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« My New Time Management System - Update | Main | Overcommitment and the Catch-All List »

Overcommitment and No-List

As you may have noticed I have been writing a lot recently about no-list methods of working.

The hyphen in no-list is important to distinguish it from working without a to-do list at all. Nor does it mean having no lists of any kind whatsoever.

What it does mean is that, instead of having a long to-do list that gets carried over from day to day, you work from a short buffer of tasks which you write from the contents of your own mind. There a many possible ways of doing this, but a typical example is the one given in my book Secrets of Productive People in which you write down five tasks and replenish the list back to five every time only two tasks are left.

The point of no-list methods is that, instead of relying on a list written in the past about what you might do in the future, you are working directly from what is fresh in your mind. You are involved in your own work, and you know better than anyone else what needs doing at the moment.

There are other advantages of the no-list approach:

You can see exactly how much you have done during a day

There is no carry over of undone tasks

It suits inbox zero working

A no-list approach is closely allied with an inbox zero approach. In the inbox zero approach the driver of your work is your inboxes. These may be an actual physical inbox in the case of paper, electronic inboxes in the case of email and suchlike, or metaphorical inboxes in the case of actions falling due for projects. One of the things that needs stressing about the no-list approach is that it is not an exercise in memory. The most common objection to it is “How am I going to remember all those things that I have got to do?”. The simple answer to that question is that there shouldn’t be any things you have to do - because you keep your inboxes empty!

The inbox zero approach is this. Work should never be put off into the future if it belongs in the present. Of course much of our work often does belong in the future. If you are writing a book to a deadline, scheduling construction projects, booking cars into your workshop and so on, then much of the work belongs in the future and that’s when it should be done. Most detailed plans in organizations require the work to be done in stages. But with an inbox zero approach you should always be up-to-date with the current stage.

With future projects the whole point of scheduling is that you avoid taking on more than you are able to do. If you are booking cars for service into your workshop you know how long it takes to service a car and you don’t book in more than you can handle. If you are writing a book, your present work is the number of words you need to write per day to meet your deadline. You are not putting this work off into the future. It belongs in the future.

Everyone adopting a no-list approach needs to be vigilant in not using project plans and schedules as a way of disguising present work as future work. The basic principle to remember is “If it can be done now then it should be done now”. If you can’t do it now because you don’t have time, then you are overcommitted.

Reader Comments (15)

"A no-list approach is closely allied with an inbox zero approach. In the inbox zero approach the driver of your work is your inboxes."

A corollary would appear to be that you sometimes need to take action to make sure that work hits your inbox at the right time (when it can be done). Hmmm...

This is a dramatic change for me. I have striven to avoid being driven by whatever happens to hit my inbox. I suspect that's one function of the buffer.
February 24, 2016 at 9:30 | Registered CommenterWill

<< A corollary would appear to be that you sometimes need to take action to make sure that work hits your inbox at the right time (when it can be done). >>

But equally you need to make sure that time is made available to empty your inboxes. For instance one of my inboxes is Comments on this site. Your comment is time-stamped 9.30 a.m. UK time. I'm replying less than 40 minutes after that. That's not a coincidence.

Another corollary is that you always need to take action to make sure that your inboxes contain only stuff which is relevant to your projects.
February 24, 2016 at 10:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"Only stuff which is relevant to your projects..."

I stand admonished: bye for now!

February 24, 2016 at 13:43 | Registered CommenterWill
Mark, how will you handle getting an email that includes lenghty reading material (3 hours worth).

You want to read it if there is time, but there is no time pressure. The reading material is thus discretionary only.

It is too big for a minor task and does not fit a project.

Would you put this on an accumulation list list "Pocket"?

But then, how do ensure that the "Pocket" list does not explode or becomes a someday/maybe list that you never really pay attention too?
February 24, 2016 at 20:13 | Unregistered CommenterNico

<< how will you handle getting an email that includes lenghty reading material (3 hours worth). >>

There's no one way of doing this of course. If I were using the 5T method I'd make a task of it and keep re-entering it until I'd finished the email.

Basically, if you want to read it you should read it now. If you don't want to read it now, you should forget about reading it.

If it's a non-work email then make a note in your schedule to read it at the weekend.
February 24, 2016 at 20:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

That makes no sense. How do you plan to be strategic of the only things you do are those you can do now?

Sounds like a recipe for shortsightedness.

February 25, 2016 at 2:41 | Unregistered CommenterBrett

I reread my prior post. didn't come off the way I intended.

my main concern is becoming so tactical that I forget the long term plans and strategies.

have you seen a tendency to focus on what's currently coming at you to the detriment of purposeful choosing of actions? if not; how have you avoided that?

thank you

February 25, 2016 at 4:43 | Unregistered Commenterbrett

<< How do you plan to be strategic of the only things you do are those you can do now? >>

Because strategizing is something that you can do now.
February 25, 2016 at 11:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, your answer puts it in a nutshell:

Strategizing is, as everthing else, something you only can do NOW. Because - there is only NOW. If you do Project planing or cooking Pasta - you only do it NOW.

Marks "no list System" has IMHO a touch of spirituality :-)
It gives me and some/many others (as I already read here) great relief. I must admit, that it took me several days of practice of "no list" to surrender to the urge to have everthing under control, in long list and so on.
February 25, 2016 at 11:41 | Unregistered Commenterjens
Mark said “If you can’t do it now because you don’t have time, then you are overcommitted.”

