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« Review of the Systems: Do It Tomorrow | Main | Life Hacker Article on Autofocus »

Review of the Systems

Over the last couple of years I have developed quite a number of systems with the help of the commentors on this blog. Let’s see if I can remember them all.

Even though it dates from a few years earlier, I’ll put DIT at the head of the list since it is the benchmark for what follows:

Do It Tomorrow (DIT)

Autofocus 1 (AF1)

Autofocus 2 (AF2)

Autofocus 3 (AF3)

Autofocus 4 (AF4)

Predictive To Do List

Day-Week-Month (DWM)


Three Tasks (3T)

AF4 - 3T


AF4 Revised (AF4R)

Have I forgotten any? I’ve only included the ones I’ve tested and written up myself otherwise the list would be considerably longer!

What I want to do over the next few weeks is to review these systems by writing a short summary of each in turn together with my perception of its strengths and weaknesses. I will invite anyone who wishes to share their experiences of the system to do so in the comments.

Reader Comments (27)

Your planned review of the systems sounds like an excellent project - they're all great systems and your review will help people decide what works for them, and consolidate the instructions in one place.

There was also a DWM2 system, whereby the method of dating pages changed to using one long list (which I found to be an improvement on the original DWM).

Best of luck with your endeavours!
December 16, 2010 at 18:49 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1
This is an awesome idea. I look forward to seeing them summarized in one easy-to-find place!

Thanks for doing it.
December 16, 2010 at 19:52 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis
I agree; this is a wonderful idea. Thanks!
December 16, 2010 at 20:09 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen

Thanks for mentioning DWM2. I'd been thinking of that as a variation of DWM rather than as a separate system, but for completeness' sake I've amended the list to include it.

Wow! It's quite an impressive list, isn't it!
December 16, 2010 at 20:20 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Fantastic news, Mark. I confess to being a lapsed user of Autofocus, and seriously needing to get back on track. But evaluating which of your systems is "right for me" is a bit overwhelming. What with the New Year around the corner, this is the ideal time. Thanks in anticipation!
December 17, 2010 at 9:47 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Schapel
It is indeed an impressive list - and that's what you call 'retirement'?
December 17, 2010 at 10:09 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1

If you've already used AF1 and want to get moving now without waiting for me to sum up each system in turn, then I would recommend Superfocus as a good place to start.
December 17, 2010 at 12:51 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
As another backslidden AF user who is looking for a re-birth, this couldn't come at a better time. I'm particularly keen to peruse the post-AF4 options, as this is when my enthusiasm began to run out of steam.

As ever - thanks to Mark.
December 17, 2010 at 13:39 | Unregistered CommenterNeumatist
It all went quiet in February after we digested DWM and tacitly agreed that Mark had produced Something for Everyone. I regretfully accepted that we had reached the end of this particular history and that I would no longer be coming to this site for a daily gobbet of discussion.

And then in October, everything livened up considerably...

DWM passed me by completely, but I am still trying out SAF and feeling left behind,
December 17, 2010 at 17:09 | Unregistered CommenterWill
Many thanks, Mark. I will do as you advise, and am working today on getting Superfocus up and running.
December 17, 2010 at 18:52 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Schapel
Brief summary for those who missed out:
DWM is like AutoFocus but the calendar is used to balance workloads.
Supefocus is like AF1 but it adds support for urgent stuff and focusing more.
AF4R is like AF4 but it groups tasks according to their nature and offers more focus than AF4.
December 18, 2010 at 3:33 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Neumatist: Quick summary
DWM is a major deviation from the AF formula but still fits the mold. It uses dates to push you into action.
3T encourages you to limit focus to 3 things.
SuperFocus is like AF1 but better adapted for urgent things and finishing things.
AF4R is like AF4 but manages tasks according to the type, and increasing focus on finishing.

My opinion is these are all second generation AF systems, collectively better than the first generation. Wish you well.
December 18, 2010 at 13:59 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
+Ad Jesum Per Mariam+

To add to Alan's comment:

DWM2 is a minor variation of DWM that significantly changes the dynamics of the system, as it changes the format from a collection of pages to one long list, which lends itself to be processed like Autofocus while retaining the advantages of day-based dismissal.

God bless!
December 18, 2010 at 15:26 | Registered Commenternuntym
For me, the best system is PINGPONG-AF. I use it daily for over a year now, and it works so well that I feel no urge to change anything at all.

