started before the instructions were very clear, so I arbitrarily drew my line so that the tasks which were more than a week old were the "backlog," and everything else was the "active list." That seemed to work fine.

I only have two nagging concerns, and they are minor.

1) I much prefer the terminology "closed list" and "open list." It makes use of the concepts I learned in DIT, and gives me an instant perception of how the lists work, so there is no confusion. "Active" and "Backlog" are not as good descriptions, and I am especially confused by the term "active," when most of the time I am actively engaging with the "backlog."

2) I too struggled with the urge to check the open list while I was cycling through the closed list and still finding things which were standing out. The way I resolve this might be called "cheating," or "rationalizing," but whenever my mind was telling me that there were urgent tasks on the open list that I really should work on, I just said, "OK, there are things in the closed list that are still standing out, but they aren't standing out enough to override the things on the open list that are calling my name right now." So I switch to the open list.

I am thinking about going through the open list twice, once in each direction, instead of just once. It seems that if there is any problem with AF4, it is that the open list gets neglected. But I will give myself a lot of latitude for switching, as I described in #2, and work the system without tweaks, to give it a fair chance.

My trial run with it yesterday seemed very successful. I got a huge amount done, and a nice side effect was that, after I got to the dismissal stage, my list became consolidated into a few pages, rather than spread out over more than 20 pages. That feels so much more streamlined.

Thanks for taking the effort to do the online blogging, Mark ~ it was very instructive!
September 5, 2009 at 17:18 | Unregistered CommenterSarah J
Question about deleting and crossing off: Do the deleted (highlighted, but not crossed off) items remain as part of the new Backlog while you work it?

In other words, do they get crossed off the very next time you come to them while continuing to work through the new Backlog, or do they get crossed off the next time you return from the Active List?

The second case lets you use the "on notice" concept that can encourage action as you continue circulating through the Backlog while they are highlighted. The first case seems too aggressive. (Out of curiosity, did you test both these options?)

Either way, it seems to me that this is an improvement that really addresses most of the concerns that have been expressed about any of the previous versions. As promised, it is also simple and easy to explain. Thanks!
September 5, 2009 at 18:29 | Unregistered CommenterMartyH
Regarding transitioning from "old AF" to "new AF"...

I started AF1 at the very beginning, and have given each variant a try. I've never started a new list, but always kept using my same list.

I'm doing the same thing right now. I probably have 1500 items in my backlog (aka "closed list") -- at least 70 or 80 pages, scattered across four notebooks.

Anyway, I started AF4 last night, based on my interpretation of the rules (which seems to have been correct), and it's working great! I am just BLAZING through that backlog, and still keeping up with the urgent stuff on the Active List (aka "open list").

Maybe it's just the euphoria of trying something new, but if my experience with all the other AF systems is any clue, it's NOT just that.

Just thought I'd let you know...

Thanks again Mark for all these great ideas! You are a great algorithm designer. :-)
September 5, 2009 at 18:42 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphim
Mark, thank you so much for the efforts to enhance Autofocus!

It seems I stick to the previous version of Autofocus but I add to my system an isolated backlog like you suggested in DIT. I'm going to handle the backlog as the first task every day at least a little.

I read your comments of AF v4 as well as your online demo but I can't still understand how do you get done urgent matters. My backlog consists of about 200 items (eq ca 2 weeks non-stop work). How do you recommend to handle bigger backlogs using AF4?

And I have one more question I hope you can answer: Why is AF4 better than AF3 (or Autofocus revised version)? AF3 is working for me like a charm :)
September 6, 2009 at 9:49 | Unregistered CommenterKristjan Otsmann

<< I read your comments of AF v4 as well as your online demo but I can't still understand how do you get done urgent matters. >>

You get urgent matters done by thinking/feeling that you need to do them. ;-)

This leads to the tasks in the backlog not standing out anymore, which causes you to leave the backlog after a loop and work on the open list, where your urgent/current tasks are.

<< My backlog consists of about 200 items (eq ca 2 weeks non-stop work). How do you recommend to handle bigger backlogs using AF4? >>

I think Mark recommends not taking a huge backlog into a new system all at once. So you would probably start a fresh AF4 list and add a task "Work on old system list" or like that. The AF4 "backlog" isn't exactly the same thing as a normal backlog.

