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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)

I started with SF and really liked FV (used it for more than a year) but this random method is definitely the best at beating procrastination. It seems to be a good way to beat the "Paradox of Choice".
February 13, 2014 at 14:57 | Unregistered Commenterteckwyn
Mark, you mentioned in an earlier post that you'd tried taking a "random walk". Here's an interesting site -- enter your starting point and required distance, and it will create a random route that loops back and ends at your starting point. So, if you type in your home address, it will create a random closed route of any desired length that will end back at home.
February 15, 2014 at 19:23 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

I've been looking for a site that does that. So many thanks indeed!
February 16, 2014 at 14:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Turns out they have an iPhone app as well (search for routeloops in the App Store). I downloaded it yesterday and used it for an 11 km walk around my neighbourhood. Worked great because the app tracks your current position relative to the randomly generated route. Very enjoyable walk.
February 17, 2014 at 1:08 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

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

To be honest, I was stumped on how to answer this and decided to percolate on the problem, which is why I was silent for some time Austin's suggestion on using the number of items added the day before brought forth the germ of the solution for me, and it clicked: we can actually let the system decide what is the range for the randomizer (let's call it N).

N = <either> the number of new <or> old unactioned items left from yesterday, <whichever is greater>.

A. First day
1. Make your list, then mark the last item. Count all the unactioned items. This is your N (range of the randomizer) for the rest of the day.
2. Pick a random number from 1 to N inclusively, then count from the first unactioned item down each unactioned item until you reach that unactioned item corresponding to the random number. Do that item, then delete. If needed, rewrite at the end of the list. All new items are also added to the end of the list.
3. If you reach the end of the list counting, continue counting from the first unactioned item.

B. Subsequent days
1. At the beginning of the subsequent days, count the number of unactioned items before your mark yesterday, and also the number of items after that mark. Whichever is higher will be your N for that day. Make then a new mark for the last unactioned day from yesterday.
2. Repeat the rest of the steps above.
February 17, 2014 at 16:25 | Registered Commenternuntym

I had to go back and search for your original suggestion as I couldn't remember what it was, so for the benefit not only of myself but anyone else who's following this, here's what you wrote:

"... 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."

Yes, I have now tried it. And the one thing that came out of my trial is that the range you set needs to be quite small. I found 1-10 worked reasonably well, but if you get too much above that you get the problem you always get if you have equal odds, which is that a few tasks won't get picked for a very long time.

I think what you need to do is experiment with various ranges to see what works best. You don't have to use real tasks for this. You can simulate just by putting x's on lines on a bit of paper.

Since I don't want to use the system electronically, I've gone back to sliding as I much prefer it.
February 17, 2014 at 23:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

Have you come up with a way of dismissing tasks with this system. My thought is that if you refuse to do a task, you highlight it. If you refuse to do a highlighted task, you dismiss it. I wonder what your thougts are on this. Is dismissal even necessary?
February 19, 2014 at 14:59 | Unregistered CommenterDave Parente
I need one point of clarification. The first random number is counted from the top of the list, but what is the starting location for the next random number? I assume it is from the next item after the one I just worked on. Or should I start counting from the top of the list again?
February 20, 2014 at 17:35 | Unregistered CommenterEric Poling
Dave Parente:

I haven't actually found a need to dismiss tasks yet. I've find the system removes so much of the reluctance to start a task, that I haven't yet refused to do one.

You can of course always remove any task that you decide shouldn't be done or doesn't need to be done any longer.
February 20, 2014 at 17:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Eric Poling:

You always start counting from the next line after the task you've just done.
February 20, 2014 at 17:38 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Looks like something happened to my last post:

In short, are there any dismissal rules for this system
February 21, 2014 at 14:47 | Unregistered CommenterDave Parente
Dave Parente:

Your post did get published (it's five posts back from this one) and I replied to it three posts back.
February 21, 2014 at 14:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
hi all,

My system is a bit different than marks, but today I used the randomizer method to work through my daily list.

I have to say that I'm REALLY impressed with how well it did at diminishing my resistance to tasks. I'm going to keep on using it.


February 22, 2014 at 2:17 | Unregistered Commenterbrett
I've been using the randomizer method and it's working great. My first roll took me straight to a task I'd been resisting for a long time. What a liberating feeling to do it and cross it off! It's remarkable how powerful this simple method is.
February 23, 2014 at 2:26 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
Interesting system...after kicking the tires for a couple days it looks very promising.

I found that FocusPad ( is perfect for this in electronic form
February 23, 2014 at 14:14 | Unregistered Commenterpatgallant
I see how this approach gets a payoff of results but how do you build in time to develop clarity about the nuances of the situation and possibilities? Sometimes by patiently waiting you can watch and see something develop to better timing. You have to be able to sit still long enough to get the clarity. Or action can be inner directed, rather than outer : stop a chain of thought, look at things differently, become more aware of habitual reactions, believe something different. Faster execution of bad habits isn't ideal. There needs to be times to take control over our own attention, notice how we feel, and direct our life in a way we want.
February 25, 2014 at 12:17 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Thanks Mark for the response. Yes it seems how you made the rules is the best, and any of my previous ways to make a similar system to work in my checklist program in my smart phone would not work.

