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I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. J. K. Rowling
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« SuperFocus instructions now in Korean | Main | Exercising the choice muscle »

Another mental strength exercise

I gave one suggested exercise in my post yesterday about Exercising the Choice Muscle, and there are several more suggestions from readers in the Comments.

Here’s one exercise which I don’t think anyone else has come up with yet, though it’s very simple and straightforward.

Write a list of five random tasks

Do them in the order in which they are written down

Then write another list, adding one more task, i.e. six

Repeat regularly adding one more to the total tasks on the list each time

You may not do any other tasks while doing this exercise. If you fail to complete the  tasks or do them in the wrong order, then next time reduce the number of tasks until you do succeed in doing them.

Reader Comments (19)

Question: By "fail to complete" do you mean "fail to take some (significant) action" or does each task really need to be finished?
January 23, 2012 at 21:16 | Registered Commenterubi

I mean "finish the task according to how I have defined 'finish' for that particular task".

Remember this is intended to be an exercise, not a time management system!
January 23, 2012 at 21:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Damn it Mark, that's ingenious. There are elements of focus, well defined next actions, mental strengthening, closed lists, task freshness, mindfulness and gamification.

<<Remember this is intended to be an exercise, not a time management system! >>

Er, but what if this were a rule. I really like this idea.
January 24, 2012 at 0:13 | Registered Commenteravrum
Great thanks, just what I needed this morning. Done my 5 things already. These were things I've been procrastinating for weeks...and it only took me 45min to complete them. Duh! I'm really struggling with procrastination right now but thanks to this I'm feeling better already, a small step in the right direction for me. Will do this every day until my backlog is clear. By the way I've been away from your blog for a long while, only came back after getting your newsletter. It arrived some days ago but I've been procrastinating with email as well so I only clicked on it today.
January 24, 2012 at 10:04 | Unregistered CommenterDJ
I've caved! I must find out if Mark's mental strength exercise can function as a full system. As stated above, the benefits (might be) plentiful, and the simplicity divine. So here's what I'm going to do:

1. Choose one 3 x 5 index cards, put today's date on the top of card.
2. Using a ladder - - (a variation of Mark's exercise) write one task down on the lined side of the index card. Complete the task. Then write two tasks. And so on.
3. Random thoughts, extra tasks, "waiting for" items, etc, go on the back of the non-lined side of the index card
4. At the end of the day, make a note of the highest ladder I was able to conquer (log info in Joe's Goals).
5. Punch the cards and insert them into my M Arc Junior - - notebook.
January 24, 2012 at 12:29 | Registered Commenteravrum
If I may, avrum: it seems to me you may forget things as you're working 23 consecutive tasks. (I'm assuming great success here.) So you may want to write them in advance as you're working. Next, if you do this you'll find some items just aren't important now, so you're better off copying out the 24 items you choose to challenge yourself with next, rather than stick to the ones you chose initially.

Finally, if you get this far, you'll find that preselecting so many tasks will lock you into that selection well beyond where it remains appropriate to continue. Urgent tasks, interruptions, context shifts will all get in your way.

This means you can experiment to find how far you can reasonably go. Once you hit the limit, I think the next level is to iterate. If 8 is the limit: Pick 8 tasks and do all. Then pick another 8 and do them all. See how many 8's you can do.

I would hypothesize this is a viable system:
Record as in AutoFocus. As you do stuff, write new stuff, or reentered stuff here.
Pick a number.
On a separate card, write that many tasks, mixing things you think up and things copied from a current AF page.
Do all tasks on the card in order.
If you fail, repeat process with the same or smaller number.
If you succeed, repeat with same or higher number.
There are times when 1 is the best number to pick.
January 24, 2012 at 13:12 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

<<it seems to me you may forget things>>

I don't think so. So long as I capture everything (on the back of the same index card I'm working from), then everything is one in place.

<<23 consecutive tasks>>

Following the ladder methodology (above), I'd be amazed if I reach beyond 7 - 8 tasks at a time.

<<I would hypothesize this is a viable system>>

If successful (we'll see i a few days), this approach might be more than viable. We'll see.

<<There are times when 1 is the best number to pick>>

One task at a time would strengthen a different muscle. I'm looking to run with Mark's idea, which would touch on mindfulness, mind training, focus and other goodness.

