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« Review of the Systems: Predictive To Do List | Main | Review of the Systems: Autofocus 3 »

Review of the Systems: Autofocus 4

The rules for AF4 can be found by clicking here.

Brief Summary

This is a straightforward system for processing an undifferentiated list. The list is divided into two parts, the Closed List and the Open List. Each time all the tasks in the Closed List are finished or dismissed, the existing Open List has a line drawn at its end and becomes the Closed List. Tasks added after that are the new Open List. To process the list, first you circulate around the Closed List until no more tasks are ready to be done, then you are allowed one pass through the Open List before returning to the Closed List.


Because of the nature of the two lists, the system allows urgent tasks to be dealt with while still encouraging the more difficult tasks to be done.


When the Closed List is down to a few items, the vast majority of tasks are in the Open List. This means that there is often a considerable time lag before any pressure is applied to complete a task that is in the Open List. One result of this is that the little and often principle doesn’t work well with the more difficult tasks.


AF4 is probably the most generally effective of the four Autofocus systems. In spite of its drawbacks many people have reported that it has continued to be effective after a long period of use.

Reader Comments (18)

"When the Closed List is down to a few items, the vast majority of tasks are in the Open List. This means that there is often a considerable time lag before any pressure is applied to complete a task that is in the Open List."

It seems to me this would be improved by splitting such a list in 2, making the first half a second closed list. Then the time until one closed list is depleted is reduced, and the open list becomes the second closed list. Having a third list is, I think, part of why the revised AF4 seems more effective.
January 26, 2011 at 12:54 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

You may be right, but you are achieving this at the price of its getting longer to get at urgent items in the Open List. Fortunately since my new revision of SuperFocus solves both problems the question is only academic.
January 26, 2011 at 15:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Quite true. Although I loved AF4 for quite some time, I could never go back. Its biggest flaw (too long in the closed list when important stuff is in the open list), is one I know intimately from experience. If ever I'd restart with AF4, I would immediately convert it to AF4R because it solves that issue without other drawbacks.
January 26, 2011 at 17:38 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

>AF4 is probably the most generally effective of the four Autofocus systems.<

I think this is overstated. In fact, it doesn't jibe with what you said when you asked us to guess your favorite system. You answered that it was AF1. You certainly wouldn't choose the second-most effective system.

I think you should have applied this statement to your review of AF1, instead of here.

January 26, 2011 at 19:38 | Registered Commenter2mc

I don't think the fact that something is one's favourite system necessarily means that it is the most effective.
January 26, 2011 at 19:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I believe Mark's current situation doesn't involve a lot of urgent work. AF1 falls down when it comes to urgent work, while AF4 copes. So AF1 works great for Mark, but it isn't the most "generally" effective.
January 26, 2011 at 19:43 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

Nonetheless, I still think it is overstated. It seems to me that the disadvantages as you've described absolutely place it in the inferior position to AF1. Of course, IMHO. :-)

January 26, 2011 at 20:08 | Registered Commenter2mc

Please explain how AF4 copes with *urgent* tasks better than AF1.

January 26, 2011 at 20:46 | Registered Commenter2mc
In AF4, urgent tasks are always in the open list. If you're working in the closed list and something urgent comes up, this sequence fits the rules:
1. Drop what you're doing, rewrite it.
2. Scan the remaining closed list items. Choose none.
3. Scan the open list items. Choose the urgent one.
[ The above takes maybe 5 minutes. Not instant, but good enough for most "urgent" tasks"]
4. You may alternate between the new urgent item, the one you dropped, and anything else at the end of the open list.
5. Return to the closed list where you left off.

AF1 has you scan each page quickly then go through slowly through it before reaching the last page. If you rush there, you must dismiss a zillion pages along the way. Even if you don't there's no quick way to get back to where you left off.
January 26, 2011 at 22:09 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu

You're only addressing the task that comes to you after you've started the day. There may be a task in your open list that came a couple of days ago that is now urgent. Your scenario does nothing about that.

