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« Life ends at 45? | Main | Interview with Mark Forster »

Key Principles of the New System III: Getting Stuff Done

As you may have guessed from the silence since I last posted I’ve run into some problems with the “perfect version”. 

Basically there have been two problems which I’ve been endeavouring to overcome

The first is that there is always a tendency for important or difficult tasks to get shunted to one side. The new system needs to avoid this and, while keeping a modicum of flexibility, strictly enforce selection neutrality. However hard one tries to design a system which is procrastination-proof, procrastination always seems to find a way in.

This brings up the second problem which I have been struggling with. This has been to find the best possible way of getting stuff done once it has been started. It is very difficult to stop this being a slow process - whether or not the tasks are split down into smaller chunks. It’s very inefficient to start stuff and then not finish it. Apart from anything else, it wastes the time we spend on it before tailing off. But most important, we are crying out for results and not getting results impacts our lives and work.

As I’ve said before, projects are like houseplants. They need regular watering or they dry up and eventually die. So what I’ve been concentrating on is to make sure that the new system ensures that everything is finished once it’s started - quickly.

So what it all boils down to is: 

  1. Get stuff started
  2. Get it finished

Reader Comments (37)


<<But most important, we are crying out for results and not getting results impacts our lives and work.>>

Love that statement. Though the underpinning anxiety/resistance would probably kick the arse out of any system, no? Curious to see how you're going to handle this.
December 15, 2011 at 4:07 | Registered Commenteravrum
Mark, sometimes I think you're like the guys looking for the Higgs boson particle.
December 15, 2011 at 4:12 | Unregistered CommenterTK
Glad it's not just me!.

Hmm: "selection neutrality" - that's a surprisingly interesting concept. I always thought that one of the nice features of AutoFocus is the way it exploits selection bias as a tool to expose deep areas of focus which may be masked by conscious attempts at planning.
December 15, 2011 at 9:30 | Registered CommenterWill
Regardless of the progress of PV, there's a book in the underlying principles and challenges of productivity systems. Just saying.
December 15, 2011 at 9:57 | Registered CommenterWill

<< Though the underpinning anxiety/resistance would probably kick the arse out of any system, no? >>

That's the problem!
December 15, 2011 at 10:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< sometimes I think you're like the guys looking for the Higgs boson particle. >>

Didn't they just find it?
December 15, 2011 at 10:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
You're not calling it "Final Version" any more?
December 15, 2011 at 14:37 | Unregistered CommenterEurobubba
Maybe a rule to stick to an important task for x number of minutes will work? That's been the problem I had w/ GTD & the "little and often" approach - if you're too smart you can chop an important task down to minutae to avoid it. Maybe it all boils down to "character", I suppose.
December 15, 2011 at 15:29 | Unregistered CommenterRondon
Higgs: They aren't sure whether they've found it, failed to find it, or proved there's no such thing. They're still deciphering results.

I think the twin pillars of starting things and finishing things is correct. I recall the recent discussion that to finish something you merely need to keep starting. I've been making tremendous progress recently on a low-urgency project by working it in multiple one hour sessions.
December 15, 2011 at 21:40 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

<< You're not calling it "Final Version" any more? >>

Yes, it's filed under the Final Version category as you can see if you look below the end of the post.
December 16, 2011 at 1:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Darn. I've been checking back daily, in the hopes that perfection had been achieved and you were looking for early adopters. But ... perhaps there is no perfect system. Perhaps entropy wins, after all.
December 16, 2011 at 4:45 | Unregistered CommenterStever Robbins
Procrastination does indeed creep into my life whatever system I use.

I've been using SF since its inception; it's the best system so far - for me. Yet in the summer, I became so overwhelmed with tasks that I kept my 'book' simply as a to-do list whilst I spent the time fighting fires.

Now the heat's off, I find myself wasting an hour a day before I 'log on' to SF (checking Facebook, idly Googling, catching up with the news, etc). I'd welcome a rule which dealt with that, i.e. helped me start work in the first place. Of course I KNOW what to do, but I'd like to be TOLD (by the system).

Whilst I appreciate the simplicity of SF, I believe I could cope with a FV that had optional mini-systems or 'rule-sets' that could be slotted in to deal with certain personality types or particular situations, eg for those who have difficulty finishing projects; for those who can't get started;for times when you're so overwhelmed you don't know what to do next, etc.