<< And I have one more question I hope you can answer: Why is AF4 better than AF3 (or Autofocus revised version)? AF3 is working for me like a charm :) >>

As always, if your current system is going really well, there is no need to try a new system except curiosity. There are also people who stay with AF1 or AF2.

Some people have problems with the middle of their list stagnating under AF3. This problem is handled well by AF4 so far.
September 6, 2009 at 10:42 | Unregistered CommenterAndreas Hofmann
<< I read your comments of AF v4 as well as your online demo but I can't still understand how do you get done urgent matters. >>

Try my PDF version of Mark's demo:

Perhaps a different presentation is more suited for you.


Speaking of which, I'm off to create a flowchart. ;-)
September 6, 2009 at 10:44 | Unregistered CommenterAndreas Hofmann
re: getting to the urgent items

I suppose one could add the entry "Move to open list" at the end of the list just before adding the dividing line (making this always the last entry in the backlog). That way, you would see this at the end of every loop through the backlog. I don't think it is necessary, per se, but it would give you immediate access to the more recent open list items without having to go through the whole act of having nothing "stand out". If you did add this entry, you would not cross it off until just before you needed to add a new backlog line even if you used it multiple times.

I don't think it is necessasry, but it is one suggestion.
September 6, 2009 at 13:58 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Andreas, thank you so much for the demo - it was the most useful! Will try again and I hope this time I can benefit from AF4.
September 6, 2009 at 17:08 | Unregistered CommenterKristjan Otsmann

As soon as I can, I translate any new AF material into French.

All the best,

September 7, 2009 at 16:06 | Unregistered CommenterLionel
Thanks, Lionel. I will look forward to seeing it.
September 7, 2009 at 17:01 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I haven't been following along with AF1-3, so if this is handled elsewhere please point me to it:

My biggest struggle is keeping track of all the steps required to do a given task, especially if they spread out over several days. Not really follow-up types of things, but more like the individual tasks that make up a project. It seems like AF4 is for handling what I'm going to do today, versus keeping track of what overall steps each of my project has. In other words, I'll still need to keep project sheets that break each into it's component steps, and then pull those over into my backlog/active list. Have I got that right, or am I missing something?

I've gotten tons done today using AF4, btw. The question above is actually my way of addressing the task "decide role of master task list for work items" during this pass down my backlog list, which is now going to get crossed off and added to the bottom of the active list. :)
September 7, 2009 at 23:05 | Unregistered CommenterKalieris
I'm implementing this on a Palm PDA using DateBk6 in combination with a linked Tasks program linked to display on every day's calendar page. To help ME make sense of AF4, I went through and tried to make the most compact set of instructions I could, while also incorporating the "how to delete" part of the process in sequence. This is the result:

"Your list is divided into 2 parts, the Backlog and the Active List, separated by a horizontal line. Circulate through the Backlog, setting the current item to boldface to simplify finding your place later. Work on any tasks that feel ready to be done. When you’ve worked on an item enough, unbold it, strikethrough it, and—if you didn’t complete the task, re-enter it at the end of the Active List. When no items feel ready to work on, do a single pass through the Active List, again working on any task that seems ready to be done, as before. At the end of the Active List, return to circulating though the Backlog. When you reach the end of the Backlog with no remaining tasks feeling ready to be done, highlight those remaining tasks. When all tasks in the Backlog are either struckthrough or highlighted, draw a horizontal line across the end of the Active List, which now becomes the Backlog. When you later restart at the beginning of the Backlog list, start with reviewing the highlighted items to decide how to finally cross them off the list so you can be done with that old Backlog, either 1) abandoning the item altogtether, 2) re-entering it at the end of the Active List (with or without re-phrasing), or 3) put it into a reminder system to review at a later date. As you decide what to do with each task, you should examine why you haven’t done it yet."
September 8, 2009 at 10:34 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Hi Mark,

This is minute detail: Why do you call the list above the line the "backlog?" Why not call it the "closed list" instead?
September 8, 2009 at 20:54 | Unregistered CommenterGadgety
Thanks! This seems to work better for me.