Plus in 2, you'd have to take time to dismiss, because you didn't do anything. I can foresee longer than 5 minutes.

I really do not think that AF4 is better at urgent tasks than AF1.

January 27, 2011 at 0:27 | Registered Commenter2mc
It just isn't so, Matt. I ran Af4 for 9 months and the urgent tasks are never a problem.

It doesn't matter where in the open list the urgent task is. Finish working the closed list and go to the open list. Find it where it's at.

You don't need to dismiss anything because you already were working a task in the closed list. But even if you weren't, just pick one item for a minute and move on.
January 27, 2011 at 5:29 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Here's the rule, Alan:

"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." [emphasis added]

That is from Mark's instructions. What you are describing is a changing of that rule. You cannot go to the Active list until nothing stands out. If you say nothing is standing out and you go to the Active list to do that urgent task, when you come back, you *must* dismiss because nothing has stood out.

You have changed the rules.

I still say that urgent tasks are NOT handled better (perhaps no worse, but certainly no better) than AF1, unless you change the rules as you have done.

January 27, 2011 at 6:05 | Registered Commenter2mc
I failed to communicate that detail. Sorry about that. Agreed you must go through the closed list again to check if anything else is ready. Nothing will, probably because there's an urgent item you must get to.

But no there's no need to dismiss anything. You only dismiss if nothing stood out on the first pass of the closed list. The second pass you may freely bypass everything.

But all this is moot. I'm not here to sell AF4. It did okay with urgent tasks, but not so well with finishing stuff, so I've moved on.
January 27, 2011 at 6:41 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

The whole idea behind Autofocus (all versions) is that you rely on your intuition to tell you the best order to deal with tasks. If your intuition is telling you that one task is particularly urgent, then other tasks won't stand out. Depending where you are in the list, you might either be able to go straight to the urgent task, or have to do some work on one other task first.

In AF1, you have to work on at least one task on every page between you and the urgent task.
January 27, 2011 at 9:07 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"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." [emphasis added]

Yes, that's a rule, but it's superseded by "If something needs to be done now, do it, regardless of where you are in the list or what the other rules say." I don't remember Marks' exact words. I call it his "common sense" rule.

Having said that, I agree, any rule which limits which pages you work on has the risk of _hiding_ things which, while not urgent now, should be worked on now so they don't become urgent. I say _hiding_ rather than _preventing_. If you see it and know it should be done now, the common sense rule comes into play. Most of Mark's systems include a daily review of every page, to catch that sort of thing.
January 27, 2011 at 13:48 | Registered CommenterCricket
For me, AF4 is wonderfully effective because so little effort is needed to maintain the system. In fact more often then not, the closed list becomes my todo list for the day and I work through it in order. In the evening I try to keep the ball rolling with the remaining items. Or I dismiss them, trying to avoid a backlog. (Quite similar to DIT, I gather.)

This would not work with a "I wish I could do this" type list nor with accounting for numerous tasks repeating at different intervals. The gentle nudge not to bother with those things is what makes AF4 so efficient.
January 27, 2011 at 17:23 | Unregistered CommenterOlaf B
For me one AF4 is one of the best AF systems with AF1. I still use it since it was created.
It main advantage is the following of tasks in the close list and a real help for dismissals. Disadvantages sometimes urgent things are difficult to treat because they are in the open list and i have not finished my close list.
My tip is to read the all list in the morning, reformulate the task if it is urgent, and go forward (from down to up) during the day to do my urgent items first (there are always at the end).
January 28, 2011 at 8:42 | Registered CommenterJupiter
Great stuff. Thank you.

One question I have (that I hope wasn’t asked and answered already): what about depend tasks? Let’s say that prior to calling a client I need to get tasks a, b, and c done. What assures that those tasks are completed when I decide to do the “Call client” task because it “feels” ready? Is it up to my sub-conscious intuition to insure that a, b and c have been completed?

If so, I’m wondering if this is a reliable method for those of you who have a lot of tasks with dependencies…
June 25, 2011 at 14:24 | Unregistered CommenterMischa

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