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« How to Have Wonderfully Creative Ideas | Main | A New Concept: Reducing Resistance by Randomness »

Random Time Management

As promised in my last post, here’s the method I am using at the moment with great success. You need a random-number generator to work it. The one I’m using is at

I am using paper and pen, but I’m sure it can be adapted for electronic use.  I just haven’t yet attempted to do so.

I’m using a loose-leaf binder with lined pages of 32 lines, but the method will work perfectly well with a bound notebook and pages of any number of lines. 

First I list all my tasks in the notebook - one per line.

I then set my randomizer to produce integers in the range 1 and 32 inclusive. The upper number is the same as the number of lines on a page. This is just a convenient number which produces reasonable results, but you can use a lower or higher number if you wish.  [Afternote: I now strongly recommend setting it for the number of lines on the page and not any other number]

Starting from the beginning of the list I use the randomizer to produce a number and move down the page that number of lines. I then do some work on the task on that line. Please note that I don’t have to finish that task, just do some work on it.

Once I have worked on the task, I cross it off. If I have not finished it or if it is a recurring task, then I re-enter it at the end of the list.

I then use the randomizer again and count to the next task (going to the next page if necessary).

When the number the randomizer produces would take me beyond the end of the list, I circle back to the beginning of the list, ignoring empty lines on the last page.

I continue circulating through the list in this way.

When I’m counting forward, I INCLUDE in the count the lines which have been crossed off. If I land on a line on which the task has been crossed out, I move to the next line in which there is an active task. I call this movement a “slide”.

For example imagine I have the following tasks:

In Tray
Date of next meeting
Write report
Cash check
Tidy desk

Performance reviews

I throw a five, so I count down the list, remembering to include the crossed out lines. I land on the “Write Report” line. I then “slide” to the next active task which is “Performance Reviews”. Slides work slightly different from counting. If a slide takes you to the end of the page, you circle back to the beginning of the SAME page. So if “Performance Reviews” in the example had already been done, you’d have circled back to “Email” at the beginning of the page.

In Tray
Date of next meeting
Write report
Cash check
Tidy desk

Performance reviews

Counting crossed-out spaces and sliding are very important, because they have the effect of increasing the chances of the older tasks on the list being selected. Note that if you don’t include lines with crossed-out tasks in the count, then every task will have an exactly equal chance and there will be no preference for older tasks.

A few points to note:

1) Random numbers behave randomly. They don’t behave in the way we expect them to behave. If they did, they wouldn’t be random. You will find that you are constantly surprised by them.

2) The system as described has a built-in bias towards clearing the older tasks off the list. This means that nothing will stay on the list for very long. How long that is depends on the length of the list and the amount of time you can devote to working on it. If you want things to move on really quickly then keep the list short.

3) The random-number generator is quite indifferent to your priorities, wishes and time-pressure, so if something needs doing now - do it!

4) Any attempts to increase the probability of certain tasks being selected will result in the chances of all the other tasks being reduced. So I advise against it.

Reader Comments (135)

They may actually call it "bounded rationality." Slip of thought.
January 29, 2014 at 11:02 | Unregistered CommenterFulmerford
I too have experienced how it dissolves resistance, so enables an increase in activity and output. I'm unconvinced these are necessarily the best outcomes, For me I like to switch between different ways of using AF lists. Sometimes I use SF, or AF4. Sometimes randomise.
January 29, 2014 at 15:03 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Hi Michael

Although I don't use any AF lists, I thoroughly concur with your idea of engaging a flexible attitude when approaching work. Mark's website is loaded with many tools and tips which I keep at the ready. I'm more interested in getting the job done than trying to fit the situation, my mood and/or my abilities into to a particular system. Engaging a flexible approach has ultimate less cognitive overhead unless you're one of the lucky ones who's life's demands and aspirations and one's own abilities remain fairly constant. I only wish…
January 29, 2014 at 17:53 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go

<< Correct, but wasn't that the original benefit, with older tasks having had more chance at being selected previously? >>

No, it was designed with sliding right from the beginning. In the first "Shades of the Diceman" General Forum thread Simon described how he selected a page number and then a line number randomly and if the line was crossed out he moved to the next active task. I pointed out that this wasn't fully random as it gave preference to the older tasks. I then adapted his method to produce the one in this blog post.

