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Friday
Mar182016

Willpower and Time Management - II

Yesterday in Paying the Price I said that we can only claim that we really want something if we are prepared to pay the price. This applies whether we want to play a musical instrument, get fit, set up our own business, write a book or even just have a tidy office.

This is closely related to what I said In Willpower and Time Management - I :

“Consistent action to follow one’s long-term goals can only be carried out by constructing a scenario in which it’s easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.”

In the past I’ve frequently used the analogy of a river and a swamp. In both cases water is just doing what water does, and the difference lies in the surrounding circumstances.

In the same way humans just do what humans do. The difference between success and failure in a productive goal is all in the surroundings.

My contention is that no-list systems are better than catch-all systems at providing the surroundings needed for success.

Why?

The reason is because a catch-all system is based on a long list of everything that you have to do. Since the list may be fifty to a hundred items (or more) long it is obviously impossible for it all to be done immediately. So it becomes a list of things over which you are delaying action.

The process you are building into your brain with a catch-all list is therefore:

  1. Decide to do
  2. Put on List
  3. Delay action

A no-list system on the other hand  is about immediate action. A no-list system will typically be dealing with five or less tasks at a time.

Therefore the process you are building into your brain with a no-list system is:

  1. Decide to do
  2. Put on list
  3. Take action

You have the impulse to do something, and almost immediately you take action on that impulse. The act of writing it down prevents you from merely drifting. Writing it focuses the mind and ensures that you are taking action purposefully.

The very fact that you have started to take action begins to lay down patterns of action in your brain.

Perhaps the most important pattern is that when you write something on your list you take action on it. Action becomes the natural consequence of writing something down. And writing something down is the natural consequence of deciding to do it.

Another almost equally important pattern is that once you’ve written something down and have started to take action you tend to continue in that action in the future. Every time you continue to take action you reinforce the new pattern.

A third important pattern is that having written actions down in a certain order you have begun to lay this down as a pattern for action in the future.

What has happened is that you have initiated action, reinforced action and laid down a sequence of action. You have in other words constructed the circumstances which will lead you to sticking with the goal.

Reader Comments (21)

Thanks Mark!

<<In the past I’ve frequently used the analogy of a river and a swamp. In both cases water is just doing what water does, and the difference lies in the surrounding circumstances.>>

This ist eye-opening :-)

What I experience is that the surrounding cirumstances are build by our Environment (the Boss, the spouse, the Kids, the lazyness, your self-ego, and so forth). I feel, that we are not the master of this environment. Thus, the no-list on one side brings relief (no long list nagging), but also do not align to the "Environment" intended by _others_.

This maybe asked frequently...
Before drafting the no-list (e.g. 5T) do you take a quick view in your calender (Meetings, Milestones, ...) and in a so called "commitment list" where the intended environment by others are mapped (e.g. "renovate K2ids room till end of April"; "do sales analyses for bob"; ........)? And then commit to your next 5 Tasks? So, IMO the commitment list will be the replacement for the Long-list - where you get tension about what you should do in the future (which never exists, only in the now).
I'm not clear about how to generate the no-list (to stay reliable to others) - and I'm looking forward to your new system.

(Probably this is answered in your new book - I haven't finished it already ;-)

Cheers!
Jens
March 18, 2016 at 12:08 | Unregistered CommenterJens
Dear Mark,
I have been reading your blog this year, following on from reading Do It Tomorrow last year, and am looking forward to reading your more recent book (when I have finished my current book!).
I mainly wanted to say thank you very much for the work you are doing in freeing people up from being unproductively overburdened. This month I have for the first time, after many years of struggling with an ever-growing backlog, succeeded in implementing a system of clearing yesterday's work by the end of the day, as well as made some headway into the backlog. A helpful aid to this has been keeping a daily productivity diary, just a couple of lines on how the day went, to help keep this perspective in mind. This may not sound earth-shattering to most people, but it has shifted a background feeling that I'm always failing and brought a greater confidence that I am capable of assessing what's needed and taking effective action, which has transformed my experience of work. It's only 3 weeks so far, but the signs are that it is sustainable change, and definitely a shift that I wish to build on, so thank you!
March 18, 2016 at 12:13 | Unregistered CommenterColin V
Jens:

<< What I experience is that the surrounding cirumstances are build by our Environment (the Boss, the spouse, the Kids, the lazyness, your self-ego, and so forth). I feel, that we are not the master of this environment. >>

The message I am trying to get over in this post is that catch-all lists are an attempt to respond to our external environment, which as you rightly say is mainly set by other people.

The no-list internalizes your work by building up your internal environment. Your action becomes self-directed and you build up routines and habits of mind which enable you to control the external environment rather than just react to it.

