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« How to Do Everything - I | Main | Sideways »
Sunday
May152016

A Second Variation on My No-List System

The sharp-eyed may have noticed that in the two-page spread in my note book yesterday I was working on a variation of the no-list method.

So how did that variation turn out in the end?

It appears to be surprisingly successful and has at least two potential advantages over the previous two variations:

  1. It makes the repetition of re-entered tasks significantly less tedious.
  2. It provides a better (and much-needed) structure for the system

Here’s how it works.

Four rules:

  1. Tasks can only be put on the list by writing them down and taking action on them immediately.
  2. You can only take action on the last active task on the list.
  3. A task can only be re-entered if it has not been finished.
  4. You add a new task in the following circumstances only:
    •  There are no active tasks on the list OR
    • The last active task on the list is the one that has just been re-entered.

Example:

You decide that you want to do some work on writing a report; so you write down:

Write Report

Once you have worked on it for a period you decide to take a break from it and work on something else for a bit. So you cross it out and re-enter it. You also enter the task you intend to do in its place.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post

You work on the Blog Post for a bit and then cross that out and re-enter it:

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post

In accordance with the rules you need to add another task to the list.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie

You watch about half the movie and decide you need to take a break from it. So you cross the task out and re-enter it.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Watch Movie

In accordance with the rules above, you now need to add another task. This time you select a simple task you can do in one go. You enter it, work on it and cross it out without re-entry.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Watch Movie
Check Calendar


What do you do now? In accordance with the rules the last active task is “Watch Movie”. So you watch the rest of it and cross it out.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

The last active task is now Blog Post. You work on it but don’t finish it, so re-enter it.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

Blog Post

And you need to enter another task since Blog Post has just been re-entered.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

Blog Post
Tidy Office

That’s as far as I’ll take the example. Note a couple of things about how the method works:

Re-entered tasks are only worked on one at a time. You don’t get a string of re-entered tasks all having to be worked on one after the other - which can be an annoyance with other variations. Nevertheless re-entered tasks get dealt with very effectively and new tasks are frequently added.

Since I’ve only just invented this variation, I obviously don’t have more than a tiny bit of experience with it, but I’m hoping it will get the tricky balance between new tasks and re-entered tasks just about right.

Reader Comments (21)

Thanks Mark - I'll give this a try right now. Over the past few days I've been using the Variation on No-List system and it works well, but I like the sound of this Second Variation.

Maybe the no-list systems are designed to be used without any other list to feed them, and I have experimented with that, but at the moment I prefer feeding them from my 'Algorithm', which is my guide on how to spend my day well. It lists the tasks in the (approximate) order I'll do them, and how long (approximately) to spend on each. It is designed for days when I have no appointments or commitments and am free to spend the whole day as i please. On days when I have less discretionary time, it's not possible to get everything on the list done but I'm confident that I'm working on tasks in the most effective order (for me).

My Algorithm is composed of (a) core activities that need to be done every day (daily checklist), (b) specific tasks that must be done today, and (c) focus areas, projects, work on commitments I've made, admin etc.

Best wishes.
May 15, 2016 at 11:59 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1
Margaret1:

I hope it works well for you.
May 15, 2016 at 12:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm curious about rule 2 - as far as I can tell, this means (like in your example) that if the first task is reentered, then that can't be worked on again until you have finished absolutely everything else you have since entered (due to the first reentered not becoming the last active task until then). This sounds strict to me, but then I'm not particularly experienced with such systems. Is this strictness intentional?
May 15, 2016 at 13:11 | Unregistered CommenterLII
Lll:

<< if the first task is reentered, then that can't be worked on again until you have finished absolutely everything else you have since entered >>

That's correct, yes. Bear in mind the list will normally be quite short - never more than three active tasks in the example. In the example you will probably finish both Tidy and Blog Post this go, which means that you will then be working on Write Report. The list won't normally grow much longer than this because of the way it is designed.
May 15, 2016 at 15:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
There's one thing about this new system that concerns me: isn't it possible (indeed, likely) that you'll fill your day up with non-essential stuff and never get back to your #1 priority?

