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« "From the Hipster PDA to Desktop Files" | Main | The Spinning Plates Method of Project Control (Experimental) »

How to Get the Most Out of the "Spinning Plates"

This is a follow-up to my previous post The Spinning Plates Method of Project Control, in which I shall be making observations about how best to work this system. It’s not intended to be a static post, but one which I shall keep adding to (newest on top).

Being up-to-date

What does it mean to finish a task in the sense of having no work outstanding as stated in the rules? It doesn’t mean “finished for good”. Basically the sense is that you are up-to-date with the work on the project. You can be up-to-date with a project long before it is finished for good. If you have a project which you expect to take three months, then you are up-to-date as long as you are on track with the schedules and deadlines relating to that project.

So a very important part of running the “Spinning Plates” is being clear what you mean by being “up-to-date”. You may need to have a different definition of this for each project. Sometimes these are set for you, but more often you will need to define them yourself.

If you have a project to read “War & Peace” you might have a goal of so many pages or chapters a day - or you might simply be happy to read “something” every day without defining how long that is. It’s up to you.

For Housework, you might have daily chores, weekly chores (each on a different day of the week) and monthly chores. As long as you are on schedule with these, you are up-to-date.

Electronic Implementation

For electronic implementation, there is no need to have more than the one active column. The columns across the page in the written version look pretty and provide a historical record, but they are not strictly necessary. All you need to know is whether at the end of a pass there are any arrows or crosses in the column. And of course you can use any symbols you like (or colour coding) in place of the ticks, arrows and crosses.

Minor Tasks

It is a good idea fairly early on to add a task called “Minor Tasks” to your list. You can then keep a separate sublist of small necessary tasks which don’t fit into any of the existing projects on the main list. However this must not become a place where you add everything you haven’t yet succeeded in putting on the main list. Remember that like every other task the “Minor Tasks” task must be completely cleared before you can add any more tasks to the main list.

You are therefore advised to use the following rules with respect to the “Minor Tasks” sublist:

1) Don’t add any tasks which are too big to be done in one go.

2) Don’t add more tasks than you can do in one go.

3) Make the “Minor Tasks” sublist a closed list, i.e. no new tasks can be added to it once it has been started until all the tasks on it have been done. I also recommend you do the tasks in the same order they are written.

Size of Tasks

I’ve tended to refer in the instructions to “task” and “project” more or less interchangeably. This is quite deliberate because the system simply treats a project as a big task. Whether a particular entry is a big task or a small task is up to you.

It’s sometimes a good idea to combine small tasks into larger tasks as you go along. So for instance if you have a project to sort out your office, you might start with a task “Sort Desk”. Once the desk is sorted, that is retitled “Tidy Desk”, and you start another task “Sort Pamphlet Racks”. That again becomes “Tidy Pamphlet Racks”. After you’ve done this with a few more office-sorting jobs, you can combine them all into one task “Tidy Office”.

Remember that although you can combine existing tasks, you can only include tasks in the combination which are already on the list.

The best time to do this sort of editing, combining and retitling work is when you are rewriting the page because you have filled all the available columns.

Reader Comments (12)

Thanks for clarifying that, it really helps me get a mental "handle" on the system.
March 31, 2014 at 14:03 | Unregistered CommenterNenad Ristic

My comment on not on the system as such as I have just come across it but how much it resembles the system you described in your first book on picking no more than 10 subjects and allocating all tasks/projects etc into one of the subjects then rotating your time across each subject e.g I rotate around Staff, Work only I can do , Strategy, Reports, Actions for/from Meetings, Projects, e-mails on a 20 minute rotation. There are many variations on how you could vary the time blocks in your book.

I have been a huge fan in the past of AF1, AF4 and Random and have loved the high turnover of completed tasks and how good that feels. What has always eventually tripped me up has been items that are needed to complete but whatever the system is that I am using has not thrown it up for action/completion (and keeping lots of deadlines in my diary does not work as that is a separate system and I want everything in one). So I always end up going back to the rotation method.

This new system appears to complicate that simple approach and I am struggling to see what benefits you gain from this approach. I can fully understand the visual approach of having a list with a series of ticks but I have that too by listing the subjects above and ticking them off one by one after each 20 minute period (or 10 minutes per subject if that is all that available time allows that particular day). Hopefully you can see that I am a big fan of your systems and open minded to try new ones so not being critical but keen to hear what benefits this latest system has over your earlier approach
April 16, 2014 at 13:06 | Unregistered Commenterskeg

You're right in that the "spinning plates" is very similar to the system in "Get Everything Done". In fact I often used to use the analogy of spinning plates when running seminars on the system.

