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« My Book Challenge - Update | Main | No-List Types - IV: Rotating Lists »
Tuesday
Apr192016

Input vs. Output 

In my February 12th article What is a “no-list” system? I gave an example of what a typical “catch-all” list looks like:

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

I also gave an example of what a typical “no-list” looks like. Many “no-lists” are actually or shorter than this:

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

And I asked the question “Which do you think is likely to produce the most focused action?”

I was re-reading this article yesterday evening, and it struck me that the real difference between the lists was not their length, but the fact that the “catch-all” list concentrates on input while the “no-list” concentrates on output.

The “catch-all” is basically a list of everthing that might, should or could be done sometime in the near future. It gathers together all the ideas, requests, thoughts, obligations, necessities, commitments that continue to enter one’s life in an almost incessant stream. It is in other words a list of all the input into one’s life. When, how and whether it will all actually get done is another question.

The “no-list” on the other hand is a list of the things you are actually about to do in the immediate future, usually in the order in which you are going to do them. Barring unforeseen events, they will get done more or less immediately. The “no-list” in other words is not concerned with listing input, it is purely a list of what is about to be output.

As such it will fill the entire day with output. The list of tasks on your “no-list” which have been crossed out as completed may be almost as long as a “catch-all” list. The difference is the rather major one that the “catch-all” list at the end of the day is a list of what hasn’t been done, while the “no-list” is a list of what has been done.

Of course the real question is not the mechanics of how things get done, but whether the things which get done are what should have been done. The common objection to a “no-list” approach is that one may forget to do things because one is simply relying on one’s memory. This is not really a valid objection for two reasons:

  1. The “catch-all” list provides a huge list of things to use as avoidance activities, so you are just as likely to fail to “get round” to doing something with a “catch-all” list as you are to forget something with a “no-list”.
  2. The “no-list” does not rely on memory.

Let’s look more closely at the second point. When your mind has no long list to rely on, what sort of tasks is it going to choose next to put on the “no-list”? It will probably come up with some of the following;

  • The next task in an established routine
  • Something that is on your mind because you are currently working on it
  • A project you have previously decided will be your main focus for the day
  • An urgent project or task
  • Something which is causing you concern because it is overdue or in danger of becoming so
  • Something you make a conscious decision to do because you want to do it
  • A scheduled reminder

This results in much more focused action than a long diffuse list of “everything”.

Reader Comments (13)

I think this is why the No List AF test did not meet your expectation of being both focused like a No-List, and broad like a Catch-All. The method we tested involved the No-List'ish practice of only writing something down when you do it. Hence it couldn't "Catch-all" ideas and responsibilities that cropped up. And that's the only real strength of a Catch-all list - that it catches all. It gives one the sense that nothing is being forgotten. So the method did not work as a Catch-All because it was not catching all. It also failed as a No-List because it allowed things to accrue which you were not actually doing right now. This grew into somewhat of a bloat of unfinished tasks. True, it was a limited bloat, and it was reset each day (if I recall correctly), but nonetheless, it dulled the otherwise sharp focus of a No-List.

In attempting to be both opposing ends of the spectrum at the same time, it wound up averaging to a mediocre middle ground.

At least that was my experience with it. Since the No-List AF experiment, I've returned to my No-List method of choice.
April 19, 2016 at 18:41 | Unregistered CommenterMiracle
Miracle:

<< Since the No-List AF experiment, I've returned to my No-List method of choice. >>

As have I.
April 19, 2016 at 19:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I agree with you, Mark, that the No List method is an effective way to focus on a few items that are important to you. The weakness of the No List Method is that it oversimplifies the problem of effective time management.

The Catch All list is useful to ensure you do not drop the ball on some commitment. The weakness of the Catch All list is that is overcomplexifies (is that word?) time management,

I think a happy compromise is the Personal Kanban approach espoused in the short video http://www.personalkanban.com/pk/#sthash.gNcJGb5p.dpbs
April 20, 2016 at 12:33 | Unregistered CommenterPaul B
Paul B:

<< I agree with you, Mark, that the No List method is an effective way to focus on a few items that are important to you. The weakness of the No List Method is that it oversimplifies the problem of effective time management. >>

Focusing on a few items that are important to you is a pretty good description of what effective time management is.

As for Personal Kanban, if it works for you fine, but I've never found it works for me. In fact if you've got the time to write something further, I'd appreciate it if you (or anyone else who uses it successfully) could describe how you actually make it work.

I appreciate that the speaker on the video may be simplifying things for the purpose of presentation, but a no-list system like the one I'm using at the moment, the 3/2 Hammer, makes very short work of only 12 projects as he had in column 1. In fact it's lunchtime now and I've already returned 12 projects to state zero, including 30 minutes' reading and an hour's run. I can't see how Kanban could have improved on that.
April 20, 2016 at 13:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
i don't think the Kanban described in the video would improve on your 3/2 hammer system . Both limit the tasks in progress to a few items and allow one to focus. In fact, I see a lot of similarity between the Kanban and the 3/2 hammer system except that the "options" list is explicitly written down in the Kanban as opposed to being generated spontaneously or kept in your head for the 3/2 hammer.
April 20, 2016 at 16:37 | Unregistered CommenterPaul B
PaulB:

<< I see a lot of similarity between the Kanban and the 3/2 hammer system except that the "options" list is explicitly written down in the Kanban >>

But this is exactly the problem. Instead of having just three tasks which are generated spontaneously from what you are working on, you are selecting the three tasks from a "catch-all" list. How are the three tasks selected? By importance, urgency, because you feel like doing them or what? Maybe it's all explained in the book, which I haven't read. But when I tried doing Kanban a few years back according to my understanding of it I just got bogged down in a huge Options List.