Using your example, if "Write Report" is your number one priority for the day, how can you ensure that you actually spend most of your time working on it? Following the rules, it seems that you have to add new items before working on the report, and while you might be able to find some quick one-off tasks that can be done in one go, if you end up with two longer tasks that take up most of your day (in your example, maybe writing a blog post will take several hours), then won't you end up spending the least time on "Write Report", even though it's your highest priority and you started on it first because you wanted to get the most done on it?

Maybe I'm understanding this wrong, but it seems to me that you have to carefully "game" the system here, deliberately choosing new items in the light of how much time you do (or don't) want to spend on the items already on your list.

I'm currently using the original no-list system you described in your blog posting on the 9th of May. That system seems to give me the best balance of working on the top-priority items and still taking breaks to work on lower-priority items when I want to.

Thanks for the ongoing experimentation -- I'm just a little concerned about the way this new system forces you to add new items ahead of working on the earlier ones in your list, and what that might mean in terms of the work that has to get done today...

Thanks,

- Erik.
May 15, 2016 at 23:05 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
What happens if two or more exigencies turn up?
May 16, 2016 at 1:19 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Williams
Martin Williams,

If there is a crisis or urgent situation, or more than one, then your list is irrelevant, whatever kind of time management method you are using. You deal with the exigencies and get back to the list when you can.
May 16, 2016 at 8:25 | Registered CommenterWooba
What to do if it's physically impossible to work on the last active task? Re-enter it or remove from the list?
May 16, 2016 at 9:32 | Unregistered CommenterAlex.Muraviev
Eric:

<< There's one thing about this new system that concerns me: isn't it possible (indeed, likely) that you'll fill your day up with non-essential stuff and never get back to your #1 priority? >>

That's a possibility with any system. My experience with no-list systems in general and this system in particular is that you spend more time working on essential stuff than with other systems. However I'm not claiming that that will be everyone's experience. Find which system works best for you and then stick to it.

<< Using your example, if "Write Report" is your number one priority for the day, how can you ensure that you actually spend most of your time working on it? Following the rules, it seems that you have to add new items before working on the report, and while you might be able to find some quick one-off tasks that can be done in one go, if you end up with two longer tasks that take up most of your day (in your example, maybe writing a blog post will take several hours), then won't you end up spending the least time on "Write Report", even though it's your highest priority and you started on it first because you wanted to get the most done on it? >>

No system is a substitute for using your brain. If you deliberately (and it would have to be deliberately) bury your number one priority for the day, then you have only yourself to blame.

<< Maybe I'm understanding this wrong, but it seems to me that you have to carefully "game" the system here, deliberately choosing new items in the light of how much time you do (or don't) want to spend on the items already on your list. >>

That's not gaming the system. It's being sensible. But bear in mind that the way the system is constructed the list is seldom going to get longer than it is in the example.

<< I'm currently using the original no-list system you described in your blog posting on the 9th of May. That system seems to give me the best balance of working on the top-priority items and still taking breaks to work on lower-priority items when I want to. >>

That's the idea. Find the one that works best for you and use that.

<< Thanks for the ongoing experimentation -- I'm just a little concerned about the way this new system forces you to add new items ahead of working on the earlier ones in your list, and what that might mean in terms of the work that has to get done today... >>

You might want to try it out for a day or so and see how it actually works out in practice.
May 16, 2016 at 10:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Alex.Muraviev:

<< What to do if it's physically impossible to work on the last active task? Re-enter it or remove from the list? >>

Bearing in mind that the last active task will be something you've worked on very recently, that will only happen rarely. The answer really depends on how soon you will be able to work on it again. If the reason you can't work on it is temporary and will very soon be back to normal, then re-enter it. If it's going to be a longer break, delete it and put it back on the list when you can work on it.
May 16, 2016 at 11:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Martin Williams:

<< What happens if two or more exigencies turn up? >>

You deal with them one at a time.
May 16, 2016 at 11:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark Forster:

"The answer really depends on how soon you will be able to work on it again. If the reason you can't work on it is temporary and will very soon be back to normal, then re-enter it. If it's going to be a longer break, delete it and put it back on the list when you can work on it."