However, after tinkering around, I found out that it is actually easy to adapt this system to my BlackBerry Z10 Remember app, which actually syncs to my Evernote account so I can look it up anywhere. How I do it can also be done using the Evernote program/app itself and even any word processor.

> Open a note and use Numbered List format to list your tasks, one task a line. Once you have entered your 32nd task, skip a couple of lines, turn off and turn on Numbered List format. This will reset the numbering of the list to 1, and thus you have simulated a page of 32 lines.

> To pick a task, highlight the task by changing its font color.

> When you are done with the task, select and cut the whole task. The result will be that the line will keep its numbering but it will be blank. If the task is unfinished or recurring, it can then be pasted at the end of the list. Make sure to revert the font color to black.

I was surprised how easy this was to implement. In fact, I added another feature to how I do this system, integration of projects, because of how the Remember app and even the Evernote program/app is.

> Projects are entered to the system by using bold font format on the task.

> The projects have their own notes with either of two list formats.

>>If the project is a bunch of tasks to be done in order then the list is in Bullet List format.

>> However if the project is a bunch of tasks that can be done in any order, then I use Numbered List format and do the project randomly like I would the main list.
February 25, 2014 at 19:17 | Registered Commenternuntym
@ Michael,

"I see how this approach gets a payoff of results but how do you build in time to develop clarity about the nuances of the situation and possibilities?"

This system has no utility whatsoever for urgent tasks, so if you need to do something right away, drop the system and do what you have to do.

If you need to take a breather from your tasks, seeing that you need to relax and add space to look at the bigger picture, then do that and drop the system for now.

On the other hand, the system I found has a calming and strengthening effect on me, in that I can use this to build up my confidence that I can do stuff before doing the scheduled stuff that I need to do.

Sometimes that is all you need, the confidence to do what you need to do, and that can also give perspective on the things you have to do.
February 25, 2014 at 19:24 | Registered Commenternuntym
nuntym wrote:
<< This system has no utility whatsoever for urgent tasks >>

At the following thread, we've discussed some ways to adapt Randomizer to help with urgent tasks.
February 25, 2014 at 22:30 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< how do you build in time to develop clarity about the nuances of the situation and possibilities? >>

No problem at all. Make a task of it. Maybe just "Think about my work" or "Examine possibilities" or however you want to phrase it.
February 26, 2014 at 0:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
@Mark: yup I guess that's it! I seem to have regarded AF et al as not incorporating those kinds of activities. I suppose the learning point is that AF has made me aware of where I disallow that as an "activity". Odd. My list is also a bit short of pleasures I notice. These are good reflective questions.

To expand the point I suppose I can say if I want *changes*, rather than just productivity on the same hamster wheel, the more different the change is than what I do normally, then the more inner actions will need to appear on the AF list. Change doesn’t happen just from outer actions, or because we wish for it or want it but only through taking different inner actions - even if it is the action to not believe a thought, imagine a different interpretation, pausing for insights, affirming differnt thoughts, noticing what's better ...
February 26, 2014 at 13:25 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Has anyone figured out what to do with tasks that you're unable to proceed with (because you're waiting on another party or something)?

I have several tasks that I am "waiting" on but are ultimately still my responsibility. What do I do with them?
February 27, 2014 at 22:02 | Unregistered CommenterAdam C
@Adam C - I "slide" through them.
February 28, 2014 at 15:30 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Here is an interesting "random" link:

There are many cool tools at this site. This one allows you to input (or paste) a list. It then will pick one item at a time. I like it when I have a small list of things I must do and it assigns me one at a time.

I haven't figured out any way of integrating the sliding concept into this tool, however.

It does have a graphic test of your browser's ability to pick randomly - which seems to work.
March 12, 2014 at 23:17 | Unregistered CommenterEric Poling
Free for today. Snap it up quick.

Natural 20: Custom Rolling Dice
March 13, 2014 at 3:03 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Hey all,

I have spent many hours over the last few weeks writing a web app that follows this method "to the T." I have a few kinks to work out, but I'm wondering if any of you are interested in using it. I built the prototype to work for just a single user, but I don't want to spend any time on the authentication piece unless some of you are willing to give it a try.

I may post a short video sometime, but for now, here's a description:

1) Single-page AJAX application (node, angularjs, mongodb, express, passport, bootstrap, etc.)
2) Configurable "per page" amount
3) Adjusting "per page" changes pagination immediately
4) All rules apply (sliding, choosing next task, etc.)
5) You can do a task out of order, but you have to enter a command first (pretty neat really, it makes it less convenient to skip ahead and cross something off out of order)
6) Total tasks remaining is easy to see
7) Done vs Total per page is easy to see
8) Per page minimum and maximum hardcoded by me (any ideas on this? I have 5 as the minimum and 40 as the maximum)
9) Responsive design should work on all devices
10) Convenient "down arrow" button to complete a task and create a copy at the end of the list (for when you're "done for now" with a task)
11) "Easter egg" commands... you'll have to wait and see

I guess that's enough for now. If there's any interest I'll spend some time making it ready for public consumption.

