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« Seems familiar? | Main | What's Next? - Progress Report #2 »
Tuesday
Feb222011

SF Tips - #1: Work Little and Often

Work little and often

One of the great advantages of SuperFocus is that it encourages you to work “little and often.”

What this means is that it is usually better to work on larger tasks in relatively small bursts, rather than struggle to get everything done in one go.

This is the way that suits us best both mentally and physically.

In SuperFocus you can achieve this by using various rhythms, for example:

  • By constantly re-entering the same task, such as email, in column 1 you can always keep on top of it.

  • The rule that unfinished tasks go into Column 2 and all tasks in Column 2 must be worked on means that a difficult task can be worked on many times a day.

  • Tasks can also be put into Column 2 by being classified as urgent. This is ideal for such things as doing the dishes, writing a daily column, taking physical exercise, learning a musical instrument, etc, where regularity and reliability are important.

Reader Comments (16)

Does this mean that an unfinished task in Column 2 does not necessarily need to be completed before going to the next page, as long as it has been worked on? It can be moved to Column 2 of the next page? What about an urgent task?
Also, does at least one task in Column 1 need to be worked on before moving to the next page, otherwise all the tasks in column 1 and 2 are dismissed?
February 23, 2011 at 2:28 | Unregistered Commentermark h
Mark,

Is there a possibility of constructing a PDF like you did for AF4? (Actually, I think someone else put it together.) I am referring to the file which illustrated a whole day of using the system. This would be really great for Superfocus.

Chris
February 23, 2011 at 2:46 | Unregistered CommenterPastor Chris
FYI - I also have some tasks that are based on the Leitner system for working flash cards. In the basic system, you have a simple test. Fail, and the task goes back in for the next day. But if you pass the test, it now needs to only be reviewed in a week (then in a month,....). This is a system used for memorization, and is also useful for practicing skills that need to be repeated again and again, but not repeated daily as you get more sure of your conquering of it.

I have been trying to add these into your style. I could just have a task "do the leitner stuff" and re-write it daily. But instead I have an experiment where I am trying to force these to be done (basically, column 2). I'm not sure which is better, but it is an interesting tweak I thought I'd mention. It has the complication of a time element, especially as I end up with things weekly and monthly and so on.

I am struggling in general with how to handle time. Urgent is ok, and I have a simple tickler. But these are ... weird.
February 23, 2011 at 5:30 | Unregistered CommenterCarl
Hi Mark,

I wonder if having Column 2 for "Urgent" tasks is a bit misleading? I'm not sure I have a better word for it, but it seems that Column 2 is more for tasks you *want* to work on today/regularly (sort of like a "Most Important Things", or "Today" list) rather than them *necessarily* being "urgent". Because you iterate around Column 2 it seems more that it is a "Higher Priority" list.

A case in point is your suggestion of putting "Doing the dishes" on the "Urgent" list. One could argue that doing the dishes isn't really "urgent" in the same sense as, say, submitting an application before a deadline, preparing for a meeting later that day, paying a bill before you get cut off, etc. You may *choose* to do the dishes today because you don't like them piling up, but the consequences of not doing them isn't really that severe compared to the consequences of not doing some of the other things I listed.

So to my mind, is Column 2 really a sort of higher-priority list, or a list of items that you have decided/chosen to focus on more closely (maybe because that "felt right"), rather than just an "Urgent" list?

Also, the fact that you can choose which list to put projects on depending on how you want the system to encourage you to work on its tasks (big task that you want to revisit regularly, smaller task that you wish to get finished, task that you wish to nibble away at either quickly or slowly over time) means, in my mind, that it's not really just a list of "urgent" tasks (and incomplete tasks) - it's more like having two streams of concurrent work, which the system will manage differently, and you get to decide which list to put a task on depending on how you want that task managed. Column 2 is for things you wish to keep banging away at with a regular review, and Column 1 is for everything else that you might like to get done, but which may get dropped if it turns out your heart is not in them so they get dismissed.

Maybe the two columns should be labelled/known as "eventually" and "regularly" columns, rather than "everything else" and "urgent", respectively. Or maybe it's just semantics and you see "urgent" as meaning things that you choose to review/action regularly.
February 23, 2011 at 10:53 | Registered CommenterRich
mark h:

<< Does this mean that an unfinished task in Column 2 does not necessarily need to be completed before going to the next page, as long as it has been worked on? It can be moved to Column 2 of the next page? >>

That's correct. It continues to be an unfinished task. If it's a big task it may take many goes before it's finished.

<< What about an urgent task? >>

Once it's in Column 2, no distinction is made between unfinished and urgent tasks.

<< Also, does at least one task in Column 1 need to be worked on before moving to the next page, otherwise all the tasks in column 1 and 2 are dismissed? >>

Yes, as far as Column 1 is concerned. But tasks in Column 2 cannot be dismissed. They must always be worked on.
February 23, 2011 at 11:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Pastor Chris:

<< Is there a possibility of constructing a PDF like you did for AF4? >>

This was relatively easy for AF4 because it is just a linear list with no distinction between pages and columns.

I still haven't thought of a good way of doing it with SuperFocus.
February 23, 2011 at 11:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Carl:

For tasks that require regular daily repetition like processing Leitner cards, you are best entering the task each day in Column 2 as an urgent task.
February 23, 2011 at 11:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Rich:

<< A case in point is your suggestion of putting "Doing the dishes" on the "Urgent" list. One could argue that doing the dishes isn't really "urgent" in the same sense as, say, submitting an application before a deadline, preparing for a meeting later that day, paying a bill before you get cut off, etc. >>

If your policy is to wash the dishes between every meal then it's urgent.

