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« The Blank Canvas | Main | An End to Small Experiments - Let's Have a Huge One »
Wednesday
Jun012016

The System I'm Going to be Using for This Experiment

I don’t think it actually matters which no-list system I will use for this experiment since they are all very effective. But I’ve had to settle on one because I want consistency - and naturally I’ve settled on one I know I can trust.

I haven’t, as far as I can remember, described exactly this system before. But it’s very similar to several I have described so there’s nothing super-specially new about it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The list is valid for one day only. The next day a new list is started from scratch.
  2. Tasks can only be entered on the list by being done.
  3. Tasks are re-entered at the end of the list if they are going to be needed again the same day (i.e. if there is still work to be done on them or they will recur again that day).
  4. When you have entered as many new tasks as you want to, you scan the list from the beginning and work on any tasks that you want to.
  5. When you reach the end of the list you can add new tasks again as in 2 above. When you have added as many as you want you start scanning again from the beginning of the list.
  6. You should not feed the list from a larger list. Reminders of things that you intend to do at a specific time or date are fine.

Example:

You decide to work on email. Write it as the first item on your list and start working on it. When you’ve finished cross it out and, since it’s recurrent, re-enter it.

Email
Email

Next you decide to work on tidying your office. Again it’s recurrent, so when you’ve finished working on it cross it out and re-enter it as before.

Email
Email
Tidy Office
Tidy Office

You add some more tasks in the same way.

Email
Email
Tidy Office
Tidy Office
Phone Julie
Draft Project X Report
Draft Project X Report

Note that “Phone Julie” is not a recurrent task and so is not re-entered.

At this stage you decide to revisit some of the tasks on the list, so you scan through the list from the beginning and work on any tasks you want to. In this case you check your email again and also do some more drafting of the report.

Email
Email
Tidy Office
Tidy Office
Phone Julie
Draft Project X Report
Draft Project X Report
Email
Draft Project X Report

As you’ve now reached the end of the list you can now enter any new tasks that you want to work on.

Reader Comments (23)

Mark, I may be wrong, but it looks as if the example needs further editing? The recurring tasks on my browser are appearing above the crossed out ones in certain cases, and the "Phone Julie" task is not crossed out when it first appears.
June 1, 2016 at 12:26 | Unregistered CommenterDan H
Great that you're embarking on this experiment, Mark. I've experimented with your No List Systems, and the one I have chosen is the No List with Autofocus.

I work within pre-set external deadlines, and so it is necessary for me to have a list of them. I would choose from them to do the task that is most urgent. Most urgent could be something with a looming deadline. Or something that is further out, but is heavy going, so needs to get started on.

I'm wondering whether this is actually feeding from an external list. The way I see it is that I maintain a list of my due dates on a calendar (in this case its a list with dates sorted from near to far).

Why No List Autofocus? That's because I do want to build up a list of running commitments over time, rather than to open a fresh list daily.
June 1, 2016 at 12:55 | Unregistered CommenterJD
Dan H:

Thanks. I hope I've got it right this time!
June 1, 2016 at 14:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This is the method that I have been using naturally since I was introduced to Mark's no-list system. Simple, without having to think too hard about the rules (ie "wait...when can I add a new item?").

I look forward to hearing how you, Mark, and others deal with existing backlog (getting everything done) and how you form a clear purpose (emergent strategy) as you work from your no-list.
June 1, 2016 at 16:33 | Unregistered CommenterJon
Mark: looks good! And thanks for sharing this.
June 1, 2016 at 17:39 | Unregistered CommenterDan H
Jon:

<< I look forward to hearing how you, Mark, and others deal with existing backlog (getting everything done) >>

Dealing with backlogs is only the pre-condition to getting everything done.
June 1, 2016 at 22:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
One of the main reasons I feel a need for any sort of time management, is all the ideas and obligations and things pressing on me. I wake up in the morning and all these things start running through my head. I need to get them all written down so I can get them out of my head, see it all in front of me, and make decisions about what to drop or defer, what to start first, etc.

So my own no-list approach works exactly like that -- I just write it all out on my little whiteboard, prune it down if it seems too large, decide what to do first, and get started. If I happen to think of one or more things later, I just add them.

But I am really intrigued by Mark's "don't write it down till you are going to start doing it" approach and the benefits he has found doing it that way.

So I tried it a couple times, but found myself worrying about all the other stuff on my mind. I just couldn't get it to work.