Let me know!

I showed this to some colleagues and they wanted to see a few enhancements:
1) history of tasks
2) edit a task's text

March 18, 2014 at 20:14 | Unregistered CommenterAdam C
Hi Adam,

Your application sounds great! I for one would love to try it out...either running on a site somewhere, or installed locally if you don't want to add multi-user login features. Is it available on github?


- Erik.
March 19, 2014 at 17:30 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
Hi Adam,

Sounds neat!

I shouldn't change for a while yet, other than fine-tuning how I work the list and prioritize things within the system.

A few things that none of the other systems seem to have:

Change the date done. If I do something after computer-off time, I want to be able to record it the next day, or even a few days later. This is important for tasks where you want a history (Which day did I do it? How many days this week?) and when the next time depends on when it was done last.

Support for things I hope to do several times a week. The tasks would still show in the main task list for Randomizer to choose, but with more information. Maybe how many times you've done it so far this week. If the task is "work out 1st time this week" and it's Thursday, I'm in trouble. Also a report of some type, maybe like Joe's Goals.

A Hot List capability. Not tons of priority levels, but a way to flag critical things. If the day is busy, just limit selection to the hot list. If the day is light, select from the entire list.

Future start dates. Due dates.

Bonus points for email integration. Send email to the list and it gets added as a task.
March 20, 2014 at 16:52 | Registered CommenterCricket
Okay, I am relatively new to Mark's systems, so maybe I am missing something here. I am still relatively confused about how to work multiple pages. Assume the following occurs in my lists:

1. Say I start with 31 tasks on one page (that has 32 lines). I randomly generate 7, which lands on a recurring action. I do the action, cross it off, then rewrite it in line 32.
2. I generate another random number, and get 21. I do some work on the task, but do not complete it. Nonetheless, I cross it off and rewrite it...I assume on the first line of the next page.
3. I need to go buy milk at the store, so I enter it on the second line of the second page.

So here is where I am confused and need answered:

Q1. Does the random number generator limits stay fixed at the total number of lines on the one page each time you use it (i.e. 32)? Or will it grow to match the exact number of tasks that you have spanning over multiple pages (34, which comes from 32 on the first plus 2 on the second)?
Q2. If it stays the same, do you simply treat each page as a different list and then move on the next page when you want? What is the criterion for moving to the next page? Do you use the random number generator for each page that you are on individually?

Thanks for your help as I try to figure it out. It seems like a promising technique.
March 25, 2014 at 23:59 | Unregistered CommenterCamJPete

<< Does the random number generator limits stay fixed at the total number of lines on the one page each time you use it (i.e. 32)? >>


<< ... do you simply treat each page as a different list and then move on the next page when you want? >>

No, you treat the whole list as one continuous list. So if you are on line 20 of Page 1 and you throw a 25 you count to the end of Page 1 and then continue on page 2. So you would land on line 13 of Page 2.

If your count brings you to the end of the list, then you just rotate back to the beginning of the list. Ignore empty lines on the last page.

The only time that the end of the page is relevant is when you land on a line which has a deleted task. In this case you "slide" until you reach the first active task thereafter. If you reach the end of the page before coming across an active task, then you carry on sliding from the beginning of the *same* page. The reason for this is that otherwise one could not guarantee that the first line of the first page would ever get hit.

Remove pages on which all the tasks have been done.

I hope this helps. It's best to try the rules as best you can for a few days then re-read the rules carefully to make sure you are doing it right.
March 26, 2014 at 14:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hello, everyone! I was wondering what these blog posts mean, exactly. Does Mark Forester try different methods and comment on them? Is he always in search of a perfect method? Or is he trying different methods to meet the needs of different people?

For example, I really liked this "Random Time Management", which I have adapted and used along with another method. Now Mark is talking about the "Spinning Plates". Does that mean Mark abandoned this method, or is he trying another method for another purpose?
April 7, 2014 at 0:45 | Unregistered CommenterTim

<< Does that mean Mark abandoned this method, or is he trying another method for another purpose? >>

It means he keeps trying out new ways of doing time management, because every idea that works may then become a building block for better time management methods in the future.

You are welcome to use his ideas however you wish.
April 7, 2014 at 12:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have been using this method as written for over a year. I find it far more useful than any method I've tried. It may be best for Myers-Briggs Ps; I think it would make Js crazy.

Thank you for this, Mark
June 19, 2015 at 7:35 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen McKay
Glad to hear that, Kathleen. It's still one of my favourite systems. Unfortunately I can only use one system at a time!
June 19, 2015 at 10:05 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi. What if one procrastinates a attempt at this random task generator, that is in essence, a great tool in of itself in assisting those who procrastinate?
Do we need a random task generator system for a random task generator system?
September 14, 2016 at 21:13 | Unregistered CommenterAF

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