There is a big distinction to be made between reminders of action which you are definitely going to take, and lists of possible actions which may or may not get done some time in the future.

For instance before I moved to no-list working I had 100+ items on my catch-all list. For today's work I have three reminders: 1) to bring the rubbish bin back in, 2) to go to a doctor's appointment this morning and 3) to take my wife to the cinema this afternoon.

Note that these three reminders are things I am definitely going to do today. They are not optional. They are reminders, not to-do tasks.

In spite of the absence of list, I am getting more done, not less, during a day.

http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2016/3/7/first-day-of-testing.html
March 18, 2016 at 15:11 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Colin V:

<< A helpful aid to this has been keeping a daily productivity diary, just a couple of lines on how the day went, >>

Excellent. As you are finding, that is a very effective method of assessing your day.
March 18, 2016 at 15:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,
thanks for your valuable reply.

This requires a turn of my current mindset regarding todos - not that easy, but promising :-)

<<There is a big distinction to be made between ___reminders of Action___ which you are definitely going to take, and lists of possible actions which may or may not get done some time in the future.>>

Do I get it right: Make a list of "reminders of Actions" with stuff I definitely committed to do (what I called the "commitment list" in my post above)?
E.g.
I promise my boss to do the market analyses till end of April. So I put this on the calender, only?
I promise my wife to make a perfect dinner soon. So I put this on what? A reminder list? Keep it in my mind (and probably forget)?

Probably I don't see the forest for the trees?
March 18, 2016 at 15:46 | Unregistered CommenterJens
Jens:

<< I promise my boss to do the market analyses till end of April. So I put this on the calender, only? >>

Yes, this is ideal for putting on the calendar on the day or days you are going to do it. For instance I put in a claim for tax rebate monthly for a local charity. I do it on the last business day of the month, so I have a reminder in my calendar this month on 31 April.

<< I promise my wife to make a perfect dinner soon. So I put this on what? A reminder list? Keep it in my mind (and probably forget)? >>

This is an example of a vague commitment which you may or may not get round to sometime. Forget about putting it on a reminder list. If you really intend to do it, tell your wife which night you are going to do it and put it in your calendar.
March 18, 2016 at 16:00 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark wrote: "In the same way humans just do what humans do. The difference between success and failure in a productive goal is all in the surroundings. My contention is that no-list systems are better than catch-all systems at providing the surroundings needed for success."

I'm interested in exploring this contention. I've previously stated my beliefs on this. I think that success and failure comes down to understanding the specifics of one's commitments (to others and to oneself). I think one has an increased chance of failure if the commitments are either ill-defined, or else too large. Contemplating such commitments gives the feeling that some would call resistance. In those cases, going through them to understand them or break them down allows actionable steps towards the goal to be defined.

It's my experience that if commitments are defined and understood, the use or not of any list is largely irrelevant. It can help as a memory tool if there are a number of things to do but in and of itself having a long list is no different to having a short list, or no list.

However if commitments are poorly defined or not understood, they can find their way onto a todo list as something to be gotten around to, possibly later the same day. It's a coping mechanism - putting it on a list feels like something has been done to move it along, and this masks the feeling of unease generated by thinking deeper about them. But since the feelings of unease which go with them will still be present, they can languish on the list for ages without progress. But that's not a failing of using a list, it's a failure to clarify one's commitments.

In fact I believe that "falling off the wagon" and changing systems is in itself a culmination of too many poorly defined commitments overwhelming an indivudual, and a coping mechanism for giving a feeling of getting back on top of them, which of course is doomed to failure without actually definining them and breaking them down. I've previously talking about how this results in gaming systems before moving to something new, that used to be my experience, and is extremely common when reading others' experiences around the Web.

My experience these days is

1. Clarify specifics of commitments
2. Generate things to do to move them along
3. Do them

I don't use a system and occasionally use a list if other stuff is coming in I don't want to forget and I'm able to accomplish everything from daily tasks to progressing long term goals each day.

I'm curious if anyone else has had a similar experience.

Chris
March 18, 2016 at 18:39 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Chris;

It's very interesting what you say here. Rather than reply in the comments, I think I'll make a blog post out of it. It won't be tomorrow (Saturday) as that's already taken. So I'll write it for Sunday.
March 18, 2016 at 23:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ace, thanks Mark.

Chris
March 19, 2016 at 0:54 | Unregistered CommenterChris
Mark Forster:

<<Perhaps the most important pattern is that when you write something on your list you take action on it.>>

I have found that sometimes using pen and paper creates friction, because it is assumed that you have to go to your table and make a record in your list.

Alternative decision that works faster to me:
say to yourself mentally: "I am intending to do Task X" and then do it.