Very often the task can only be done tomorrow. So in this case it's better to delete it?
May 16, 2016 at 15:04 | Unregistered CommenterAlex.Muraviev
Mark:

<No system is a substitute for using your brain. If you deliberately (and it would have to be deliberately) bury your number one priority for the day, then you have only yourself to blame.>

Sorry, I probably didn't use a very good example. What I find happens with the version of no-list I've been using is that my day is typically filled with two large ongoing projects, and a bunch of smaller things that need doing throughout the day. One of the projects is a "have to do" -- mind-numbing proof-reading of hundreds of pages, while the second project is most definitely a "want to do" -- high value for me personally, but with no deadline.

What I've found with the version of no-list you suggested on the 9th of May is that I start with the "have to do" project, work on it until I need a break, and then switch to the "want to do" project. I then basically alternate on these two projects throughout the day, also adding in a bunch of smaller tasks throughout the day as I want to do them.

All this means that I end up making excellent progress on my "have to do" project, good progress on my "want to do" project, and get plenty of other minor things done as well -- which is a perfect balance for me.

Using the rules you've listed here, I don't see how I could possibly get this type of balance. You're basically forced to continue working on the most recent uncompleted task repeatedly (alternating it with smaller tasks) until that most recent big task is finished, and only then you can finally return to the earlier task(s). Since both my "have to do" and the "want to do" project are way bigger than I could possibly do in a single day, I'd have to work on one until I reached the point of having done enough for the day, and then cross it out entirely -- and only then could I start working on the other.

Can you see what I mean? I like the way your "9th of May" rules let you alternate through the big projects, making constant progress on all of them, while also continuing to work on the smaller tasks as required. That dynamic seems totally different with these new rules.

Thanks,

- Erik.
May 16, 2016 at 19:53 | Unregistered CommenterErik Westra
Erik:

There's absolutely no reason why you have to use this system, especially if you find another works perfectly well for you.
May 16, 2016 at 20:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hello again, Mark:

<There's absolutely no reason why you have to use this system, especially if you find another works perfectly well for you.>

Yes, of course! I was just pointing out that this new system seems to be less flexible and might make it harder to achieve progress on multiple large projects than your earlier rules...I wasn't sure if that was just my wrong understanding of the rules, or if this really was a consequence of the way these new rules worked.

- Erik.
May 16, 2016 at 22:59 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
Just checking:

You are only allowed to work on an existing task immediately after completing a non recurring task. In all other cases, under rule 2, you have to enter a new task. Is this correct?
May 17, 2016 at 16:43 | Registered CommenterWill
I've tried this several days now at work, WOW I'm really excited about this... It's easy to see what has been started or worked on, as well as completed.. especially with interuptions. I've been highlighting my completed tasks, feels great to see how many are completed at the end of the day..
June 12, 2016 at 2:40 | Unregistered Commentermarge
Will:

<< You are only allowed to work on an existing task immediately after completing a non recurring task. In all other cases, under rule 2, you have to enter a new task. Is this correct? >>

No, that's not correct. Under Rule 3, recurring tasks are not re-entered. So you can work on an existing task immediately after completing any task.
June 13, 2016 at 1:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks, Mark. I've been doing this wrong for a month. This makes much more sense.
June 15, 2016 at 9:34 | Registered CommenterWill
Will:

Sorry for the delay in replying to your post. I missed it at the time for some reason, and it was only seeing marge's post that brought it to my attention.

If you stuck to it for a month, it couldn't have been all bad. How did you find it?
June 15, 2016 at 9:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

It wasn't too bad. I ended up with a list with lots of lines on it, which gave the (misleading but heartening) impression that I'd done a lot of work. But there was an awful lot of: "email inbox"(which I know is almost certain to be empty because I looked at it five minutes ago) - tick, rewrite, next task. Since the "tick, rewrite" took about a quarter of a second, it wasn't a mechanical problem, but it did rather relax my focus.
June 16, 2016 at 8:43 | Registered CommenterWill

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