<< I thought sliding was just an artifact of the written medium with the happy coincidence of giving undone tasks next to done tasks additional chances of being completed by essentially giving them multiple numbers that select them. >>

No, I realised that sliding was an ideal method for avoiding the problems raised by having equal chances. There's no reason why sliding has to be confined to the written medium. It's just a matter of not deleting the lines that have been crossed out - or using a method like the one you're describing.

<<It is easy to copy in the spreadsheet... This weighting will ensure that the longer an task hangs around for, the more the selections will be biased towards them. >>

Good. I'm glad you've understood the problem with the way you were planning on doing it. Usually it takes more than 120 throws to clear every one of 32 numbers without sliding, but exactly 32 throws to clear them with sliding. So it makes a considerable difference to how long some tasks will hang around on the list.
January 29, 2014 at 20:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
After searching, I've found two solutions so far for an electronic version for the TRS system. This allows me to avoid the inevitable 'pageless list' issue common with electronic adaptations.

1. Google spreadsheets/ Excel.
-line numbers=rows
-spreadsheets =pages
-use randomizer
-cross out using strikethru or highlight (grey is good)

2. Toodledo: Lists
-rows=lines (max is 30 for free user (perfect!))
-'Lists' tab= workbook (automatically sorted)
-use randomizer
-cross out using check

In both 1&2, the system is pretty much perfect. No automatic disappearing or re-sorting of completed items and the rows remain as they should as if written on paper.

In Spreadhsheets, items are written one per line top to bottom. In Toodledo, items are written one per line bottom to top.

In Spreadsheets, it feels like a spreadsheet managing tasks and a bit more cumbersome to add items to. Whereas, Toodledo lends it self to task management, getting tasks in and out and filteres etc. (If needed, it can be very simple or very complex.)

Both are great, but I must say that I'm impressed with Toodledo's changes since I left it. I left it because I switched from ios to android. But have now found out that android was made avaiable 5 days ago. So Its pretty much very accesible.

There are 4 tabs- Tasks, Notes, Outlines and Lists. Some are pre populated for you. Very impressed and excited to use everything in one system.
January 29, 2014 at 21:56 | Unregistered CommenterGMBW
Not to skew the topic, but wanted to add:
The Toodledo List tool also makes it possible to try any of MF's page based systems. AF, SF etc.

Worth checking out. But it should be noted, that this feature is specific to the web from what i can see and not for the mobile apps on ios and android.
January 29, 2014 at 22:04 | Unregistered CommenterGMBW
<<But I realized that the formatting keeps changing, depending on the window size on the screen. Is there any way to keep it consistent on screen and also have PDF output that matches the on-screen look (WYSIWYG)?>>

Ubi: Regarding Circus Ponies, I've just started the trial myself, but I don't see font sizes changing when adjusting the window size. PDF output also preserves the fonts for me. I have different fonts in my pages because I have clipped or copied data from different sources, and they are all preserved in the PDF output when I tested it.

I hope I'm understanding your issue correctly. Support is quite good, so maybe you could check with them.
January 30, 2014 at 4:41 | Unregistered CommenterJD
Hi all!

Rolling a (virtual) dice has completely eliminated my procrastination problems. Who would have thought? Also, I may be doing it wrong, but as I'm using a gtd-setup in emacs orgmode, I roll the dice on my next actions list, which is constructed from my active projects.
However progress on my projects is so incredible fast now, I'm really hesitating changing my setup.