Has anyone with my way of thinking about tasks tried Mark's approach, and been able to make it work?

Mark, do you have any suggestions? You often recommend just doing whatever works for oneself, but I am still really interested in the mental benefits you've found from this approach, and wondering how to get some of that while still getting everything out of my head. I still don't really understand what's going on there psychologically / mechanically, where you feel like you really had a breakthrough when you started only writing things down when you started working on them.

Thanks!
June 2, 2016 at 2:51 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
BTW, I've tried doing this:
1. Do a brain dump of all the stuff in my head—put it on a side list ("dynamic list").
2. Look it over and decide what I really want to get done today. Choose the "top 3" or "top 6" or whatever. Keep that pinned up on the wall near my desk.
3. Start working a no-list on a separate list, starting with whatever I want to do first.
4. Refer to the "top 3" list from time to time to see if I am on track for the day.

It hasn't really worked well. It almost always turns into a "feeder list", which kills the mental engagement.
June 2, 2016 at 2:58 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Seraphim, I will often start a side list, but in a sort of no-list way (it is new for the day). It is not a brain dump, but it is a holding place for when I want to remember something emergent that I probably need to address today. I am not obligated to work anything on the side list according to the system, but it is helpful as a reminder through the day.

My current issue with no-list is that I do not always stay on top of projects which are long term and required for my work. I guess they are a backlog, which we are not supposed to have, but I am starting to think I need to organize those projects, and then choose from at least one of them for the day to work within the no-list system. At work, I don't see how you ever don't have a backlog to track.
June 2, 2016 at 4:23 | Unregistered CommenterDon R
Don R,

>>At work, I don't see how you ever don't have a backlog to track.<<

I think it is helpful to make a distinction between a backlog and everything else that comes up in the course of your work.

A backlog is all the stuff that should have been done already, the email from yesterday and older that hasn't been processed yet, all your inboxes with old stuff still to be processed, jobs you have been given that were urgent that you haven't done yet, things that are overdue -- anything that should, if you had a good system that worked, have been completed. It includes clutter.

Everything else is the new stuff that comes in, the regular things you have to do that you don't have to worry about until the time comes, scheduled stuff, anything else you want to do.

Anything that needs to be done tomorrow or at any time in the future is best put on a calendar on the day the work needs to be started. I put a separate entry for the deadline as well, if there is one. But don't use the calendar for the list of tasks you would like to do tomorrow -- you should come up with those things fresh when tomorrow comes around (which it always does, until it doesn't).

Getting rid of the backlog and stopping another significant backlog forming is where you need to apply your systems. You are aiming to make life, work and the environment you live in and work in as simple and empty of clutter and superfluities as you can (without getting stressed about it). It takes time to get there, but it is well worth the effort.
June 2, 2016 at 8:32 | Registered CommenterWooba
Wooba:

Excellent reply, which has saved me the trouble of answering the question!
June 2, 2016 at 9:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Seraphim:

<< So my own no-list approach works exactly like that -- I just write it all out on my little whiteboard, prune it down if it seems too large, decide what to do first, and get started. If I happen to think of one or more things later, I just add them. >>

This is a perfectly valid approach and I'm not trying to attack it when I say it's not a "no-list" approach. The difference is that you are working with a list. As the name implies no-list works either without a list or with a short buffer. The buffer in 5T is not a list which gets pruned down or chosen from. It is just the next five things you are going to do in the order in which you are going to do them.

I've found that in fact the buffer is unnecessary. But I do find a mechanism for keeping unfinished and recurrent tasks in the system (for the current day only) is helpful.

What happens to "all the ideas and obligations and things pressing on me"?

Well, I don't have them. I'm up-to-date with nearly everything. Everything special I need to remember is in my calendar. If I want to think about ideas, I will put "Think about x" (or sometimes just "Think") on my no-list.

It never (yet) works out quite as ideally as I've just described of course. But exceptions to it are just that - exceptions.

I must make a very important caveat here. These ideas are entirely based on my own experience. I'm simply inviting people to have a try with ideas which seem to be working for me but may not work for them. People are very different.
June 2, 2016 at 9:28 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Seraphim,

I have a feeling that it should be possible to list things you mustn't forget on closed, accumulating lists without corrupting the focus system. The trick would be to make sure that the lists are constrained in some way (a shopping list that you build until you set off for the shops/ a project plan that builds until you deliver/ a list of options for the weekend that builds until you decide/ ).

