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« Choosing Between Multiple Alternatives | Main | The Next Hour »

Systematic, Fast and Flexible

I’m still working on the task which I set myself some months ago (sorry, can’t find the reference) of designing a time management system which would enable me not just to get things done quickly, but to get everything done quickly.

Consequently I’ve been looking at my favourite systems to try and identify how far they measure up to this challenge. While doing this I identified three qualities that would be needed to achieve it in a really effective way.

These three qualities are:

Systematic - The system must work systematically through everything that one has to do.

Fast - There should be a minimum of system overhead, meaning that time spend prioritizing, scanning or procrastinating should be negligible.

Flexible - The system must be able to react quickly to changing priorities and circumstances, without having to spend time re-prioritizing or making exceptions to the rules.

Unfortunately when I started to judge my favourite systems in the light of these criteria, I discovered that the best systems all shared the same characteristic - they were good at two of these qualities, but not all three. Which of the three they were good at varied from system to system.

Let’s look at three examples of this:

  1. Autofocus (AF1) is systematic and fast, but not flexible. It focuses systematically on each page on its own - which is fast but takes little account of what is most relevant at the time.
  2. Final Version Perfected (FVP) is systematic and flexible, but not fast. The scanning algorithm responds well to what is going on, but often involves repeatedly scanning most of the list.
  3. The Next Hour is flexible and fast, but not systematic. It allows you to do a lot of work, but not systematically deal with all your commitments.

Each of these has two of the three qualities I’m looking for, but none have all three.

The question I am asking myself is whether it is possible to design a system which has all three qualities. The obvious place to start is to look at one of the existing systems which has two of the qualities and see if there is any way in which it can be redesigned to have all three.

I think I may have found the answer. More on this soon.

Reader Comments (12)

Helo Mark. I'm delighted that you're posting again. You haven't talked about your cancer diagnosis recently, but I wish you well. My wife has recently had the twelve-month all-clear, but we all know that vigilance goes on forever.

Can I ask you this? There seems to be a bit of controversy surroundng Gabriele Oettingen's 'mental contrasting' technique from three or four years ago, but her husband's - Peter Gollwitzer- closely connected, but somewhat separable method of implementation intentions has a very positive presence on the internet, and appears to be based on very successful research.

I wondered if you'd thought about incorporating this stuff into your thinking.
December 19, 2016 at 3:48 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Williams
Looking forward to seeing the results of your new experiments!
December 19, 2016 at 3:57 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

I read her book and tried implementing her techniques but they didn't really seem to work for me, so I haven't done anything further about them.
December 19, 2016 at 11:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Interested to see where this goes Mark. I have recently returned to DIT again: I find it is the system that helps me actually do stuff, rather than just writing out lists! But it is probably not flexible enough to meet point 3 above in its entirety.
December 19, 2016 at 13:34 | Unregistered CommenterBen H
I assume the No List systems would fall under the same criteria as The Next Hour above - flexible and fast, but not systematic.
December 19, 2016 at 19:12 | Unregistered CommenterRay Fowler
I think I've heard about this dilemma before . . .

We could think of the examples above as starting points for choice of a favorite system, then hacking the system to compensate for the missing/weak feature.
December 20, 2016 at 0:24 | Registered Commenterubi
Ben H:

I would say that DIT is actually well balanced between the three criteria, but isn't as systematic as AF1 and FVP, as fast as AF1 and The Next Hour or as flexible as FVP and The Next Hour. I'd like something which as provides all three qualities at the same level as these systems provide two of them.
December 20, 2016 at 7:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ray Fowler:

Yes, each of the three examples is representative of a whole group of related systems.
December 20, 2016 at 7:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< We could think of the examples above as starting points for choice of a favorite system, then hacking the system to compensate for the missing/weak feature >>

That's basically what I'm doing.
December 20, 2016 at 7:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've recently gone back to AF1, and what has contributed significantly to its speed is its very powerful dismissal rule (I've lopped off pages worth of stuff that were otherwise lingering there) and the "little and often" rule. Urgent items that get added to the list are either done right away (stepping outside the system of course) or, if I keep with the system, they can still be done quickly by just touching on one item per page, even for a minute. It's surprising how much gets done that way.

I love your analysis of the three qualities, though.
December 20, 2016 at 13:38 | Unregistered CommenterPaul MacNeil

How does a personal favorite of mine, No-List FVP measure up?
January 10, 2017 at 21:56 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Has anyone succeeded in redesigning "The Next Hour" to make it more systematic?
April 12, 2017 at 9:41 | Unregistered CommenterShamil

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