Thank you Mark!
January 30, 2014 at 14:21 | Unregistered Commenterstefan

Great to hear that!
January 30, 2014 at 14:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

Regarding Circus Ponies, my issue was how the page layout changes when you resize the window on the screen. There seems to be a default size when you open a new NoteBook, but if you use, for example, the Engineering Pad style, the number of lines and grid squares changes as you resize the window, and there's no obvious way of restoring the default look. Also, if you put a lot on a page, it scrolls instead of rolling over to a new page. The bound-paper notebook effect is broken, therefore: there's no direct correspondence between what is onscreen vs what you would see if you added the same content to a physical notebook, or to the number of pages you would get if you printed out the whole thing.

I guess this is what they intend. There are several postings on this topic on the CP support site. I'll play around with it for a few more days, but doubt I will pay the $50 or so that they're asking for a license.

We should probably start a new thread on this app in the General Forum, if anyone is interested, instead of continuing to discuss it in these blog comments. . .
January 30, 2014 at 18:50 | Registered Commenterubi
The system appears counter intuitive...I mean, selecting what to do randomly? (of course the items on the list are initially deemed important enough to get onto the list in the first place). However I have to report that the resistance to tasks seems significanly lowered, there's not the 'cognitive drain' of making decisions and it's actually quite addictive!

I know 'tweaking' Mark's systems can sometimes lower effectiveness, however I'm considering doing some (urgent or context relevant) tasks from the list out of randomisation and marking them as such to indicate this with a second dot to the right of the item. I wonder if this would create any drawbacks?
January 31, 2014 at 12:38 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Leon: I would probably put my priority items on the calendar if I really need to deal with them. I tend to use the randomization for my grasscatcher list when I have low focus or no big feed-me project.
January 31, 2014 at 17:09 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
Mike: Good suggestion - thanks for the idea!
February 1, 2014 at 9:22 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Hey Mark, have you tried always starting counting down from the first unactioned item, and only counting the unactioned items? Theoretically, that would even focus more on the older items, almost to the point of making it DIT-like. Just curious because that makes an electronic adaptation so much easier.
February 2, 2014 at 5:57 | Registered Commenternuntym

No, I haven't tried that. Obviously it would be critical what range you set the randomizer for. At the two extremes:

1) If you set it for between 1 and 2, then the effect would be only slightly different to just ploughing through the list in the order it was written.

2) If you set it for between 1 and n, n being the total number of unactioned items in the list, then it would be completely unbiased, i.e. every task would have an equal chance of being picked.

What do you think would be the right setting? And what are the factors that should be taken into account?
February 2, 2014 at 11:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mike Brown and Leon,

Just another thought on adding priorities to the calendar. That's what I do - populate the calendar with items due on a particular day. I also use the calendar as a tickler.

The last couple of work days I have randomised the items on the calendar as well. For example this morning I had three appointments and six 'all-day' items I am committed to doing today. First thing I cleared off any prep for the appointments. Then I created a short list in the beginning of my notebook consisting of all the remaining 'today' items from the calendar. I set the upper bounds of the randomiser to the length of the list and work the mini-list according to Mark's rules. I'm down to the last two now. It breaks down a little as the list drops to one or two. As I complete work for the day any follow-up items that aren't needed today go on to the calendar if they are time-bound, or on to my master list. Once I'm done with the daily stuff I'll turn to the master list and spend the rest of the day working that.

I find it helps break down a little of the resistance to the items on the calendar, just as it does for the items on the master list.

February 3, 2014 at 10:43 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Gregory
Matt Gregory:

<< The last couple of work days I have randomised the items on the calendar as well. >>

Interesting thought. I don't think it's what you meant, but I wonder if anyone has tried making a list of the tasks to do within a week and then setting the randomizer to produce a number between 1 and 7 (or 1 and 5 for the working week) to decide which day each individual task should be done? The same principle could be used for a month, and even for "someday/maybe" tasks.