As far as the visual approach is concerned, that is purely a result of the way the method is done on paper. I've already said that it's unnecessary in an electronic version. GED looks even more complicated on paper because as well as the ticks you also have to write in the length of the time-burst.

The limit of ten on the number of subjects was "until you are well-established in the system". After that you are allowed to increase the number.

The main differences between the new system and the old are:

1) The new system doesn't use time-boxing (though there's nothing to stop anyone using it if they want to).

2) The new system uses a more gradual approach to building the list in which grouping of tasks occurs naturally as part of working the system.

If you find the previous system works fine for you then stick to it. There's no reason at all why you have to move over to the new system.
April 16, 2014 at 16:17 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Another great post! I've found the Apollo Planner really helpful in time boxing minor tasks and keeping up to date.
June 4, 2014 at 21:48 | Unregistered CommenterJack
Thanks Jack, this simple form is great. I've been working hard on one project and the schedule helps me see where my time is going.
June 14, 2014 at 2:22 | Unregistered CommenterErin
Question: What do you do when you're away for most of a day, but are confident that you'll make sufficient progress on each project if looked at weekly. Would most of the projects be failed after the day away since you didn't work on them, or would they be passed since your still confident you can handle them.
June 17, 2014 at 18:21 | Registered CommenterCricket
Would someone please clarify whether this method is a replacement for final version methodology of managing tasks
February 25, 2015 at 18:05 | Unregistered CommenterAlan
Or any of the other methods Mark has created. I'm Wondering if this project control method is used somehow bolted onto the FV method for choosing which tasks I do next. That of course is guided by importance, urgency and psyche
Where does it sit in relation to FV
February 25, 2015 at 18:29 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

Spinning Plates and the Final Version are two independent methods. The Final Version was released as a recommended and thoroughly-tested system, whereas Spinning Plates was shared in early stages for joint experimentation. They cannot be used together without breaking the rules of one or both systems.
February 28, 2015 at 2:56 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Has anyone heard of a system that can be used alongside the task management system (AF4, FV etc...) to track 'what has MY attention'

Shame, I have been looking for a bolt-on system for tracking the attention i give to tasks. This sort of checklist looked like something i would use.


I want to see where my priorities are being laid, naturally.

I would then use that information to compare against my roles objectives: Broadly described as Coordinate, facilitate, assist.

But, Why?

The real reason behind this need is because i suspect that sometimes the reasons for my unhappiness (or, unfulfillment) at work is because i have my priorities all wrong. So, when the environment starts pushing something that I have not given attention - or pro-action to - I naturally feel like the issue presented is just another distraction; something from Stephen Covey's "LOW importance, HIGH urgency quadrant". You know, someone else's urgency, or, the loudest and latest thing.

Alternatively, it could be exactly what i should be doing - i just missed it. And, I need to learn that about my role at work.

Mindfulness is a wonderful things; i cannot always trust my feelings - I am a scientist now administering the business, and sometimes MY systems need scientific examination as well.

I would like to somehow capture where my attention goes during the week on a daily basis, and then eview that separately every month, or quarter etc...

Thanks for listening
March 1, 2015 at 2:39 | Unregistered CommenterAlan
I think I see what you may have in mind. Were you thinking of listing the major aspects of your role and then, as you use AF4 or FV, putting a checkmark by an aspect whenever you select a task that corresponds to that aspect? That sounds like a very interesting way of measuring what sort of distribution of focus arises from using one of Mark's systems. It is not Spinning Plates, but it sounds like a useful experiment nonetheless.
March 1, 2015 at 2:48 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Yes, perhaps that is how i should start: List the attributes or whatever it is i want to measure and tick-off that attribute when i tackle it.

When to tick

I can see some more thought needs to go into this because i can see bias. That is, if i tick-off WHEN a task is completed then i probably will bias the output. THat is, some tasks are small and specific, whilst others are fuzzy

Perhaps a tick goes onto everything WHEN I have reached the point that i am satisfied "Project X" is 'up-to-date' (that is Spinning plates????)

Close enough

What to tick

Jury is out on what metrics should be measured. Needs some thought
March 1, 2015 at 3:10 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

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