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« Top 10 Advantages of The Long List | Main | Thoughts on the Long List - Accepting that it won't all get done »

Thoughts on the Long List - Making Everything Easy

It would be a quite understandable reaction to what I’ve been writing recently about trusting intuition to ask “Won’t that just result in my doing the easy stuff and leaving the difficult stuff?”

This is a very deep rooted attitude and with good reason. Just about everyone has had the experience of the pressure lifting at work and, instead of using the quiet period to get completely up to date, they have just idled the time away until the pressure returns. So the net result is that they still have the existing overwhelm, but with a good extra dose of added guilt.

The prevailing attitude to work is that you can only get it done by will power and that you have to force yourself to do the difficult stuff. In fact many people need the pressure of an impending deadline to get moving at all.

As for to-do lists, they are a continual reminder of how much you still have to do, and what you still have to do seems only to get bigger and bigger. Eventually you develop resistance to the whole list and are in danger of suffering from complete paralysis.

What if I told you that this attitude to work is completely back to front?

It’s a myth based on two misconceptions: 

  • Everything on the list has to be done
  • You need to force yourself to overcome resistance 

The truth is that everything on your list is easy, provided that: 

  • You feel ready to do it
  • You have the habit of doing it
  • You work little and often
  • You split difficult tasks so they are as small as possible
  • You allow your intuition to weed out the tasks and projects that are going nowhere

And just to clarify, when I say everything is easy I am not referring to the level of skill required.

Reader Comments (10)

Simple Scanning, from what I've been able to find, is a long list that is processed by going round and round and doing what stands out. Old pages that contain items that are not being done are eventually removed, not as a punishment or incentive to do them, but as a way to weed the list to keep it smaller.

Real Autofocus sounded like the next iteration of or improvement upon Simple Scanning. The DDD would perform the weeding. Is this correct? Does that mean RAF is a long list system or not? I sometimes find myself resisting even the DDD process so Simple Scanning sounds appealing.
October 9, 2017 at 21:00 | Unregistered CommenterJakeIsArmed

I have read Mark's work since his first book in 2000 (still the best system in my view and like a lot of the contributors here I have tried many since!) and I have not really heard the phrase Simple Scanning till recently. A search for those words on this website did not really produce any relevant hits. If you think RAF is the next iteration on SS then you need to delve into this website and go back through Autofocus (around 2007/8? and in my view the second best system of all), AF2, AF3 etc.right up to RAF. There are a lot of good systems out there created by Mark.

My view on what Mark has posted recently is whilst they all bring something different they also complicate the basic system in some form and he has gone back to SS with a different mental approach rather than a new set of rules. Just my view.
October 10, 2017 at 16:11 | Unregistered Commenterskeg
This reminds me of Exposure Therapy, often used for OCD.

Start with a Big Hair Monster (my word for it).

1. Accept that it's a BHM. Ignore what everyone else calls it.

2. Get as good a look at it as you can. Not a perfect look, but as good as you can today.

- Is there a specific part that's the problem? If so, that's the new BHM, and often it's smaller. Sometimes, though, you realize it's larger, because it's part of other BHMs.

- Is it really causing a problem for you? If so, you have more motivation, but there's more at risk, and you've spent more time being scared of it. For now, choose something smaller.

Build successes before tackling the big important ones.

3. Give it a score, 1-10. Then subdivide it or come up with steps, and give them scores. Keep going until you have something that's a 2-4. For OCD, that might be touching a Kleenex that your parent touched after touching a door handle through a different Kleenex. For a project, that might mean taking out the file, or even labeling a new folder.

Yes, tiny steps, especially for the first few. You need to build successes, not failures.

There's a difference between this and procrastination. With procrastination, you're aimless, and keep hoping to do more. With exposure therapy, there's a firm goal. Small, but firm.

This is not tricking yourself into doing more while the folder is out. This is about taking a step towards the BHM. (If you find it easy to do more, then maybe it wasn't as bad as you thought, or starting was the worst part. If it's not easy, though, don't push it. Build success.)

4. Do the chosen thing. Ride the anxiety wave. Don't fight it, just let it come. Observe it. It will go. Often, fear of the anxiety wave is the biggest hurdle. So, start with waves from small things. (Anxiety is a huge, complex topic. You might have to pause here to work on tools to handle it.)

5. After five minutes and then an hour, give what you just did a score, and compare it to what you anticipated. If it was worse, re-evaluate the other steps and come up with smaller steps. Otherwise, stay with the program.

6. Do something small and successful every day rather than a lot at once. If you didn't succeed, start with something even easier. When starting, it's common to under-estimate the fear and want to go too fast. This is learning, not failure. (Your therapist might have you do more than one while with her, or do a harder one while she can support you. Do not expect you parents to provide the same type of support. They have too much invested.)