I don't believe this would detract from the overall power of a Final Version.
December 16, 2011 at 8:34 | Registered CommenterKatreya

Rather than trying to find a process to force yourself into the system, you might try adding the other stuff into the system. If you look at Mark's example, he's got loads of "non work" stuff.
December 16, 2011 at 9:51 | Registered CommenterWill
Does it help to see procrastination as 100% commitment to something else? We are always committed. There is no procrastination. How do we avoid fights within ourselves over this?
December 16, 2011 at 11:59 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Perhaps it's my age (49) or my profession (engineering research) or lack of management or family pressures, but I find I'm seldom stressed by failure to finish projects when using AF1. There's always more to do. I try to be content with making steady progress. Sometimes it's necessary to admit, to myself and to others, that a particular project isn't going anywhere, and just stop entering the related tasks into the system.

When following a more strict GTD paradigm, I did get stressed about not finishing. IIRC, anything to be done that required more than a single Next Action had to be defined as a Project, with a well-defined Outcome so you knew when it was finished. This approach makes sense, but the formality and hierarchy adds stress if you try to use it to manage dozens of these "projects" concurrently.
December 16, 2011 at 19:27 | Registered Commenterubi
About Higgs: they're playing hide and seek with the Higgs boson, and what's been in the news lately is that 1) the places it can still be hiding are getting very limited, and 2) they've possibly seen hints of it somewhere.
December 17, 2011 at 12:49 | Unregistered CommenterTijl

<< 1) the places it can still be hiding are getting very limited, and 2) they've possibly seen hints of it somewhere.>>

That describes my feelings about the Final Version pretty closely!
December 18, 2011 at 17:51 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

did you succeed in solving those two problems?

December 19, 2011 at 0:24 | Registered CommenterAlex W.
I'm glad to read this blog that you're not claiming to have all of the answers (or give that impression), as do the various authors of time management books over the past 30 years which I've read. I have more confidence in your writings seeing that you're realistic & rational.

On the problem you've mentioned, one thing which tends to slow me down in trying to manage my own projects is that the more I try to do so, the greater the level of detail I see & get lost in. More seemingly important sub-tasks than are possible to complete than possible within reasonable time budget arise and are difficult to disregard. Work expands beyond the time available. Compromise is often necessary to meet deadlines, which means choosing the essential goals of sub-stages of projects and disregarding the rest, even though the rest may be valuable. Knowing how & when to make such sacrifices is the problem for me. I suppose the 80/20 rule should be used here to weed out non-essentials, but it's hard to know where to draw the line, especially when time estimates of all tasks of a complex project can't be made in advance, my ideas on what's "essential" need to be repeatedly re-defined. Even more difficult is recognising & avoiding tasks early on in a project which would mean an enticing quality improvement, yet which would mean not completing the project on time.
December 19, 2011 at 5:04 | Unregistered CommenterYves
Yves: I suggest this strategy:
1. Detail your project only enough to understand the scope and the direction you should take.
2. Consider only what steps are most necessary, and Do those first.
3. Having done those, revonsider steps 1 and 2.

The point is to focus on what you know, need to know, how to get that, and shift quickly into the relevant action.
December 20, 2011 at 3:02 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Planning every project is important before getting started. Once you have a plan, everything will just fall into places and things will get done.

- Kevin Weiss
December 20, 2011 at 4:43 | Unregistered CommenterPrinting Services

Don't try to overplan your projects. My advice is:

1) Be clear about the aim of the project. What is it actually supposed to achieve? Anything which doesn't contribute to this is an irrelevant distraction.

2) Concentrate on what needs to be done NOW.
December 20, 2011 at 10:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
The pomodoro technique is good in giving a good estimate of how long a task is going to take therefore I don't take on too many tasks because I have a realistic idea of the time involved if it is to be done properly. This gives me the confidence, based on the evidence in front of me, to be firm on the work I take on.

Also by training me to tackle one task at a time with full concentration I move away form firefighting mode where busy is seen as productive.
December 30, 2011 at 16:05 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Crabb
I think all your systems are perfect, Mark, it's just that the users are imperfect! Personally, I am an Advanced Procrastinator, someone who is still able to bring their procrastination skills into play when other people have been beaten by the system they are using, and are getting their stuff done. For this reason I use all of your techniques when I stall, not all at once of course, but picking whichever technique best suits the mental state that underlies the procrastination.

For example DIT works for me in an office setting, where the main issue is new work competing for my attention when I already have existing work and routine tasks to complete. It's a good technique for dealing with "noise". The Superfocus technique works for me when I am feeling overwhelmed with a lot of tasks at home, because it places the emphasis on doing something, and just one thing. Cycling helps me when the issue is getting through a series of boring tasks, I may still be running a focus list but have a notepad with three or four current tasks I cycle round, rather than repeatedly adding them back into the list.