I have not tried this myself, and probably won't for the time being, but if anyone does want to try it I would be very interested to hear your experiences.
February 3, 2014 at 15:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,

<< I wonder if anyone has tried making a list of the tasks to do within a week and then setting the randomizer to produce a number between 1 and 7 (or 1 and 5 for the working week) to decide which day each individual task should be done? >>

That is an interesting thought. I don't plan ahead on my weeks like that, I simply have reminders in the calendar and my main list of tasks, so I can't readily try it. I suspect there may be too many dependencies to allow randomisation. And then, once tasks are assigned to days, you would end up trying to execute a pre-planned weekly schedule.

I'm finding that the random selection is working well when the choices are already structured and there are known parameters to the list. That way I can relax and go with whatever comes up. The parameters can be as broad as 'nothing critical today, do anything on the list' or as narrow as '5 critical things to do today', but they are defined and I can roam freely within the limits.

I did try setting my daily exercise randomly to give an element of surprise and variety. It didn't work because the various types of exercise available to me are dependent on each other. I couldn't, for example, end up with 7 days in a row of randomly assigned very high intensity circuits.

February 3, 2014 at 16:08 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Gregory

<< I couldn't, for example, end up with 7 days in a row of randomly assigned very high intensity circuits. >>

Though this is exactly what the exercise application Sworkit provides one with.
February 3, 2014 at 16:25 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Paul McNeil asked: << When you hit a task that you can't do (do such and such and errand when the stores are closed), do you rewrite it and randomize again, ignore it, or move to the next open task? >>

Mark Forster answered: << I cross it out and re-enter it at the end of the list. But you can experiment with other ways if you want. >>

( )

Mark - Is this still the method you are following for this situation?
February 3, 2014 at 17:59 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Mark said:

//No, I haven't tried that. Obviously it would be critical what range you set the randomizer for. At the two extremes:

1) If you set it for between 1 and 2, then the effect would be only slightly different to just ploughing through the list in the order it was written.

2) If you set it for between 1 and n, n being the total number of unactioned items in the list, then it would be completely unbiased, i.e. every task would have an equal chance of being picked.

What do you think would be the right setting? And what are the factors that should be taken into account?//

I think the answer is that for a DIT-like feel, the ideal setting would be the number of tasks added yesterday.
February 3, 2014 at 18:11 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

<< Mark - Is this still the method you are following for this situation? >>

February 3, 2014 at 18:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< I think the answer is that for a DIT-like feel, the ideal setting would be the number of tasks added yesterday. >>

I'm tempted to have a go!
February 3, 2014 at 18:44 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm tempted, too. But I think a slightly better answer would be the number of tasks in the system divided by the number of days in the system. Of course this requires a calculation every morning. I have a feeling nuntym's suggestion would work well even if we simply continued to use the number of lines per page, e.g., 32, which would remove the need for a daily calculation. The only real downside is that the system will not deal effectively with urgency. But then, this is at least a potential weakness in the existing random system as well, albeit not as much of a weakness.
February 3, 2014 at 20:36 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

I think there is another downside to 32 numbers, which is that it may not succeed in clearing all the early tasks as quickly as we would like. This is because it takes a lot of throws (120+) to clear every number between 1 and 32.

Perhaps someone would like to try?
February 3, 2014 at 21:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have been using the number 14. Roughly based on the idea of using 2/3 if the page length, mine is 27. I recently went from paper to electronic using omni focus with projects called day 1, 2 etc.
February 4, 2014 at 4:41 | Unregistered CommenterErin

How's it working out for you?
February 4, 2014 at 9:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Here's one idea. Generate a random number between 1 and 25. A result between 20 and 25 means do the first task on the list. A result between 1 and 20 selects a task from the first 20 unactioned tasks on the list besides the oldest. This would be simple to implement electronically.
February 4, 2014 at 17:44 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Or to handle urgency a bit better:

Generate a random number between 1 and 25. 20-25 means do the first task on the list. 1-20 means move forward by that many tasks from your last task that was selected in this manner. Do not count completed tasks or the oldest task in your 1-20 cycling.
February 4, 2014 at 17:51 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
You can still use 32 to cycle and achieve a 1/5 rate of first task selection (as above) by using 40 as your number. 1-32 means cycle by that many, as usual. 33-40 means do the first task.
February 4, 2014 at 17:54 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
<<How's it working out for you?>>

It is working well with the randomizer set at 14 and OmniFocus for the digital version.
Right now I have three "pages", called projects, in OmniFocus, with 27, 24, 25 total tasks per page.

I went digital on Feb 1, out of town Feb 2, worked on list Feb 3. What is left is 9, 11 and 19 on respective pages. The system is working well for me and I am at least touching things I would normally be letting go. Thank you.
February 4, 2014 at 20:16 | Unregistered CommenterErin
I posted a long comment here, but it was so long I decided to move it to the Discussion Forum instead:
February 4, 2014 at 20:26 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Hi, could someone please clarify the process to deal with tasks which (for whatever valid reason) cannot be attempted at the moment they are chosen?

Mark suggested crossing them out and rewriting them at the end of the list, which is clear. But what happens then? Do you just continue to the next task on the list and use that instead, or generate a new random number and start counting from the next task?

February 4, 2014 at 21:17 | Unregistered CommenterTony
I count crossing it off and rewriting at the end as "taking action". After that, I roll the dice and choose another task.
February 4, 2014 at 23:35 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Hi Tony and Seraphim
If I can't do it at that moment or it's too late to start it (>one hour), I leave it where it is and count it as a slide as if it was crossed out. That way the list doesn't unnecessarily grow. My list is daily which is fed from the calendar and weekly list.
February 5, 2014 at 0:01 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
Thank you Seraphim and learning as I go, for your replies. It's interesting that you each use a different approach. I think I'll try them both and see which I prefer.
February 5, 2014 at 21:11 | Unregistered CommenterTony
Hi Tony
You'd probably do better to follow Seraphim's advice. I'm a really hard case so I need to batten down the hatches to greatly reduce my escape options. When I'm dreading work, I treat myself like a cattle being prodded down the shoot for slaughter. It sounds exaggerated but that's what dread sometimes feels like in my head. The randomization does wonders to reduce resistance and the dread. Mark has several great work arounds but the randomization method really does the job when I need the assistance.

I hope it helps you. Some of the folks say that their resistance actually disappears. I'm not that lucky but it sure doesn't reduce it enough to help me get my day's list done most days.
February 5, 2014 at 23:01 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
I haven't used the randomising approach but I was curious about where it leaves that feeling of being "ready" to do something, or knowing that the time is ripe, rather than doing nothing about something?

It seems to me the dice allows all options to be emotionally neutral so that none is any more meaningful than another. I wondered if the downside was that it cancels sensitivity to right-timing?
February 7, 2014 at 9:28 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Hi Michael
I can't speak for others, but the matter of right timing is resolved when I create the daily list. The trade off is not jumping right into the enjoyable work so that I will have willingness to also do the less enjoyable work. The dice helps to prevent overwhelm on particular work because I don't know EXACTLY WHEN I'll have to start it and I also have chances to do work I prefer. Usually I do my list however I wish just like Mark taught in DIT. It doesn't matter how I complete it so long as it gets done. The randomizer helps to neutralize overwhelm. Also when I get a preferred task, it's even more enjoyable because of the relief I feel that I don't something onerous. Also, I don't spend the entire day on the WILL DO list. There's lots of flexibility. Win-Win
February 7, 2014 at 10:43 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
I use a variation off this method on days I'm having a hard time getting started. In addition to the random number generator, I use a timer. For the first hour of work, I set the timer for five minutes for each task generated. It's AMAZING how many things you can knock off your list altogether in 5 minutes. Then, I take a break for 10 minutes. Then I start another 1 hour block, with 10 minute incriments. I take a 20 minute break. Following that, I work in 20 minute stretches on the randomly generated task with 5 minute breaks. If I finish something early, I simply slide down to the next uncrossed item on the list and work on it until the timer goes off. It's a great way to make progress when there's a LOT to be done.
February 8, 2014 at 10:05 | Unregistered CommenterRonda Bowen