If I find myself forgetting to say this magic formula, that means that I am drifting.
March 19, 2016 at 10:09 | Unregistered CommenterShamil
Shamil:

<< Alternative decision that works faster to me:
say to yourself mentally: "I am intending to do Task X" and then do it. >>

That certainly makes sense, especially when it's impossible or inconvenient to write your next actions down. However there are definite advantages to writing them down, so my advice is to write whenever possible.
March 19, 2016 at 11:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark Forster:

<<...write whenever possible>>

Got it. Thanks Mark!
March 19, 2016 at 13:34 | Unregistered CommenterShamil
Putting it on the calendar on the due date would not work at all for me for large projects.

I need to break it down until I know roughly how long it will take, and think about the various steps and type of work. Not formally, but enough to know when to contact people so they get back to me in time. Is there something I can do when not alert? Will it need huge swaths of prime attention time?

I need to put milestones (private deadlines) in whatever system I'm using. Something that tells me if I'm falling behind, usually one per week.

Did I promise to do two large projects during the same month? Seeing milestones already in my system is a good warning -- which is another reason I like them weekly.
March 19, 2016 at 21:21 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket,

It sounds as though for each key project, you have an accumulating list of at least the main milestones required to deliver it and possibly the key actions for those milestones.

Mark,

It seems to me that this is entirely in line with your thinking. Can you please confirm or correct?

Thanks! :0)
March 22, 2016 at 20:58 | Registered CommenterWill
Will:

<< It seems to me that this is entirely in line with your thinking >>

It is indeed. Planning and scheduling a project is part of working on it. There may be many "due dates" for a large project.
March 22, 2016 at 22:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Will,

The milestones (aka deadlines for key actions) live on my calendar, not an accumulating list. My comment was in response to putting only the final deadline on his calendar, so people could learn from my experience rather than repeat the experiment. I don't always meet my milestones, but setting them helps me avoid leaving everything to the last minute, and putting too much work into a week.

(I rarely schedule my time more than a week ahead, and even then only if I'm worried. I will if there's a very short window that I need to keep clear, but it's usually not worth the effort and constant updating.)
March 23, 2016 at 16:36 | Registered CommenterCricket
Thanks for the clarification, Cricket.

Am I right in thinking that your entries are there to remind you that a task should be complete and trigger remedial action if not (or rather, trigger any necessary remaining action when the reminder heaves over your planning horizon)?

This is subtly different from Mark's proposal that we enter when we should be doing, or starting, the task. I rather like it. Do you find that you are tending to do the work in the final week, when the reminder is showing?

Is a calendar a special case of an accumulating list? To qualify, it would have to be focused on a particular task or commitment. Which it isn't.

It feels to me as though this sort of musing is helping me grope towards a better grasp of how these components fit together. If it is intensely irritating to everyone else, just say the word.
March 23, 2016 at 17:07 | Registered CommenterWill
Will,

No, I don't tend to do the work in the final week.

For larger projects, where I want to start earlier than a week, I'll add an internal deadline. As Mark said, "There may be many "due dates" for a large project." I set those deadlines so when planning the week I should start it, I see the deadline.

When I see a deadline, I know there's an associated start date. I look ahead by a week when doing my weekly planning, so I'll see any close deadlines.

So, even though I'm not writing them down, the start dates are there.

For example, if I have to call 20 teachers for class details, and know they're each so draining that I can only do one a day, I set deadlines once a week. Counting backwards: Catchup week; 20 (all) done; 15 done; 10 done; 5 done. One Friday, I'll look ahead by a week, see "5 calls due," and know I need to start.

I err on the safe side when setting deadlines, and assume I'll be fairly busy. As the date approaches, I might realize I'm less busy than feared, or that I've already had informal discussions with many of the teachers, or someone volunteered to help (and pigs fly). If that's the case, I might let things slide. On the other hand, if none of those happy things happen, I'll still be ok.
March 24, 2016 at 15:32 | Registered CommenterCricket
Thanks, Cricket.

That was what I meant. It sounds as though you're making sure that you have at least a week to do each week's worth of work, and your milestones are effectively scheduling when the work gets done. That's what I meant by "doing the work in the final week". I should have said "...the final week of each milestone".
March 24, 2016 at 16:28 | Registered CommenterWill
Mark,

You said " I do it on the last business day of the month, so I have a reminder in my calendar this month on 31 April."

Does this really get done on time? :)
April 6, 2016 at 5:22 | Registered CommenterMartyH
MartyH:

<< Does this really get done on time? :) >>

Well, spotted. I meant 31 March. And yes, it did get done on time!
April 6, 2016 at 9:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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