Or maybe the idea is that the Options list is a list of major projects, so you might have headings like Communications, Project X, Project Y, Project Z, Minor Tasks, Maintenance, Staffing, Customer Relations, Budgeting, Reporting, Personal Administration, New Regulations. In which case each project would have a list of outstanding action. I've tried working like that and it quickly turned into a nightmare.

So, as I said above, what I would like is a clear explanation from someone who has actually done it successfully of what's supposed to happen.
April 20, 2016 at 18:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hello,
I've been trying your 5T no-list method and very much like that it supports focused engagement with a few key projects. However I have found that I have overlooked a couple of items that I had previously noted on a catch-all list, so some kind of check against commitments seems necessary to me.
Your objections to a catch-all list don't quite work to my mind:
- "The “catch-all” list provides a huge list of things to use as avoidance activities" - well they are potential avoidance activities, but if it is the source for a closed day list based on a question like "what do I want to have done today", then I don't find that it leads to avoidance
- "The “no-list” does not rely on memory" - perhaps the issue with my forgetting issue above is that at that point my work input was exceeding my work output, hence in that situation I seem to need a method of recording and reviewing commitments in order to feed into my day list.
Comments welcome. Many thanks.
April 21, 2016 at 12:47 | Unregistered CommenterColin V
Just to add (re my post above); I'm aware of the need to control work commitments such that outputs can match inputs over time, I'm speaking here more of a temporary fluctuation, whereby over a few days to a week demands from inside and outside the organisation can mushroom; my system needs to be able to deal with this situation for the period before catching up.
April 21, 2016 at 14:04 | Unregistered CommenterColin V
Colin V:

<< I've been trying your 5T no-list method and very much like that it supports focused engagement with a few key projects. >>

I'm glad you like it, but it doesn't just support focused engagement with a few key projects. You should be able to do at least as much work with it as with a catch-all system and in addition the work should be relevant and up to date.

<< However I have found that I have overlooked a couple of items that I had previously noted on a catch-all list, so some kind of check against commitments seems necessary to me. >>

Have you never overlooked or failed to get round to items in spite of the fact that they are on your catch-all list?

In any case changing to an entirely new way of working takes practice before you get it right every time.
April 21, 2016 at 23:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
RE Personal Kanban - I've experimented with this quite a bit, and found you can get all the goodness using a 5T list and a project/commitment list on a whiteboard, without the (mostly needless) complexity of columns and stickies and all that.

The "two fundamental rules" of Personal Kanban are
1. Visualize your work
2. Limit WIP

The whiteboard accomplishes both of these things. It makes the work visible, at least if you put your whiteboard somewhere nearby and prominent. And it limits WIP both by following the 5T rule but also because whiteboards are finite in size.
April 22, 2016 at 3:39 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Colin V. wrote:
<< seem to need a method of recording and reviewing commitments in order to feed into my day list. >>

I just keep a side list of projects / deliverables / commitments and review it sometimes. If I have something I really don't want to forget, I just write it there. It's not a catch-all -- it must be a specific definable commitment, like a project deadline or very specific reminder. If it starts to collect too many odds and ends then "clear out the odds & ends" generally finds itself being added to my 5T list. :-)
April 22, 2016 at 3:43 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Seraphim:

<< I've experimented with this quite a bit, and found you can get all the goodness using a 5T list and a project/commitment list on a whiteboard >>

In "Secrets of Productive People" I recommend using an authorized project list with the 5T list, so the difference seems to be in the visual aspect of the whiteboard. I'm not a very visual person myself, but I can see that it might help someone who was.

<< I just keep a side list of projects / deliverables / commitments and review it sometimes. If I have something I really don't want to forget, I just write it there. It's not a catch-all -- it must be a specific definable commitment, like a project deadline or very specific reminder. >>

It sounds very like the specific reminders which the book also recommends using with 5T
April 22, 2016 at 9:38 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm doing a relaxed 5T (or one hour) method. It's worked great for a few weeks.

I begin the day by listing my big rocks. Appointments, deadlines and key steps, things from my tickler file, and routines. (For routines, I list every step using abbreviations. Often, I can't do the routine in the same order. Crossing out some letters but not others focuses me on the things I haven't done.)

One of the rocks is a list of all my active projects, for a 15-second check-in. Many are Little and Often. A few are "is it worth replying to the conversation yet?"

Every few days I look back at older pages (and cross out completed pages), and at other logs.

Each task gets a time estimate, including travel and recovery. Compare the total to reality. Adjust as necessary.

That way, the big rocks are very visible, and I know how much free time I have.

I also save part of the page for random notes and things that come up; that's my catch-all space. Evaluation is a much later step.

Seeing the big rocks on the same page puts new things in perspective. Yes, stuff goes on that is deleted later, but it's a lot less than before.
April 24, 2016 at 4:29 | Registered CommenterCricket

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