I've recently been working through parts of the Dreams approach. Focus techniques had stopped working for me and I realised this was because I needed to change direction, to regain that certainty that I could follow my instincts. Of course I could have put "think about a change of direction" on the list, but stepping away from the list and using the tools in a concentrated way was more helpful to me.

Since I think all the techniques are good, I don't think I will regard any as the "final version". I suspect The New System in its current state is already perfect for a mindstate that is able to exercise neutral selection because the user has committed to those important or difficult tasks.

What I would love is a self-help guide that says "if your main problem is x (e.g. feeling overwhelmed), then try technique y first". That way people could choose the technique that is the best way "in" for them, and then build from there. Some people might not ever need to move on from one of the simpler systems, but others will need advanced techniques because the issues underlying their lack of productivity are more complex.
January 3, 2012 at 8:10 | Registered CommenterSpangles
Hello again Mark,

'Popped in after a few months away to see how your work is progressing. Fully understand your desire to have a robust new system and I appreciate the focus on starting and completing. The one thing I've found helpful for both of these is to have the list as the bedrock of how time is being spent. It's so easy to start "just doing" some email or whatever, I now try to not do !anything! that is not in the list, i.e. I make the first thing I do with any time to be opening the list, then doing something from it, or adding new items if needed. In the past I've often found that I spend a lot of time doing busy-stuff before opening the list rather than using it for everything, and finding that the list ossifies over time rather than items being closed and new ones opened.

The more I get into the habit of my list being open all the time the more effective I've become. It seems so simple put like that but I think as 'Focus' can handle everything then looking at it for everything becomes very powerful.

Best regards
January 3, 2012 at 14:21 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan
re. sticking with the task -- I've been using the Pomodoro system in a mashup with autofocus. The main idea of that is to set a 25 minute timer and then just work on one task or project till the timer (pomodoro being a tomato shaped kitchen timer in the first version). After the 25 you stop and take a quick break and then start another 25 if you want to further progress on the project. I find its great for projects that i'm having a hard time sitting down to work on.
January 4, 2012 at 20:23 | Unregistered Commenterbrian
Mark, I've been following and trying out many of your systems in the last year and I have been very impressed and very productive with them. So much that I start adding more and more tasks to them, which ultimately leads to a feeling of being overwhelmed again. Perhaps that is what happening to you as well?

I was thinking that If any task system is bound to collect more tasks than we will ever be able to do (I think you wrote that somewhere), if undone tasks lead to frustration and if jumping on distractions at once leads to procrastination, then perhaps we should look at the key performance metric of a task management system not in terms of tasks done, but in terms of tasks (=distractions) avoided?

I wonder how it would change your performance statistics of FInalVersion against SuperFocus and other systems if tasks avoided (or tasks dropped) were the main measure?
January 9, 2012 at 15:00 | Unregistered CommenterRoland

<< Perhaps that is what happening to you as well? >>

I don't think having too many tasks is a factor in the time it's been taking to produce the Final Version, if that's what you mean. Though it's certainly something to be aware of in any time management system. In my very first book I warned about the dangers of using an effective new system to increase one's work load.

The thing with the Final Version is that it gives a very clear indication of when the system is overloaded.
January 9, 2012 at 18:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Maybe as well as the system overloading, there's the human aspect of psycological/mental overwhelm to look at too.

Perhaps procrastination is your minds way of telling you something, and such tasks need 'mental space' of some sort.
January 10, 2012 at 11:42 | Unregistered Commentersmileypete

I'd assess it in terms of commitments achieved (and, in particular, reliability). A good task management system helps you make sure that you do what you need to to meet your commitments.
January 10, 2012 at 16:54 | Unregistered Commenterwill
In the world of Lean and Agile software development we have saying: "Stop starting, Start finishing". The idea is to focus on one thing at a time and drive it to done.
January 12, 2012 at 15:54 | Unregistered CommenterMark Levison
Mark Levison:

<< Stop starting, Start finishing >>

That's a good principle for many projects, but how would you apply it to projects that require consistent effort over a long period, such as learning a language, getting fit, practising a musical instrument, or writing a doctoral thesis?
January 12, 2012 at 17:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
How to "Stop Starting and Start Finishing" - with long term projects? The underlying problem is that multi-tasking (which I'm doing right now) kills productivity. We're wired to be most productive when we focus for longer periods of time (1 - 3hrs).

To that end there are some key tricks
- only take on a couple of long term projects at one time
- for each project set aside the same few hours every day to work on it.

