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Friday
Feb122016

What is a "no list" system?

My most recent article on “No-list” systems seem to have generated a storm of comments, which is all to the good. However one or two people have indicated that they are not too sure what a “no-list” list is. How can you have a list which is “no list”? A very good question!

A “catch-all” list is the opposite of a “no-list” list. Maybe better terms for them would be “very long list” and “very short list”. Very long in this context usually means 50+ items and very short means 5 or less items.

Another way of describing them would be “a long list which you add to whenever you think of something to do” and “a very short list which you make up as you go along.”

A “catch-all” list looks like this:

Tidy bedroom
Change bedding
List PR actions
Read “C——-” magazine
Read “K———” magazine
Obtain specimen legacy leaflet
Draft own legacy leaflet
Thank fundraising team
Blog result of fundraising
Thank newsletter subscribers
Cancel newsletter contract
Thank supporters
Blog latest social event news
Call David K
Read —— Newletter
Update giving page
Read “The 100 Years War”
List possible blog posts
Yabla
Read “B———” magazine
Clean sink
Empty WPB
Cut hedge back
Set up L’s new laptop
Read V’s letters
Print more blank schedule sheets
Shred
Dust
Listen to French news
Sort office
Process social event photos
Walk footpaths for Ramblers Association
Money?
Weed desktop
Weed flagged emails
Contact fast walking organization
To think about…
Prune rose bush
Get prescription signed
Sort L’s mail
List action need on C Blog
New house number
Kingsley Vale walk
Destroy old notebook
Re-read L’s instructions
Expenditure audit
Tax return
Weed pamphlet rack
Withdraw money from ——
Book holiday
Check heating settings
Action needed on Legacy campaign?
Write recommendation for N’s book
Push ups
The plank
Check bank balance
Weed this list
Read Pocket articles
Facebook
Email
Synchronise diaries
Put books away
Paper
Thanks to N for party
Check diary
Rake leaves
Voicemail
Do dishes
Adjust carriage clock
Charge batteries
Check heating settings
Ideas for new projects?
etc etc

A “no list” looks like this (or shorter):

Blog
List ideas for new book
Email
Publicity Project
Walk 3 miles

Which do you think is likely to produce the most focused action?

 

A typical example of a “no list” system is the one given in my book Secrets of Productive People. You write five tasks and do them in order. Any task you don’t finish you re-enter at the end. When you have only two tasks left on the list you fill up with another three.

 

See also:

Effect on the Brain

Why No-List Systems Work

 

Reader Comments (25)

Thanks for the clarification Mark.

I seem to keep resisting my FVP list, even though I currently have 14 tasks on it only and it rarely gets too big.

i dont want to appear negative or not open to new ideas but I'm wondering about a couple of scenarios:

1: where do actions from my inboxes go to? Say if I've got 10 - 15 definite tasks to do per day which need to be not dropped (reputation all loss springs to mind) then I'm wondering where they can go until I can get to them.

2: I have lots of intricate work tasks that come up (often mundane and forgetful yet they still need doing) and with a short list I could see me needing to rely on outlook tasks to be able to manage them. Would this not just be creating a new catch all system to replace another?
February 12, 2016 at 7:17 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Thanks Mark for your post.
"No List" sounds very appealing to me - but I struggle with the same as Leon.
I read your book (thanks again), but probably I haven't got the Idea with the 5T List.

Would it be a solution to have a "Long List" AND a "No List" - where the "No List" get fed by the "Long list" (e.g. FVP - but only select 5 Tasks - and readd dots if only one Task is left?
February 12, 2016 at 8:12 | Unregistered CommenterJens
As far as I am concerned, I can say that long lists are kind of stressing me.
February 12, 2016 at 8:46 | Unregistered Commenterjerome
Leon & Jens:

The advice in my book is that you use the 5T "no-list" system with "dynamic lists". I've described Dynamic Lists several times before, but to give you an example suppose that I were about to deal with the Publicity Project task in the sample list above. I would take a piece of paper and list all the tasks I could think of relating to that project. This is an open list so I can add to it as I go along. I work from that list every time I return to "Publicity Project" during the day.

The list is only valid for one day, so it goes in the shredder at the end of the day. Tomorrow, if I'm still working on the Publicity Project I make a new list.

The idea is that the list remains fresh and relevant instead of becoming a huge depressing list of things you haven't done yet.

I use them a lot and they are very effective, and I very seldom forget things these days (and when I do it's usually because I've deviated from the system for some reason).

A word of warning: You might be tempted to use a "dynamic list" for everything during the day. This doesn't work. They need the tight boundaries of a specific project.

I think I'll write about dynamic lists for the blog tomorrow.
February 12, 2016 at 9:31 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I am using the 5T list extensively the last week or so (since I last posted that I used it on and off with a long list previously). By chance I have had little discretionary time this week. Monday interviews, Tuesday all day meeting, Wed series of meetings, ditto Thursday. Today is first free of commitments. But what I wanted to point out was when I did have a free hour looking at a long list created stress at what was not getting done whilst by quickly writing a 5T and only managing some of it was much less stressful and much more productive.