For those interested, I explained my tweak under
December 18, 2010 at 15:28 | Unregistered CommenterAndreasE
I think your approach has been under-appreciated Andreas, partly because DWM came out right after it. The key idea " constantly bounce between the last page and the main body of the list" hasn't been used in any systems since then. For my part, I thought it was a really good idea that just didn't fit with the AF4 system I was enjoying at the time.

Now however, I think it is a really good match to the new systems:
- AF4R bouncing between lists
- DWM2 between the last page and all the rest
- Seraphim's take on SuperFocus
- my own use of SuperFocus + projects in OneNote
- And of course PingPong AF
December 18, 2010 at 22:02 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
+Ad Jesum Per Mariam+


Actually I DID use "Ping-Pong" for quite a long time in my use of DWM2, and I think it is a very good and very under-appreciated idea. It actually produces the effect of SAF without having to make another column through all the pages of the notebook. It is particularly easy to use in DWM2 since (1) there is no "process-based dismissal" to mess with, and (2) there is I would call a "moving border" to signify the "last pages" from the rest of the pages (the 7th day mark).

I however had the problem of being a bit, I dunno, mentally "jarred" by flipping from one part of the the notebook to the other.. Did you experience this?

Actually if I could just remove that "mental jarring" I experience with Ping-Pong DWM2, I'd stop tweaking my use of DWM2 and be content! That's how powerful it is, IMHO.

God bless!
December 19, 2010 at 4:04 | Registered Commenternuntym
I've tried most of Mark's systems listed, and I've tried them digitally and paper/manual, the latter being in the majority.

I've tried one-list, work and personal lists, I've tried various stationery products.

The important thing for me is that I have not been in the least interested in another major task or productivity system, ie I have stuck to the variants in Mark's list.

Whichever one I've used, it's been better than anything else I've ever used. I think while chopping and changing is probably unwise, it does mean that my methodology is evolving for me and whatever variant I have used has been lower in 'overhead' than non-AF approaches.

I'm currently in AF4R with two lists, the Work one on OneNote.

A luta continua.
December 20, 2010 at 14:10 | Registered CommenterRoger J
Mark, I will summarize my experience with your systems. If you find some things sound familiar, it is because I have cut and pasted some paragraphs I had already posted on your site. :)

** General impressions **

I was already thinking about this, and the ideas finally came together when I posted the comment below to Ask Metafilter. I guess that is why AF and its variations work so well to me.

[Abridged version]

Many good-on-paper time management systems fail because they are too logical. I am a very logic-oriented person, so, as it happens, I love concepts which seem all logical on paper, such as GTD. I have tested so much GTD software I wonder where I got that much time. One year after starting GTD, I had a perfect GTD-week: I did everything I had set to do, no procrastination at all, weekly review done, the works. Yay! Instead of what I expected, it did not feel good at all. That Friday, I was overworked, burnt out and I dreaded facing next week. So I dropped it all. For some months, all I had left was my calendar. I then moved on to DIT.

I believe organization and a time management system *are* important to most people. They are to me. However, I think usually the most appropriate thing is a simple time/task management system that rewards my efforts and does not make me beat myself for the wrong reasons. Also, after some years of listening to Radiolab, reading How We Decide (i.e., a very rough understanding of neuroscience), I understand most of my decisions are not due to pure logic, and instinct can also help me choose tasks to do and manage my time. All logic and no intuition makes me a dull procrastinator.

To sum up, AF and its variations meet the criteria of providing little overhead and helping a good mix of intuition and rationality into a system. Although DIT is also simple, it is to me a bit lacking regarding the intuition bit, as it requires a rational audit of what goes into the list.

** My work situation **

This may be relevant so as to read with a grain of salt my opinions on the systems. Work: I am a post-doc in science, so I have to do experiments/simulations I set myself to do, and I also have some collaborations with some other people. Home: married, no kids, flat-dweller.

My work place varies a lot: I sometimes spend weeks coming to university and working 9-to-5, and sometimes I work from home days at end; and some weeks I just mix and match commuting days and work-from-home days. Keeping 2 notebooks will not work for me (as I love being able to go back and forth between commuting and not as the situation poses itself). Separating tasks on the same notebook (front-back, stalactite-stalagmite, etc.) proved to be too cumbersome. Digital implementations are out of the question, because I love tweaking scripts, etc, and lose a lot of time doing so.