Re electronic implementation -- I'm using Outlook Tasks, and sorting by last-mod-date (most recent at bottom). When I work on something, I open the task, and then when I move on, save it or mark it complete. This automatically moves it to the bottom of the active list (I have tasks completed in the current day still shown to give me that sense of accomplishment and this ends up showing completed tasks into the active portion). For the divider, I just added a task that says "^--- Backlog | Active ---v" that will be re-saved when it is time to reset the line position. Use of the "start date" as well as the "due date" for deferred tasks helps hide them until they come up.
September 10, 2009 at 5:07 | Unregistered CommenterChris P
Hello. I've done amateur translation of AF4 instructions into russian -
September 22, 2009 at 11:41 | Unregistered Commenterlenar
For those who are working on projects with many tasks, here is how I handle it. My projects get a list each with the tasks associated with them. I use paper so it means a page per project. I brainstorm every little task to meet the big goal, then I number them in pencil, sometimes only the first 3 to let the others resolve their own order over time.

On my AF list I write down the first step with the project title (or number) in brackets and when it gets crossed off I go to my project page and put the next item from the project page at the bottom of my AF list, again with the project name/number after it.

Sometimes I will put 2 or 3 steps from a simple project straight into my AF list. Also I don't stick with just putting only one step from a big project on my AF list if working on it from several directions at once will help. Eg. emailing a customer with an update while also researching more info on the product they want, therefore 2 tasks that don't need to be sequential.

Hope that helps.
September 24, 2009 at 3:39 | Unregistered CommenterJen in Oz
I use a notebook with a little pocket in the front. I store action support items that I may need to work on certain tasks (such as business cards I need to enter into my contacts file).

I haven't done so yet, but I plan to store some index cards in here, one per project. I can keep notes about what needs to happen for each project, and encode each project with an abbreviation. Then I can enter tasks like this:

EBK - Write chapter 2

Where EBK is my E-Book project.
September 24, 2009 at 23:29 | Unregistered Commenterbonder
Jen, I was just thinking about this project business. I have project lists, and I had "work on project X" in AF4 but it wasn't working. Dumping lots of "project X tasks" doesn't work either. I think you got it right: Dump the next task(s), and label them by project. Thanks!
October 20, 2009 at 21:38 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Wow! Thank you so much for this system. I love it.
December 10, 2009 at 16:56 | Unregistered CommenterJenn Long
I have one problem with this system, as compared to AF1 - as I understand, once I've picked a task from the active list I cannot action any previous one utill I get to the beginning of the active list. Is that right? Seems pretty basic but I've only recently tried your systems and am still unsure which rule is common to them all and which is specific to AF4.
Even without full understanding of the system I must say a metric ton of stress vanished from my daily life!
December 15, 2009 at 18:31 | Unregistered Commentertmth

Yes, your understanding is correct. You can only go one way through the active list. However the common sense rule applies: "If you really need to do something now, then do it now."

AF4 is intended to help you get stuff done, not to get in the way of getting it done.
December 15, 2009 at 23:06 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have just created a website to help me implement the autofocus system, and I think your readers might find it useful...
January 13, 2010 at 7:04 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Mikels
Oops, I forgot to put the 'testing' user information in the post. If you don't want to create a new account, just use testing and testing for the username and password.
January 13, 2010 at 7:05 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Mikels
Required adjustments to ensure that this very good system deals with time dependent tasks.

I add to my Outlook taskpad only items that has a time dependent factor to it. Example: a report that must be completed by a certain date, follow ups with staff, future ticklers, etc.

The Outlook taskpad items I view as the start of my Backlog items. You will thus start out with the time dependent items first and follow Mark's way of going through the backlog before going to the Active list.

This relaxes the nagging voice that keeps asking if you are missing a deadline!
April 23, 2010 at 16:36 | Unregistered CommenterNico McDonald (South Africa)
I'm curious about the rationale for the "reading list (oldest)" task and its brethren. I suppose you have a reading list and have a few different strategies for it (oldest first, newest first, etc), and have listed those strategies as tasks here; then whichever one feels right at a given moment is the one that you follow at that moment. Is that correct? Complete?
May 14, 2010 at 22:50 | Unregistered Commentersjt
I just found this today and came from a hybrid "GTD" and "screw GTD and prioritize!" mindset.

I was spending way more time tinkering with lists and systems than was warranted. Will that be true in a week? Who knows?

So far, so good on your Autofocus V.4 thinking. It looks fascinating, Mark.

I just discovered your ideas from a post on the GQueues discussion form.

GQueues is an online list app that's integrated with Google Calendar. Like most, it supports collaboration, etc.

There's a very functional free version and a paid version for those people who need just a bit more.

Anyway, I'm not affiliated with them -- I use the free version, but the developer is awesomely responsive, seems like a great guy, and I'll upgrade in a heartbeat if and when the free version doesn't do everything want it to do.