I don't claim to have thought this through, though.
June 2, 2016 at 11:58 | Registered CommenterWill
Mark wrote:
<<What happens to "all the ideas and obligations and things pressing on me"?

Well, I don't have them. I'm up-to-date with nearly everything. Everything special I need to remember is in my calendar. If I want to think about ideas, I will put "Think about x" (or sometimes just "Think") on my no-list.>>

This is a remarkable claim, and I wonder if that truth value of that statement w.r.t. the system operator dramatically impacts the usability of your system here.

Myself, I'm trying to get back into systematic operation. I've been asystem for too long and things have gotten out of control. So as I trial-run your system, I find I have MANY ideas, obligations and things pressing on me.

I'm brand new to no-listing, so I may miss some nuances that aren't explained here.

<<2. Tasks can only be entered on the list by being done.>>

I take 'by being done' to mean what it usually means around here (by working on it a bit). I surmise that you simply pause, pick something that comes to mind, and start doing that thing, then writing that thing down.

I find I'm more in Seraphim's camp at present:

<< I wake up in the morning and all these things start running through my head. I need to get them all written down so I can get them out of my head, see it all in front of me, and make decisions about what to drop or defer, what to start first, etc.>>

I have refrained from writing everything down. Instead, when it comes to me executing step 2, I find I must pause and think deeply about things I might work on, and having refamiliarized myself with the possibilities, I can then make a choice to start working on something.

I'm not sure if my approach is what you expect on that step, whether prolonged usage of the system is supposed to make you more familiar with your activities and thus step 2 gradually becomes easier.
June 2, 2016 at 14:05 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
One more thought. In years past, I have followed with success almost precisely the system described above here, except for using a feeder list. The rules were:

0. The feeder list is built up (like in DWM), by entering things as you think of them, daily adding a new page.

1. (no change from Mark's above.) Your working list is valid for one day only. The next day a new list is started from scratch.

2. Tasks can only be entered on the list by being done. (Major Change): The tasks you enter must be selected from the feeder list. As an additional constraint (inspired by AF4), at least one task must be selected or deleted from the first page.

3. (no change) Tasks are re-entered at the end of the working list if they are going to be needed again the same day (i.e. if there is still work to be done on them or they will recur again that day).

4. When you have selected as many tasks as you want from the feeder, you scan the working list from the beginning and work on any tasks that you want to. (important change): Repeat as you wish.

5. (no change) When you reach the end of the working list, you can add new tasks again as in 2 above. When you have added as many as you want you start scanning again from the beginning of the list.

So the rules are virtually the same, but the mental difference of picking tasks from a list versus thinking of tasks on the spot is huge. Do note, rule 4's looping is there to keep you away from the big list for most of your day.
June 2, 2016 at 14:39 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan wrote: << I surmise that you simply pause, pick something that comes to mind, and start doing that thing, then writing that thing down. >>

I have no idea how Mark does this but my order is: write thing down, then start doing it, instead of start doing it, and then write it down. Writing it down seems to communicate to all the parts of my brain that we are now going to work on this thing.
June 2, 2016 at 14:55 | Unregistered CommenterAsim Jalis
A thought occurred to me first thing this morning. A backlog as defined by Mark's systems are like Wooba explained (which is also explained by Mark's explanation of inbox zero with a wide definition of inbox) and a backlog in the Kanban system have different meanings. I found a video about Personal Kanban and he labeled it the Options column. (Another video had the backlog column and a New column which are things to work on next but aren't Work in Progress yet.) Options makes it sound a bit like a "Someday/Maybe" list a la David Allen, which is probably somewhat true.

One of the key features of [Personal] Kanban is limiting WIP (Work in Progress), but it is to a specific artificial number. I like how no-list systems limit WIP within the day, but they don't have a specific pre-determined quantity (unless it's like a 3T, or 5T system). It naturally limits WIP.

At work, we have some Kanban type software (Rally) that our office uses to track our work together. So in my case, my Mark-style backlog/inbox would be to keep my Kanban style "backlog" in Rally up to date by inputting the "stories" into that software (which is something I need to do so it is a backlog) and when I start working on something in my WIP for the day it actually goes into the no-list system.