** Opinions on different systems **

I tested all of the systems below at least for as long as they would break (2 weeks at least), and in their vanilla versions at first. I learned something from all of them. Most difficult all for stubborn-me, I have also learned not to pre-judge any system before trying it.

- Do It Tomorrow (DIT): I confess I never tested DIT properly, because I still carried a lot of baggage from GTD. I said I did DIT for almost a year. My work was doing great, but I never took included bold, fun things on my list. It was very stoic. But see comment above about the "rational audit". I love the whole DIT concept, though, and the book itself is full of gems which helped implement parts of AF and other organization and work tricks in my life.

- Autofocus 1 (AF1): AF1 was a huge leap from DIT, and I have found it invaluable as a learning tool. I still point it to people if they want to give any AF a try --- to me, they must spend some weeks working AF1 first! AF1 really helped me with rules that were simple enough and that I could trust to be second nature. And, as the days went by and I followed those rules, I understood why they were laid out that way. At the same time, the discussions on the forum helped me a great deal, even when I was not actively participating. I learned how to trust the system, how to trust the dismissal, how to not worry about having project list if I do not need them.

Due to my preference for one notebook, AF1 proved impractical because it was very quick to dismiss items, especially home and fun tasks. Also, as the pages grew in number, I slowed down and worked on things just for fear of dismissal. I tried the stalactite-stalagmite method, but it was a bit clumsy to work the list this way.

- Autofocus 2 (AF2) / Autofocus 3 (AF3): I jumped into AF2 and AF3, but have little recollection of them. By skimming the instructions again now, I feel there is an added layer of complexity on them that do not add any benefit to me. But I did follow them when they were released, as they dealt better with my problem of too early dismissals.

- Autofocus 4 (AF4): When AF4 came, I thought that was perfection and I would never ever consider trying anything else. It really suited me. That was how much I liked it. I could work the open/closed lists without fear of very early dismissals, and I the pressure of the closed and open where good. It slowed down the dismissals.

In retrospect, the problem with AF4 is that it could be a bit unresponsive to new tasks, because of my tendency to stick to the closed list. So AF4 breaks down for me for the opposite reason of AF1: too slow a dismissal leaves many home/fun/recurrent items, which clutter everything up.

- Day-Week-Month (DWM): I was pretty skeptical about it, but I gave it a go. The automated dismissal, and how much time it allows a task to sit on the list, just fits perfectly with my work/home tasks. DWM dismissal had a good balance in dismissing fast-flowing and slow-flowing tasks. One great perk is that it allows any recurrent task that needs to be done in up to one month to live on my list, without the need of external reminders for them. I quite liked them on my list. Now it is difficult to go back to having them on my external reminder system if I change to a system that does not allow it.

I feel as if it is hard to "go back" a version. For instance, I had a one-month work trip, where I dropped my DWM list and started a new AF4 list only. It suited the travel, but it did not flow as smoothly. I was getting tired of my list, and I thought that would never happen with AF4! I think it only felt so because I had already tried DWM.

- DWM2: I love this space-saving, one-point entry variation of DWM. I just feel that someone starting with DWM should start with the original version to get the feel of what is going to dismissed, when and why. DWM2 is not as educational to start with.

- Three Tasks (3T): I tested it with DWM2, but only for a short period. It really got me going on the "finishing stuff" mindset. But I was sometimes a bit lost --- I do not like rewriting things on pieces of paper, so I only marked my 3 tasks with dots. It was hard to find them on my list sometimes, and I would fumble with the pages.

- Superfocus (SF): The dynamics are a bit like AF1. I really liked going back to AF1, as it is my "in ideal world" system. SF is very quick, very efficient in both finishing and dismissal. However, it was even quicker in dismissal than AF1. Now that I am used to the DWM pace and its recurrent-monthly-tasks lenience, SF broke down to me very quickly.

- AF4 Revised (AF4R): Because of the separation among tasks types, AF4R is not as slow as AF4. That said, I had a problem jumping to the different list types, and it was cumbersome at the end. I ended up being drawn back to DWM2.