Which it does.

I believe GQueues can overcome a lot of the shortcomings with using electronic lists Mark Foster enunciates... if you implement it as I'm going to illustrate. Let me describe it and tell me if it makes sense to you.

= = = =
Before I do, here's the benefit: Best of paper, best of electronic. (Call that a tease!)
= = = =

1) I created a Queue (a.k.a. list) entitled "Autofocus V.4."

2) I added outstanding it.

3) At the bottom of this list, I added this:

XXXX --- Dividing Line Between Closed and Open Lists --- XXXX

4) Any new items are added at the bottom by default. This is perfect. It's where they should be.

5) When finishing a recurring item, or working on a task as far as you want to with more yet to do, you can "duplicate item".

6) This adds it to the bottom of the list in the open section. You can then reword the item if necessary and go back up to the closed list and check the item off.

7) This causes the item to disappear keeping the closed list neat and tidy. For that matter, same thing with the open list.

As an aside, GQueues has awesome keyboard shortcuts and is really quick to use once you figure it out. Up and down arrows become the equivalent of a pen or finger pointer. It's also got a bunch of Ajax-y drag-n-drop goodness. And no, I really don't work for them. I just like it.

8) Once the closed list items are all done, dropped, or re-added to the open list; duplicate the XX -- Dividing Line -- XX and it will appear exactly where it should: at the bottom. Delete the original dividing line.

9) But let's say you're travelling for a few days and may not have constant mobile access. No worries. Print the darn list in its entirety! You'll start with a completely clean list and sure, it'll become a standard mess highlighted, crossed-out paper-and-ink list before long.


Either throw it in a duotang notebook or, my preference, attach a small binder clip to the top left with a few extra blank pages thrown in (lined if you care: I don't) and, "voila"! You now have an instant paper-based system.


GQueues also has the ability to create tasks with deadlines (recurring or one-off). So those things that must be done on a given day, give them deadlines.

You can keep a separate "Tickler" Queue of routines, committments, etc., or you could just assign a deadline to any item within your Autofocus V.4 Queue -- either way.

GQueues allows you to create Smart Queues based on selected criteria (due dates, tags, Queue-Categories, parent Queue, etc.) and designate any Queue you wish as the default Queue when you load the program.

So I'd suggest you create a Smart Queue with any item due today as well as (this is important) overdue items.

Make these the your default Queue.

Do these due-today-and-overdue items because they must be done on a given day (just don't go crazy designating every task as due on specific days -- use it judiciously!).

***Then go to your AutoFocus V.4 Queue*** and work the system as Mark teaches.

If for any reason you don't complete one of your due-dated items on a given day, oh well. It will show up as due tomorrow. You won't lose it.

And you can print that list too when travelling.

Further, GQueues automatically comes with a Google Calendar gadget for those who use GCal. This lets you see any items with due dates within the next week.

If you want even tighter integration, upgrade for $25/year (volume discounts available) and these due-dated items can appear directly on your Google Calendar and you can make changes to them directly from GCal itself. Upgrading allows you to assign tasks to others too.

Neither of these are important to me. Your mileage may vary.

Finally you can add new tasks via a browser bookmarklet (which lets you decide which Queue to put it into), email, instant messaging.

I think Autofocus and GQueues will work VERY well together.

What do you think?
May 20, 2010 at 0:37 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis
Seems like an interesting app Christoph. I'd invite you to post this in a new forum thread. No registration required, and you will get more constructive comments there.
May 20, 2010 at 14:29 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Thanks, Alan, I will.
May 20, 2010 at 20:34 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis
Hi Mark

I recently discovered your website and have started using Autofocus 4. It is working well for me and as a consequence I feel less stressed. I like it because it is simple, it is paper-based, it captures everything I want to do, it ensures there is a space between my wanting to do something and actually doing it, it provides an effective way of dealing with undone tasks, and it leaves me feeling that I, and not the system, am still in charge.

I have made the following two commitments to myself (these could probably apply to any system one uses to become more organised time-wise):

1) Write down all I want to do
2) Only do what's written down

I have found the system works best for me with the following adaptions:

1) I have changed the names of the lists as, along with others, I find these terms less than helpful. The Backlog (working on which you have yourself described elsewhere on your site as feeling like walking on a muddy path) I call the Closed List, and the Active List (which most of the time is not the list I am actively working from) I call the Open List.