Excellent thinking! That sounds a really good way of doing things.
February 8, 2014 at 10:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Here's a few things I've picked up as I've been working the system and trying out variations:

1) Keeping the list reasonably short is essential. At the moment my list is 39 items long and it's working brilliantly. I think it could be a bit longer than that without too much problem, but a long list is too slow to keep the work moving.

2) I've experimented with all sorts of different ways of improving the system, but so far have not found one single alteration that is better than the rules as written in the blog post.

3) The easiest way to monitor how well your list is keeping up with your work is to monitor two statistics: 1) the age of the oldest item on the list; and 2) the number of items there are on the list. Since the random method reduces friction and procrastination to negligible levels, if you can't keep up with your work, then the only solution is to reduce the work.

4) I find this system works best with larger tasks than I use with normal AF or FV. So rather than have a lot of small items, I tend to combine them. For example I would have "Read blogs" rather than list all the blogs I follow; "Finance" rather than all the different actions I take in respect of my finances.
February 8, 2014 at 11:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<< 2) I've experimented with all sorts of different ways of improving the system, but so far

have not found one single alteration that is better than the rules as written in the blog


February 8, 2014 at 15:07 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
I've been using my electronic implementation in Google Spreadsheets and it's working good for me: my list is available online, I do not need to use a random number generator and I don't spend time counting tasks. So I decided to share it with anyone on this site who is using "Random Time Management"

Here it is:

If you want to see how it works, please enter only in Yellow cells otherwise you may erase the formulas. Feel free to copy it and use for your own list. At the moment I set the page size to 10, but that can be changed in the hidden columns.
February 9, 2014 at 19:58 | Registered CommenterRufat
Your spread sheet is cool, hope I didn't break it by using it a few times. I tried to export it to use locally in Excel but it didn't work, some error. Are the formulas tricky to recreate?
February 10, 2014 at 0:54 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Not sure who played with it, but I have fixed it. Just make sure you change yellow cells only!

It should be straight forward to recreate in Excel as all the formulas used are compatible, just make sure you use CRTL+SHIFT+ENTER when entering ARRAYFORMULA formulas in Excel. You would need to add conditional formatting in Excel too.

Also I think Google Drive can convert sheets to Excel though I haven't tried it yet.
February 10, 2014 at 6:35 | Registered CommenterRufat

Any thoughts on the upper random number. You work on 1-32 and so do I as I am working with a notebook with those lines per page but someone posted at 14 which would give a greater feel of moving through the list and back to early items but not sure if it would make much difference in practice
February 10, 2014 at 9:24 | Unregistered Commenterskeg

<< Any thoughts on the upper random number. >>

I think this is just a matter of experimentation to find what suits you best. I've found 32 suits me fine, but I haven't tried any other numbers. It just happens to be the number of lines in my notebook.

One thing to bear in mind is that the lower the number the slower you will circulate through the list.
February 11, 2014 at 0:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm finding twenty works well for me - the same number of lines in my (Pukka) pad and my twenty-sided die. Though, admittedly, I haven't tried any other number.
February 11, 2014 at 11:08 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Cumming
I'm finding it seems to work best if the random number = the number of lines on the page. This tends to give you 1-3 "stops" on every page -- more if many of the tasks are already cleared.

Fewer than that = it can feel like you are getting "stuck" on a page, not moving fast enough forward to where the newest, freshest tasks are located.

More than that = you have a much higher chance of having only 1 "stop" per page, which really weakens the power of the "slide" rule.
February 12, 2014 at 7:26 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

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