I know some people have struggled with the concept but Mark's example of the long list in this post is typical for a lot of us but reading someone else's list clearly demonstrates that you just can't do all this stuff! So better to get real and focus on a few key items.
February 12, 2016 at 9:42 | Unregistered Commenterskeg
I'm wondering how "no-list" and other short-list and unstructured-list systems integrate with complex project plans. I'm currently using modified GTD with OmniFocus for weekly and longer-range planning, but I've never really found it satisfactory for generating in-the-moment task lists.
February 12, 2016 at 16:37 | Unregistered CommenterEurobubba
Oh fine, Mark, I'll try using a "no list" system.
February 12, 2016 at 16:43 | Registered Commenternuntym
Thanks for this post Mark - it's a good clarification of what you mean by 'no-list'. Maybe a better name would be a 'Shortlist' or (if you want to appeal to the cook kids) Nano List, to emphasise that it's just a very short to do list for the day (rather than no list at all!)

I kind of moved to this type of system by accident - I'd have a long 'to do' list, but every day make a daily list of things to do on a post it note and these would be the things that were on my mind for that day. I gradually stopped using my long to do list and just started with a new post it note every day!

For people worrying about forgetting things, what do you think about keeping a 'long list' of items that need doing, but trying to make a 'short list' every day (that may or may not be based on the long list) The long list can be checked weekly with tasks that are no longer relevant being removed.

I also love your idea of dynamic lists - again something I've partly done in the past, but I will try and formalise the method a bit more as you describe in the future. It's especially useful with the changing nature of projects as some items become more urgent or important and others that seemed important yesterday are now not really relevant.

Looking forward to hearing more about dynamic lists tomorrow!
February 12, 2016 at 17:06 | Unregistered CommenterDAZ
Thanks for this post, Mark. It clarifies for me that the definition of a Catch-All List is a Very Long list.

Since reading your excellent book, I have used 5T to manage my immediate focus and I also keep a Very Short List of commitments I have made to others that require action in the near future that feeds my 5T list. I don't have a Catch All (ie Very Long) List. I use the Outlook calendar to manage future commitments which also feed my 5T list at the appropriate day.

This arrangement seems to work very well.
February 12, 2016 at 17:19 | Unregistered CommenterPaul B
Eurobubba:

<< I'm wondering how "no-list" and other short-list and unstructured-list systems integrate with complex project plans. I'm currently using modified GTD with OmniFocus for weekly and longer-range planning, but I've never really found it satisfactory for generating in-the-moment task lists. >>

Tomorrow's article on "Dynamic Lists" may help you with this. Feel free to ask further questions about it in the Comment section of that article. It will be published at 7am UK Time.
February 12, 2016 at 18:49 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have the same trouble as DAZ. I worry about forgetting things. It's more than that - I have a lot of things, particularly at work, that I must do, but they are too many to keep in my head – and I've quickly gotten myself in trouble when I abandoned the catch-all list.

At the same time, I have all the problems outlined with the ever-expanding catch-all list.

What I've been doing is keeping a list in a notebook of what I need/want to do this week, and making a daily list on a sticky note. It's not ideal, but the best I've come up with so far.
February 13, 2016 at 16:59 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher E.
Christopher E.

<< I worry about forgetting things. It's more than that - I have a lot of things, particularly at work, that I must do, but they are too many to keep in my head – and I've quickly gotten myself in trouble when I abandoned the catch-all list. >>

A couple of questions:

1) Do you succeed in doing all the things on your catch-all list within an acceptable time period? If your answer is yes then you should stick to the catch-all list.

2) Have you actually tried a no-list system such as the one I mention at the end of the article?
February 13, 2016 at 18:06 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

1) The answer is a definitive "No."
2) Yes, I tried it for awhile (about ten days, I think) and it was a problem with both anxiety about what I was forgetting, and some missed deadlines, that sent me back to FVP. I do well on FVP until the list expands too much.

I wonder if a ten- or fifteen-item list would work.
February 13, 2016 at 22:03 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher E.
Christopher E.

And a further question. In the ten days or so you tried the system did you miss more or less deadlines than you normally do with the catch-all system?

And one more. Did you put the deadline dates into your calendar?
February 13, 2016 at 22:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Christopher E:

I've been using a combination of the no-list, dynamic lists, 3T and Do It Tomorrow stystems.

I start a dynamic list at the start of the day of everything I want to do that day.
I keep this as an open list that captures everything during the day so I don't forget anything.
I select 3 tasks from this list to do and then focus on these tasks until they are done (or at least 2 of them are done)
Then I review my dynamic list to see what to do next (I also put any follow ups on this list from the tasks I've just completed)
At the end of the day I go through the list to see what needs doing tomorrow from what I noted down ... a lot of it can just be discarded. If I can't quite let go of something then I put it on what I call the Backburner list, which I only check once a week to see if there's anything I want to get back to. Every month I go through the Backburner and remove any items that have 'gone stale'

Like I mentioned on another page, I struggled a bit with projects, but Mark's post on dynamic lists really helped me improve what I do with them - basically start a new dynamic list for that project, but only for that day.

