I’ve put a question mark at the end of the title of this post, but I’m going to remove it if the system which I’m about to describe proves to be as good as I think it will.
For more years than I can count I’ve been trying to find a system which will have the following characteristics:
1. Universal capture - you can add all the tasks which you must do, should do or want to do.
2. It ensures that the difficult tasks - the ones that you tend to procrastinate over - get done, done quickly and done well.
3. It processes recurrent tasks (email, tidying, filing, mowing the lawn, paying bills, etc) quickly and efficiently so they don’t build up.
4. It can deal with urgent tasks with an appropriate degree of despatch.
5. The system itself has minimum overhead.
6. The system itself doesn’t raise resistance by forcing you to do things you don’t want to do.
This is the first system I have ever come across, whether mine or someone else’s, that fulfills all six of these requirements.
It is based on an earlier system of mine, Autofocus 4 (AF4). For those of you who remember it, I have only made one structural change to it. The change is that unfinished tasks are now retained in the Old List until they are completed. However you don’t need to know AF4 to understand the new system.
Here are the rules:
1. You have two lists, an Old List and a New List.
2. Start by filling the Old List with all the tasks you want to get done. I suggest you put on it everything you’d like to get finished in the next couple of weeks or so. At this stage the New List remains empty.
3. Start working on the tasks in the Old List. If any new tasks come up you put them in the New List. No new tasks should be added to the Old List.
4. You can do the tasks in the Old List in any order you like. Continue working on the tasks in the Old list for as long as you feel like it.
5. When you’ve finished a task, delete it from the Old List. If it’s a recurring task, re-enter it at the end of the New List.
6. You don’t have to finish a task when you work on it. When you want to stop working on a task in the Old List without finishing it, delete it and re-enter it at the end of the OLD List (not the New List). So tasks remain in the Old List until they are finished.
7. When you have done as much work in the Old List as you want to do for the time being, you switch to the New List.
8. The rules for processing tasks in the New List are different from the rules for the Old List. In the New List you have to do the tasks in the order they are written. For example if you have ten tasks in the New List and you start by doing Task 5, you can’t then do any of Tasks 1-4. Your next task can only come from Tasks 6-10. Unfinished tasks in the New List are re-entered at the end of the New List, not the Old List.
9. Once you have reached the end of the New List, you go back to the Old List and repeat the process from Step 3 onwards.
10. Every time you go back to the Old List, you must work on at least one task. If you do not, every task remaining in the Old List is deleted without being re-entered.
11. When the Old List is empty, the New List becomes the Old List and you start a fresh New List.
The rules sound more complicated than they are in practice. The best way to understand them is to read them through carefully then try them out. After you’ve been doing them for a day or two, read them again to make sure that you are doing them right.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make the system work well for you. Please note they are only suggestions and are not part of the rules:
1) It’s important to keep the lists well weeded so that they contain only tasks which are still relevant. It’s a good idea to have a recurrent task “Weed Lists” in which you remove outdated tasks and those which for one reason or another you no longer wish to do.
2) It’s important to define what you mean by “finishing a task”. Ideally the way the task is phrased should make it clear. Compare:
Read “War and Peace”
Read “War and Peace” Chapter 10
Read 25 pages of “War and Peace”
Read “War and Peace” for 30 minutes
3) If a task comes up which needs to be done immediately, write it down at the end of the New List, stop what you are doing and go straight to it. This is quite in accordance with Rules 4 and 8.
4) I suggest you read right through both lists before starting work each day. This is to allow your mind to get an idea of the relevant importance and urgency of what is in the list.