** So what? **

What am a using right now? For the first time in a long while, it is actually a tweaked system: DWM2 with a Unfinished list in the middle (à la the Unfinished list in AFR). It has a nice pace so far and the Unfinished list helps me focus and finish stuff.
December 22, 2010 at 21:12 | Registered CommenterNatalia
Natalia - Interesting post. I'd like to hear more about how you use an Unfinished list "in the middle" of your DWM2.
December 23, 2010 at 21:23 | Unregistered CommenterScott Hutchins
Scott: It is a very simple tweak. When I restarted DWM2, I wrote on the first page "Unfinished" at the top. Then the next pages are dedicated to DWM2 as usual. On the unfinished page, I write down things I have started and have not finished yet (which depends on whatever I have predefined as "complete" for a task --- for a book, it could be only read a chapter). Those tasks will not be dismissed by DWM2 rules, and I usually have 2 or 3 sitting there, and no more than 5 or 6. This is not imposed by the "rules", as I have made no rigid rules. It is just that if I start too many things I will not be able to finish them in time. :) When I run out of room on the unfinished page, I'll just start another on the next blank page available (that is, in the middle of my DWM2 list). I predict I will never have more than two unfinished pages with undone tasks on them, and will usually have only one.

As DWM2 dismissal rules are based on dates, I can jump from the main list to the unfinished list as I please. I have noticed that I usually go through the main list at least once when I start my day (but usually a couple of or a few times), do some recurrent and maybe small stuff, sometimes start a new big task, and then spend most part of the day on the unfinished list.
December 24, 2010 at 12:43 | Registered CommenterNatalia

I'll be interested to see how you evaluate each one. To what degree do each exacerbate or diminish procrastination? To what degree do each enhance or mute intuition?

These will be very interesting blogs.

January 4, 2011 at 22:37 | Registered Commenter2mc
As self employed property developer I have lists of things to get done that need to be prioritised and seen when out of time. Your system as detailed in the U-Tube is what I have been using for over a month and thanks its a winner.
January 6, 2011 at 16:35 | Unregistered CommenterKimutai
Kimutai, that would be the original Autofocus interview you're referring to? If so that's AF1, which is still very popular. Keep at it. If ever it becomes less satisfactory, consider one of the newest systems listed above.
January 7, 2011 at 14:49 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Dear Mark (and the AF collective)

I am hesitant to post such a message lest it comes across as ungrateful. This site/forum continues to provide more practical wisdom than I have found elsewhere on time management matters - and all for free ...

Yet my impatience (or desperation) is getting the better of me. Back mid-December you outlined your intention to review - 'over the next few weeks' - all the variants and off-shoots of AF as well as providing a round-up of their differing stengths and weaknesses.

Without wanting to instigate a deluge of responses about what constitutes 'a few weeks'; I'm wondering if you're willing to offer a revised time-frame? There's only so many times one man can call up a website only to be disappointed yet again.

I am, admittedly, looking for the shortcut option. I regularly skim the occasional forum postings, but sadly I don't have/make time to keep up the pace with the many postings; and as such, I am reluctant to contribute as I can't be sure what has or hasn't been said before.

So I'm looking for the bigger picture: An overview of each; with their perceived strengths and weaknesses.

If any of you would be willing to help me further, here's a quick outline of my situation and what I think my needs are. Perhaps some of the more learned of you can point me in the right direction?

- I mostly want to use AF for work, but I'm keen to apply it to home/family life as well
- I work in psychiatry (based in the community). As such, approximately 25-35% of my day's tasks arise on the day and are of an urgent nature (normally needing completion on the same day).
- Alongside the unpredictable and urgent tasks, work consists of numerous and varied tasks (some recurring, some very short, some much longer, and several projects which tick away in the background and often get left too late).
- If I'm not careful, I let myself get very easily distracted (which is why I find AF so brilliant)
- Whilst I'm willing to have a good crack at any system which people think will suit my needs, I'm keen to keep things as simple as possible.

Okay. There you have it. On my understanding of the systems thus far, SuperFocus or AF4R tempt me the most. Any thoughts?
January 17, 2011 at 20:49 | Unregistered CommenterNeumatist
Thanks for chasing me, Neumatist. Instead of doing what I said I would do, I've been (among other things) trying to refine the rules for both SuperFocus and AF4R. The SuperFocus revision looks the most promising at the moment - it's not a huge revision, just a few small changes. As far as the time scale goes, once I've got the rules for SuperFocus right there will probably be a huge increase in productivity on my part - which I'm sure will include the promised reviews!
January 17, 2011 at 22:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
AF4R is like AF4 but it groups tasks according to their nature.
January 19, 2011 at 6:41 | Unregistered CommenterMario

based on the description of your situation I would recommend AF2.
IMHO, it is the best of all the AF systems when it comes to handling urgent and unpredictable tasks.
January 19, 2011 at 17:27 | Unregistered CommenterRainer

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