I love all the methods that are discussed on this site and how they can be used together to make a hybrid system that works for me!
February 14, 2016 at 15:40 | Unregistered CommenterDAZ
Mark, thank you. This was clear, I got tense just reading the long list. Wanted to go do something else or take a nap. Felt relaxed and excited to get started on the short list. And neither were even my lists.
February 14, 2016 at 22:26 | Registered CommentermatthewS
hi Mark,

I'm challenged a bit with this notion of no-list. I like the narrow focus that it provides, but with 20-30 projects of various scopes going on, I struggle with how you wouldn't have at least a list of open projects going.

I'm drawn to your idea partially because I believe in trusting my mind when it comes to handling what needs to be done, but I also know that without a prompt our minds tend to deal with what's in front of us and not longer-range plans/deadlines that might not be the most urgent/immediate items to handle.

Do you see this 'no-list' system functioning even for folks like me who have a lot of projects at one time?

Thanks for the response,

brett
February 18, 2016 at 16:56 | Unregistered Commenterbrett
Brett,

(I know: I'm not Mark - feel free to ignore!)

I'm probably doing this all wrong, but when I started trying this out, I started by scribbling a mind map of my commitments. I referred to this when the worry about forgetting a commitment became too much.

Here's a thing, though: I'm fairly confident I could draw it (or a better one) from memory tomorrow. I might just do that, like Auerbach and his daily renewed paintings. My work life as a work of art. Why not?

Cheers,

Will

:0)
February 18, 2016 at 18:59 | Unregistered CommenterWill
Brett:

<< with 20-30 projects of various scopes going on, I struggle with how you wouldn't have at least a list of open projects going. >>

In "Secrets of Productive People" I recommend that you have a list of authorized projects (rather like a firm has a list of authorized tradesmen). You are not permitted to put any task on your to-do list which doesn't relate to one of these projects.

If you want to introduce a new project you have to show what projects have ceased or have been weeded out in order to make room for the new project.
February 18, 2016 at 22:07 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks Mark. As an HR professional, I'm constantly having new projects come in. I define a project that takes multiple steps:

For example:

Business location X wants a wage survey done.

This is something that falls under my purview, so I have to make room for it even if another project hasn't fallen off.

Are you suggesting I keep a list of each of these projects?

By the way, I'm reading SoPP and it's quite good!

thanks,

brett
February 19, 2016 at 16:30 | Unregistered Commenterbrett
brett:

<< Are you suggesting I keep a list of each of these projects? >>

How are you keeping track of them at the moment? Does it work?
February 19, 2016 at 18:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
hi mark

it definitely does. point well made.

brett
February 20, 2016 at 4:33 | Unregistered Commenterbrett
The 5T list system feels different from no-list in one way.

In no-list I cannot list a task unless I have actioned it. In 5T I can list 5 tasks without actioning them and then keep procrastinating on them.

The actioning requirement of no-list seems to be really powerful. The fear of forgetting the task without a list forces it to be done. No-list says: action this task to write it or you will forget it.

The connection with Marie Kondo is that to figure out if a book sparks joy or not you cannot just look at its spine. You have to take the book out, hold it, touch it with your palm and then decide.

In the same way no-list makes you touch the task by doing a tiny action on it. Usually the task turns out to be less unpleasant than I initially thought. The resistance melts away. Or if it is truly kills joy it can be purged forever.
May 25, 2016 at 1:08 | Unregistered CommenterAsim Jalis
Actually the 5T method was the first "no-list" method that Mark published. (Unless maybe you count SMEMA, but that was long before the "no-list" terminology started to catch on.)

The rule not to write it down unless you take immediate action isn't a requirement for "no-list". But it does seem to make a big difference for some people. I personally couldn't get it to work. I prefer to take a blank whiteboard and write down everything on my mind. If it looks like too much to do in the immediate timeframe, then I erase it down to 3-5 items. Then I work it from there. But if it starts to feel stale or irrelevant, I erase the whole thing and start over.

I think the key difference between "catch-all" and "no-list" is that "catch-all" is an enumeration of all your "debts" -- you write down all your obligations and tasks and commitments and work through them. With "no-list" you just write down what you are currently engaged with. This keeps it much more focused and alive and engaging. It's more of a way to get engaged with your work, rather than enumerating all of your backlogs.
May 27, 2016 at 17:14 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Seraphim:

<< I think the key difference between "catch-all" and "no-list" is that "catch-all" is an enumeration of all your "debts" -- you write down all your obligations and tasks and commitments and work through them. With "no-list" you just write down what you are currently engaged with. This keeps it much more focused and alive and engaging. It's more of a way to get engaged with your work, rather than enumerating all of your backlogs. >>

What you say is absolutely right. But for me the key point is what you end up with at the end of the day:

With a "catch-all" system you end up with a list of what you haven't done
With a "no-list" you end up with a list of what you have done.
May 29, 2016 at 20:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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