That sums up why I left my SMEMA experiment in the first place. It worked swimmingly for about a month, then my commitments increased drastically and I couldn’t keep up using SMEMA. I began to feel overwhelm that comes from over commitment, and I took it as a failure of the SMEMA method. I abandoned SMEMA and went back to FV – which feels like a halfway house between Catch-All and No-List. Of course I then struggled to keep my FV list properly weeded. In retrospect, I did not fix the problem of over commitment, I just switched to a method that helped me better navigate my over commitment.

But these recent posts have reminded me how smoothly my work flew by during that month using SMEMA, and I want to go back. But commitments seem to have a long-term wax and wane, and because of this, over commitment will always be a danger. So how to handle it using a No-List like SMEMA?

I find myself leaning back on Marks advice in “Do It Tomorrow.” While still using my No-List method, I could use the 3 step backlog method first presented in DIT, pg 28-30, and later posted here ( ) to eliminate my backlog of commitments.

STEP 1: Write a CLOSED List of all current Commitments, stating each at the “Commitment Level” (eg: “New Alternator for Car” instead of “Call AutoZone about cost of new alternator”)

STEP 2: Every day, write my 5 Best Ideas on the 3 topics of a DIT Audit (DIT pg 154-157), which are:

How can I reduce my incoming commitments?
How can I set aside more time to work on my incoming commitments?
How can I work on my incoming commitments more efficiently?

I would allow these daily Ideas to fuel my No-List method and begin to adjust my systems and commitments according to the best of the best Ideas.

STEP 3: In parallel to STEP 2, I will review and weed the Commitment List daily. Also, I will use the FVP algorithm with the question “What is more urgent than X” on my Commitment List to nominate the most urgent commitment. I will treat that commitment as a Current Initiative to inform the task selection when running my No-List method.

I will know this method is successful if I manage to work STEP 2 well enough to get to the point where I can use my No-List method while feeling no TEMPTATION to add further commitments to the CLOSED Commitment List. (As it is a closed list, I will not give in to the temptation of course, the trigger here is no longer FEELING the temptation.) And full recovery will of course come when the Commitment List has been eradicated.
February 25, 2016 at 14:43 | Unregistered CommenterMiracle
This is how I have been doing things for a few weeks now:

I don't use a task list of any kind. I am as No List as you can get.

I have a list of projects. It is short and covers all areas of my life including entertainment. I also have a list of life and work goals that I update as needed.

Every time I finish a task, I ask myself what is the best thing to be doing now, and I do that until I have had enough or it is finished. I try to go through my whole day like that.

I have been operating inbox empty techniques for years and try to always be ahead of the curve. This colours my answers to the question of what is best to do now. Inboxes aren't just email, post, voicemail and stuff like that, they are shows in your Netflix queue, piles of books to read, dishwashers to empty, kitchens and bathrooms to clean. I clean as I go, tidy while waiting for the kettle to boil, and use triggers to initiate small actions.

If some new urgent task turns up, I deal with it immediately or at the next task change.

If I am interrupted, I stop doing what I am doing and deal with the interruption. That might be by giving it time, or by dealing with it quickly so I can get back to what is the best thing to be doing now.

I use checklists for repetitive projects that I don't do often enough to have made them routine, such as taxes and accounts.

I (now) use dynamic lists for more complex projects where the next action isn't obvious. This list is destroyed at the end of the day or more frequently if appropriate.

I don't have very complex projects that involve lots of people and resources, so I rarely need to plan.

I wouldn't say it gets as much done as, say, AF1 or FVP, or especially the random method did for me, but it gets the right things done, which those other systems didn't. I am not busy, because all those small tasks that are written on catch-all lists just don't crop up, because they either never needed to be done in the first place, or only needed to be done at the moment they were written down, or were just busy-work to make my list look longer and me look busier and thus more important. Now, I have time to breathe, to think, to rest, the urgent is under control and the important stuff is progressed. And I have the capacity to deal with emergencies with less stress.

OK, some of it doesn't always work, but on the whole my life in general and work-life in particular are running smoother than I have ever known.

Thanks Mark. I couldn't have got here without you.
February 27, 2016 at 11:21 | Registered CommenterWooba

I'd like to re-post your comment as a blog post. Are you happy for me to do so?
February 27, 2016 at 16:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, I'd be honoured.
February 27, 2016 at 16:32 | Registered CommenterWooba
I understand the idea of a no-list and I enjoy the '5 things to work on' idea but Mark, do you keep a projects list? I run a small charity and there are 20+ different projects I need to keep on top of including fundraising, governance, publicity, etc. When I write my 5 things list, it tends to be what's currently on my mind but isn't there a danger that we miss important projects, especially if they don't have deadlines attached?
I'd be interested to hear how you keep things in your mind. A regular projects review time?
Thanks for your daily blogs this year - really enjoying them.
March 4, 2016 at 16:17 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

<< do you keep a projects list? >>

Yes. In "Secrets of Productive People" I recommend keeping a list of authorized projects.

The corollary is that you don't do anything which isn't part of an authorized project.
March 4, 2016 at 17:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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