7. After several steps, edit the list from your new perspective. Not the perspective you hoped to reach by now, but where you really are. Often, they'll seem easier. If they seem harder, that's ok too. It takes a while to calibrate the system. Come up with more in the 2-4 range.

8. Eventually, once you have built successes, most steps will get slightly lower scores, and you'll feel confident enough to tackle things in the 3-5 range. Try to stick with things you'll succeed at, but don't beat yourself up if you take too big a step. Get back on the horse with smaller steps.

9. Re-evaluate the list, both steps towards the current BHM, and which other BHMs you want to tackle. You do not have to defeat one before starting another, but don't switch too often. Work only 1 or 2 at a time, so you see progress. (Little and Often!)

10. Do not, under any circumstances, ever, let your parents decide which BHM to tackle or how to do it. After you have built successes, you can ask which BHMs would make their lives easier, but they do not get to vote, and they absolutely do not know which BHMs would make your life easier -- it's your life and your BHMs, not theirs.

This is, very roughly, it's been a long time since I read it, taken from Talking Back to OCD: The Program That Helps Kids and Teens Say "No Way" -- and Parents Say "Way to Go , by Marsh.
October 10, 2017 at 17:04 | Registered CommenterCricket

<< he has gone back to SS with a different mental approach rather than a new set of rules. >>

October 10, 2017 at 17:15 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This note by Cricket is very insightful. I feel the same can be applied to computer programming which often involves solving Big Hairy Monster type problems. One approach to it is to be very methodical about solving: Write down the problem. Write down the how you might solve it. If it's too big, write a smaller part of the problem. How might you solve that? If you think you know, try it. Verify it. If it worked, back out and consider the larger puzzle again. If it didn't work, consider another approach, write it down and pursue it.

This is very step by step, and has two anciliary advantages: 1) you can read your own notes to keep your thinking straight. 2) It enables you to walk away for a time and come back later to refresh your thinking by rereading your notes, and in particular what small tasks need to be tackled.

This also facilitates the hyperproductivity process of delving deep into a problem for a brief period and then walking away to let your subconscious work on it for a while. When you return, (if you structure your away time suitably), you may be in the perfect mode to tackle the problem hard. Your mind has worked through some of your difficulties and your body is refreshed and ready to go.
October 11, 2017 at 2:49 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
My problem is not feeling forced to execute to do list items that are "going nowhere". I weed that out rather easily.

What very oftenly bears me down are items, which I perceive as necessary to achive an aspired change (e. g. "I _did_ my taxes") but the process of executing those items ("Doing my taxes") seems unattractive, tedious, mandatory and sometimes even not acomplishable. I am caught in flipping constantly between "You have to do this to achive X." and "But I don't want to be doing it". In the end I would not like to strike those items out because then they would be creeping around in my unconsciousness.

So, having a list of pleasureful options only sounds very attractive to me -- but unrealistic, too.
What I have to solve is my ambiguous attitude to those type of to do list items, not to the list as such, I fear.
October 13, 2017 at 12:39 | Unregistered CommenterMmmh

It doesn't matter what system you are using, the way to get your taxes done is "little and often".

1. Start on your tax return as soon as you can, i.e. immediately after the end of the financial year.

2. Work on it every day. It doesn't matter how long for, five minutes or five hours.

3. Where there are reports and certificates you have to wait for, start work on them as soon as you receive them.

4. If you are already too late to do 1 above, start at 2 TODAY.
October 13, 2017 at 16:25 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Fascinating topic. I came across this: "When people are searching earnestly, anxiously or impatiently for a solution, they tend to see what they expect or want to see, and the incongruous detail or the small but vital clue gets overlooked. " This is perhaps related to subliminal perception or tacit knowing but being open and loose seems to be the mood required.
October 14, 2017 at 21:38 | Unregistered Commentermichael
This series of posts is one of the most important ever, I'm thinking. Take that long lists of tasks and approach it with an emphatic mindset of feeling free to dump stuff. Or to do stuff. This idea may liberate me from a stagnating long list, transforming that into an ever refreshing list.
October 27, 2017 at 2:28 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

For me 2 approaches that "break the ice" or move me to a "tipping point" are:

1. if I have something to write that I fear then I say to myself "Just do one sentence" (similar to Mark's "just get the folder out")

2. I doodle or sketch an issue - "free drawing".

If neither of those are going anywhere I just write or draw whatever ideas come into my head! I think that process has been labelled "moodling"

I believe these tactics work for me because I have often been over-reliant on the linear rational wordy part of my mind and these compensate for that attitude.
October 27, 2017 at 11:36 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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