<< You may *choose* to do the dishes today because you don't like them piling up, but the consequences of not doing them isn't really that severe compared to the consequences of not doing some of the other things I listed. >>

You're confusing urgency with importance. What the consequences are of not doing something is irrelevant to its urgency.
February 23, 2011 at 11:50 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm hesitant about the "little and often approach". For the counter-argument, see http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000022.html . Thoughts?
February 25, 2011 at 18:46 | Registered CommenterjFenter
jFenter:

I would agree with Joel regarding major projects. It is quicker and more efficient to deal with major projects one at a time than try to deal with several at once.

But life doesn't exclusively consist of major projects. So while you are working on one major project for three days exclusively, your email is still coming in, your bills still need to be paid, you still need to buy your beloved's birthday present, the dishes still need to be done and so on....
February 25, 2011 at 21:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Working a little of everything seems better than working one thing, and forgetting all the rest. Better still is to work one thing but not forget the rest. Take breaks from the one thing to do other things.
February 26, 2011 at 2:05 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
jFenter and Mark,

Your posts above intrigued me, because I used to work in software (like the author Joel), and so I am in the habit of working intense 4- to 8-hour uninterrupted blocks during which I practically forget my own name. Yet, ever since striking out on my own, that kind of focus, and the high productivity I was used to, have eluded me. That is the major reason I have been looking for something like SuperFocus. It is also my only real problem in running SuperFocus. This week I slowly lapsed back into my 4-hour blocks, and it played havoc with Column Two. In the last 48 hours, I have not turned a single page!

Replying to your posts led me through quite a mental journey, which boiled down to this:

Speaking to Joel's article, individuals doing their own work face a different challenge than teams. Individuals must choose between "little and often" vs. "big and rare." In a team, because multiple people work concurrently, "big" does not imply "rare." Teams like Joel's can work "big and often." Each team member can afford to function as a single cog in the machine, because their teammates keep the other cogs moving. In our own lives, though, we have to keep all the cogs moving ourselves. "Little and often" means moving each cog one click at a time—few machines work right with only one cog spinning. It also follows that one should limit the number of cogs in play, or it will be too hard to attend to them all.

Other threads on this site are giving a lot of attention to managing Column Two, which is essentially about limiting the cogs in play. The ideal seems to be just one major project in Column Two, hitting it "little and often" while attending to life's other demands in between. It seems this is the closest a lone worker can come to Joel's single-tasking ideal.

As obvious as all this may sound, it is an extremely difficult lesson for me. I am realizing that I've been trying to work "big and often" on my own for several years, as if I am still surrounded by a team. If SuperFocus can help me learn "little and often" for real, so that it improves my moment-to-moment decisions, I will be very grateful. The learning has already begun, in the Column Two school of hard knocks!
February 26, 2011 at 21:17 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Bernie,

I sympathize. Some projects seem to work best in longer, concentrated spurts. Programming and novel-writing are both like that. We hold half-a-dozen things in our heads at once. Balls bounce and divide all over the place. It's an addictive, god-like feeling to be in the zone, smoothly handling all those balls and watching them slide into place.

On the other hand, if something interrupts that session, dozens of stray threads and variables drop. Thud.

The trick to working in smaller sessions is to remember you are doing a small session and plan accordingly. Most of the balls won't be dealt with during this session. I write them down and the list becomes an AF (or SF) list specific to the project. When the time is up (or I admit my brain is mush or the kids interrupt), I don't have to worry. All the balls will wait on the list until I return. Meanwhile, my subconscious is freed from looking after them. I find working that list allows me to control the same number of balls just as well, without the terror of dropping them.

I end some sessions by brainstorming ideas and making a tentative plan for the next session.

Sometimes, though, it's nice to spend an entire day on something. I prepare the day before by dealing with tasks that would otherwise have to be done on the reserved day and making a very short list of things that can't be moved. I still work in short sessions, but have the luxury of knowing for certain that I nothing else has to be done that day.

If you find the long sessions are a hard habit to break, check out the Pomodoro Technique. It's good training wheels. At least one pom each day should be spent working the main SF list. I use it when Mark's advice to work on each task for as long as it feels right doesn't work -- those days when I can't focus on anything or can't stop working on one thing.
February 27, 2011 at 0:23 | Registered CommenterCricket
For those asking for a "demo" of SFv3 - over the course of one trip through the list at the end of last week, I did screen grabs of my toodledo list as I worked it. I'm working on turning those images into an animation of how I work the list, but it's going to be a while before I have it to a point that it's ready for public consumption.
February 28, 2011 at 15:11 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
<< For those asking for a "demo" of SFv3 - over the course of one trip through the list at the end of last week, I did screen grabs of my toodledo list as I worked it. >>

Sarah,

This sounds great!
If you can address some of the hot issues with managing Column Two, by showing various-sized projects flowing through the system, that will be especially valuable.
Keep us posted. Thanks!
March 1, 2011 at 7:46 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Here is a french translation of this great tip :
http://fmblg.blogspot.com/2011/05/astuce-superfocus-n1-productivite.html
Thanks for your work which is really helpful.
May 23, 2011 at 14:29 | Unregistered CommenterFred M

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