2) When working on the Backlog I use the instructions from Autofocus 1 i.e. I read quickly through all the items on the list without taking action on any of them, and then I go through the list more slowly, looking at the items in order, until one stands out.

3) However I follow your instructions rigorously when going through the Active List - I go through it in order, once, just working on tasks which feel ready to be done. In other words I give myself more freedom when selecting the tasks to be done from the Backlog, and more discipline when selecting tasks from the Active List. This encourages me to finish the Backlog.

4) Tasks that come up which need completing sooner than they are likely to get done using the system, I schedule in my diary. There are very few of these and my aim is that the number decreases as I become more on top of things.

5) If I complete all the tasks on the Backlog without needing to highlight and review any, then I reward myself in some way.

Thank you for presenting an effective system.
June 8, 2010 at 13:59 | Unregistered CommenterJC

Nice mail. When do you progress from the backlog to the active list?

June 8, 2010 at 14:35 | Unregistered CommenterNico

Sorry meant "Nice post" not mail
June 8, 2010 at 14:37 | Unregistered CommenterNico
I've just spent 37 minutes reading the post about DWM, related comments and some comments on this post. I'm sure I'm not the only one that revels in the distraction of reading time management blogs! I've been using AF4 for a few weeks and I really like the system. I'm going to stick with it for the moment, although I do think having some deadlines (or expiry dates as with DWM) are helpful. Here are my changes:

1) I, too, have changed the names backlog and active to closed and open list
2) I have a narrow column down the lefthand side which has a little dot for most items but any items that have a definite deadline have that date in the column.
3) If an item has been on the list for a while and is surrounded by completed tasks, I put a wavy line through it and add it to the open list so that I can cross off the whole page!
4) Occasionally, I put a star against an urgent item - which is an alternative to a deadline and means Do It Today.

I know probably most of my changes are against the spirit and intuitive nature of AF4, but they make it work for me!

Thanks so much for sharing this system. Different strokes for different folks, so keep coming up with bright ideas so folks can pick what's right for them.
June 8, 2010 at 14:41 | Unregistered CommenterLatecomer

All your tweaks sound fine except for 3), which rather goes against the point of AF4 that you will eventually have to do some work on all the tasks which you have put on your list. If you keep moving the ones you haven't done after a while to the open list, you can put off doing them indefinitely.
June 8, 2010 at 15:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

I progress from the backlog to the active list exactly as described in Mark's Preliminary Instructions at the top of this page i.e. when there is nothing left in the backlog which feels ready to be done.
June 8, 2010 at 16:56 | Unregistered CommenterJC
Hi JC.
"4) Tasks that come up which need completing sooner than they are likely to get done using the system, I schedule in my diary. There are very few of these and my aim is that the number decreases as I become more on top of things."

Mark's advice is that you pass through the AF4 list at least once a day. If you follow that principle, are there still things that:
(a) you won't get to soon enough, and
(b) you schedule for a future date?

Seems unlikely. I use a calendar for things I want to *put off*, not things I want to accelerate. For things I want to accelerate, I use a hot list of 1-3 items that I work on regularly, but no date/time are attached.
June 8, 2010 at 18:31 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Personally, I found that making it a rule to go through the AF4 list at least once a day, led me to focus on trivial odds & ends rather than the most significant and important work. Or, it led me to make trivial and incidental and scatterbrained progress ("little and often" at its worst) on the important work.

On the other hand, if I forced myself to spend an hour or three actually getting some serious work done -- but not getting through the whole list -- then I would find the list to grow continually.

If you can get through your AF4 list frequently, many times per day or at least many times per week, then AF4 can really work great, and keep you on top of your work. (AF1 also).

But if you CAN'T get through the list that often, that's a symptom of being severely over-committed, and AF4 doesn't have any built-in mechanisms for addressing that. DWM, on the other hand, DOES have built-in mechanisms for addressing that, so if you find yourself in that situation, you might want to look at DWM.

I'm not saying AF has no mechanism at all to address over-commitment. That's what the highlighting / dismissing mechanism is for. But when the over-commitment is so severe that your list continually grows despite this mechanism, and you find yourself cycling back to the beginning of the list only once or twice per week (or month!), then AF loses its effectiveness. DWM does a much better job in this kind of situation, at least in my experience.
June 8, 2010 at 22:30 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphim

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