It is sort of a feeder list, but I don't think I can avoid that in my job. Or maybe not. What if everything that is not working well at work was fixed to be working smoothly that whenever some new project came in, it could be completed efficiently and in a focused way, that we would run out of work to do. That would be interesting.
June 2, 2016 at 15:00 | Unregistered CommenterDon R
In lean manufacturing, a goal is to minimize WIP, and in particular eliminate backlogs where one station produces inputs before the next station is ready to consume them. This can't always be done just by saying you want it. Sometimes you need to put hard work into improving the system so that you can achieve the smooth flow. I expect this applies to your work situation. You can't avoid inboxes except by working with the people stuffing your inboxes to improve process, or by improving your own workflow to be ready when something arrives to either one-shot it or no-list it
June 2, 2016 at 16:23 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
@seraphim:

<< So my own no-list approach works exactly like that -- I just write it all out on my little whiteboard, prune it down if it seems too large, decide what to do first, and get started. If I happen to think of one or more things later, I just add them.
>>

This is very similar to my approach.

I like to start the day with a brainstorm of everything I can think of possibly doing. Then I think of this as a 'menu' (to borrow one of Mark's analogies) that I can choose from. I can't choose it all, and that's okay. I choose my starter, main and dessert and feel contented when they are completed! Some of the stuff left on the list may carry over to tomorrow and some of it will be ditched, but I like the feeling of getting it all out of my head.

A big breakthrough for me was realising that writing something on my list doesn't mean I have to do it, I just have to consider it and then I can 'snooze' it until later (in a similar way that Nudgemail works). I might snooze it until tomorrow, next week or leave it for another month. And even then I might just choose to snooze it again. This means that tasks are not forgotten but also don't clog up my mental overhead. I got this idea after reading this article about Michael Linenberger's concept of 'Defer to Review':
http://www.michaellinenberger.com/blog/avoid-too-many-shoulds-in-your-task-list/
June 2, 2016 at 23:04 | Unregistered CommenterDAZ
Alan Baljeu:

<< and I wonder if that truth value of that statement w.r.t. the system operator dramatically impacts the usability of your system here >>

Sorry, I don't understand what you are getting at here.

<< I surmise that you simply pause, pick something that comes to mind, and start doing that thing, then writing that thing down. >>

Actually you write it down, then start doing it. But it comes to much the same thing.

<< I find I'm more in Seraphim's camp at present: >>

As I said, I'm not attacking Seraphim's methods, merely describing my own and attempting to see what comes of following them exactly for a lengthy period.
June 2, 2016 at 23:37 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
When I said i was in Seraphim's camp, I meant feelings about work pressures, not about Seraphim's methods. I have not tried your no-list system nor what Seraphim's doing.
June 3, 2016 at 2:41 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Seraphim:

I'm finding the No-List very effective for me, but maybe by a different definition of effective than I've used before. I used to define effective by how close I got to finishing my list, which was never done. Now, I define effective by the fact that I feel awesome at the end of the day, and I leave work with a long list of crossed off things instead of a long list of things left to do. The difference in what I actually accomplished over all the "subtly but steadily growing backlog" list methods is insignificant. The difference in how it feels though is simply stunning.

An experiment I might try: I'll use a simple No-List system, with no feeder. I will choose a task from my head, write it down, and then immediately do it. I can also work more on tasks that I previously chose but didn't finish yet. Here's the experiment. If something comes up from my head or from someone else that I am not going to work on right now, I would write it down on a separate but hidden list. I would then return immediately to my No-List.

At the end of the day (or week), or beginning of the next day (or next week), I would review the separate capture list and see what I could learn. Did I actually get those things done anyway? Did I completely forget about them? Was there anything important in the list I didn't end up adding to my No-List over the course of the day (or week)? Is my fear of forgetting something important actually real? Or do I feel more comfortable having a long list captured but knowing I won't ever complete all of the items?
June 3, 2016 at 18:49 | Unregistered CommenterScott Moehring
Kanban: I've been experimenting with my own Kanban board with a 'no list' (which has been a maximum of 3 tasks at any time). It's been working well and helped me to prioritise and focus. The Kanban board is at a 'project' level I suppose, and the 'no list' is at the task level.

A no list on its own does not seem to fit my brain, I need an overview (otherwise I just keep starting projects and not finishing them. I've been much more strategic with my scheduling of projects lately...and completing them!

It's been flexible and much less fiddly using the 'no list' with a Kanban board as it's very easy to feed the list and adjust the board strategically (normally every few days).

I'm going to try the 2:1 hammer as my no list and see how that works out.
June 4, 2016 at 10:25 | Unregistered CommenterLeon

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