Again, this is all hypothetical. I'll report my results shortly.
January 24, 2012 at 13:50 | Registered Commenteravrum
You realize there are tasks you *shouldn't* do now... Where do those go? That's all...
January 24, 2012 at 17:12 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
This is already getting way beyond what I suggested what with talk of "ladders" and making it a full time management system.

Please don't forget that this is supposed to be an _exercise_. You are leaping into complicating it before you have even had a proper go at it. I only posted it yesterday for goodness sake.
January 24, 2012 at 18:28 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<<only posted it yesterday for goodness sake. >>

It's not my fault if you hit gold.
January 24, 2012 at 21:24 | Registered Commenteravrum
Wow Mark! Great new time management system! (Only joking). Seriously though, these have been a very interesting chain of blog entries and perhaps give us an indication of your latest ideas. I guess we will see...I'm all for doing the exercise, would feedback help?
January 25, 2012 at 16:49 | Registered Commenterleon

I'm interested in feedback on the exercise as written by me, yes.
January 25, 2012 at 17:05 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,

I've been exercising my choice muscle since yesterday morning. It's a great concept! I have completed 4 list cycles in total. The list varied in length from 5 tasks down to 2 tasks and then back up again.

I've found it to be a very innovative and exciting exercise! It is very, very clever and I would love to be able to understand the thinking behind it.

I've been particularly impressed by how I've managed to sustain my focus on tougher tasks, getting them completed. I've also found it easier to take breaks and relax a bit between list cyles without feeling guilty. The 'gamification' aspect is also so addictive!

An added bonus is that I have listed scheduled events e.g. Client appointments, putting my children to bed etc. This has somehow helped me to really focus on these events rather than stressing over a long list of tasks that I am not engaged with.

Although this of course is simply an exercise I am going to continue using it for now on blank A5 index cards along with my weekly diary & my Outlook tasks for my reminders.
January 27, 2012 at 20:28 | Registered Commenterleon

"I've found it to be a very innovative and exciting exercise!"

I agree. I'm on day 4 and still using a version of Mark's rules to deal with my discretionary time. Some issues that I have encountered:

1. There's a tendency to repeat the same, time-wasting tasks
2. Similar to #1, it is easy to bypass projects/tasks if they're not pressing on your mind (this could be easily solved with a "pull tasks from master list" task
3. Geek that I am, I've designed a couple of pages to work with this exercise. To date, I have not been successful

I'm going to continue working this way and see if I can make it to day 7.
January 28, 2012 at 16:09 | Registered Commenteravrum
Hi Avrum,

Good to hear your feedback. I think I will aim for 7 days too. Which would be an achievement for me as I'm switching 'systems' every few days!

<2. Similar to #1, it is easy to bypass projects/tasks if they're not pressing on your mind (this could be easily solved with a "pull tasks from master list" task>

I can see what you mean here. Maybe a project list, or even a commitments type list may help. I actually find problem lists useful although I know they can maybe feel a little negative. But there again I loathe the idea of adding complexity...Maybe Mark's already got this all sewn up anyway!
January 28, 2012 at 20:27 | Registered Commenterleon
I think I made a mistake when I wrote this exercise. I should have insisted that the tasks were completely pointless tasks invented for the exercise. That would have prevented people from treating it as a time management system - which it is not!
January 29, 2012 at 1:31 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<<That would have prevented people from treating it as a time management system - which it is not! >>

Mark - people are tweaking, creating, debunking and reworking your systems all the time. I really don't understand your reaction to my treatment of this exercise. Out of respect for you (and your work) I will no longer post comments about this exercise.
January 29, 2012 at 2:15 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum
Posted a comment but forgot to sign-in.

The gist: This is Mark's space, and out of respect for his work, I will no longer comment on this exercise.
January 29, 2012 at 2:19 | Registered Commenteravrum

<< Mark - people are tweaking, creating, debunking and reworking your systems all the time. I really don't understand your reaction to my treatment of this exercise. >>

It's not personally directed at you.

I get upset,or perhaps frustrated would be a better word, when people don't even try out what I have written but immediately invent their own variation. Their variation may be better or it may be worse, but it means that I get no feedback on the exercise/system.

If you look back at my comments over the years, you will see that I am constantly making the point that people should give my systems/exercises a fair trial as they are written, and only then vary them. Unfortunately what I say is just as constantly ignored.
January 29, 2012 at 2:44 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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