The key is avoid to have focus periods during a day where all you do is work on the same project. The rest of the time you forget about it.

Oddly some of the research linked to these ideas comes from studying what the very best musicians in the world do.

January 12, 2012 at 20:54 | Unregistered CommenterMark Levison
Thanks, Mark.

Was your third paragraph supposed to read "The key is to have... "?

What you say about these projects is virtually identical to what I said in my first book "Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play" (Hodders, 2000).
January 12, 2012 at 21:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
@Mark L. :

I wonder how you define "multi-tasking", to oppose it to "stop starting, start finishing". My experience over the last couple of months, using the techniques of Mark's GED, is pretty different.

Here is a typical day of mine :
- Wake up at 5.00am (in my dreams only. Right now it's 5.15am without fail, but I plan to set the alarm clock at 5.00am from tomorrow on.)
- Using the techniques of GED, I am cycling burst between having breakfast, praying, keeping up-to-date with paperwork accounting, weeding my paper archive, coding a project of mine, and preparing for my day job.
- At 7.00, kids are up, so my wife and I get them ready for school (and daycare when it happens)
- At 8.00 I'm at work and cycle all day between keeping on top of e-mail, working on my ONLY current task, and answering to chosen requests.
- Lunch break between (12.00 and 1.00pm)
- At 5.00pm, I call it a day and go home, to have fun with my kids.

I definitely call what I am doing "multi-tasking". But the things I choose to undertake are focused :
- I am tackling one backlog at a time
- I am being productive on one project at a time at home, and one task at a time at work.
- I am on top of what I choose to be on top of.
- I work on them until completion.

The first key in finishing is knowing when you can be sure that you have finished something. In Agile and Lean development, the word used by Scrum is "The Definition of 'Done'". And getting to "Done" in Agile development is not a single person responsibility, but a team responsibility.

As a single developer, the "Definition of Done" (along with decisions taken by a single empowered voice) helps you know where you go. Then you can work to it in a focused manner, even if you don't get "in the zone" for a couple of hours. It requires often to stop and think about the few next steps, instead of coding until you run out of focus. Writing down the few next steps helps also.

But I digress.

This was just to say that finishing womething is first of all knowing where you are going, thinking on how to get there, and walking the steps one at a time. It has not much to do with multi-tasking.
January 13, 2012 at 12:02 | Unregistered CommenterLaurent
I'm just in the process of switching over to GTD to SF. The problem with GTD is that it's a procrastinator's delight... it's so easy to focus on the system, the process and its nuances without ever actual getting things done! However there are some useful concepts.

With regards to SF I think it needs a "pre-processing step". When making a new entry one needs to consider whether the item is really an action, or a project (anything requiring multiple steps). If it's the former it goes straight down in C1 or C2. If it's the latter only the first action of the project is entered (it might just be "spend 30 mins scoping out project"). When that item is completed it is crossed-off and the next action in the project is entered into C1 (or C2 if urgent) on the next page. To identify an action as part of a project (so it needs a next step action when complete) you can, for instance, just mark it (p).

Example. As PF stands (I think) I may enter "Sell my motorbike" in C1. There's actually quite a few steps to this, so I may work on it a bit (go to the shed and look it over) but won't finish so then it moves to C2 on the next page where I have to keep working on it as a priority. But in reality it's a low priority and I don't need to sell it until the spring so have 2 or 3 months. If instead you "pre-process" it immediately, you would have entered in C1 "Inspect and clean bike (p)" then you would process this (go to the shed and do it), cross it off and immediately enter the next action "Research best place for a bike service (p) in C1 on the next page.

One other idea. It would be great when you have finalised the "ultimate SuperFocus" system to put together a flow chart so that one can see at a glance how the system operates.
Keep up the good work,
Mark Goodson
January 29, 2012 at 22:40 | Unregistered CommenterMark Goodson

I'd be reluctant to drop the principle that tasks and projects can be entered into SF at any level, though of course you and anyone else can adapt it that way if they wish.

To take your example of "Sell my motorbike": if I had that on my SF list, I would take that to mean "What action do I need to take now in order to sell my motorbike?" It's at that stage that I would do what you are suggesting should be done at the "pre-processing" stage. I'd list the various actions that could be done now, and treat each of those individually.

Since everything I can do now has been listed separately, there's no need to keep "Sell my motorbike" in C2. I'd return it to C1 so that it can act as a review to make sure that the project is kept up-to-date. I might change it to "Review sale of motorbike", but more likely I'd just leave it as "Sell motorbike" because I know what it means.
January 30, 2012 at 11:36 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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