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« Addition to Simple Scanning Rules | Main | Simple Scanning - The Rules »

Simple Scanning - Clumping, Attenuation and Maturity

If you haven’t already read the previous article on Simple Scanning then you need to do so before reading this.

My original intention was to write a separate blog post about each of these characteristics of Simple Scanning. However it seems easier to write one post and cover all three in one go. They are by no means confined to Simple Scanning, but that seems to be the system which best combines them  - the best I’ve been able to discover so far anyway.


In Simple Scanning tasks are written on the list when you think of them, without any attempt to classify or order them. But as one works the list, so the tasks which get done together will be re-entered on the list together. So the very action of using the system tends to mean that, as you progress, the amount of scanning time becomes progressively shorter and the speed at which you select tasks off the list gets faster. This particularly applies to routine tasks which need to be done at a particular time of day, such as a morning routine or an evening routine.


Attenuation is almost the opposite effect to clumping. It is what happens to tasks on the list that don’t get done quickly. As other tasks around them get done so they get surrounded by deleted tasks. This has the effect of drawing attention to those undone tasks. The more the list gets attenuated the more the undone tasks stand out physically. This gives important information to your intuition. You can increase the contrast between tasks by joining contiguous deleted tasks by joining them together with a vertical line in the left margin. This gives you a very good picture at a glance of how many tasks remain on any given page.


When you start a new list, you can’t expect to leap into full-ahead productivity immediately. It takes time for the list to mature.  You usually find that you start off by working on easy, routine tasks. This is entirely how it should be because you need to get these routines well established before you can start on more challenging work. Gradually you will find that more and more of the “real work” gets incorporated in your routines. Routines are the basis of all good work. You will find it very difficult to keep up to date with your work if you only work on it by fits and starts.

When you add a new project it too takes time to get established. Unless it’s urgent, your intuition will probably allow it to lie fallow for a bit, but once you start working on it it will become easier and easier to keep working on it.


The effect of these three working together provides a high-speed high-volume method of tackling your work which requires no more than writing down what you have to do on a list, scanning it and working on the tasks which stand out. The method itself require an absolute minimum of overhead.

Reader Comments (10)

Thanks for this explanation!

<< Attenuation... This gives important information to your intuition. >>

Can you elaborate on this some more? What kind of information does the contrast provide, and how does your intuition respond to it?
December 13, 2017 at 20:24 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

As I've said before, intuition is not some mysterious voice from above which is all-knowing and infallible - much as we might like it to be. It depends on the knowledge and experience that we have consciously and unconsciously absorbed about the subject in question. You can't have accurate intuition about a subject which you know nothing about.

Our brains absorb information from all sorts of sources. One of the sources in Simple Scanning is the distribution of tasks which have not yet been done. If a task is on a page with a lot of other undone tasks then that appears normal (unless the page itself is isolated). On the other hand a task which is ten pages back and on its own is there for a reason. What is it? Is it because the time is not yet quite right, or because other things have taken priority, or because the task is dead? This is the sort of thing which intuition works on.

By making isolated tasks stand out we are simply drawing more attention to the task so that intuition can speak with a louder voice.
December 13, 2017 at 22:03 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,

I just wanted to thank you for this eye-opening article. I've been playing around with an electronic simple scanning list, and it wasn't working too well until I read what you'd written here.

My mistake was to remove the items from the list as soon as I'd finished them. Imagine, for example, that my list had these items:

- Clean desk.
- Mow lawn.
- Fix bike tyre.
- Wash windows.

If I completed the "Mow lawn" item, I'd update my list to look like this:

- Clean desk.
- Fix bike tyre.
- Wash windows.

The problem was that the list was always just a solid block of unfinished items, and the resulting system didn't work very well. After reading your article, I decided to try a different approach -- if I finished "Mow lawn", I'd change the list to look like this:

- Clean desk.
- Fix bike tyre.
- Wash windows.

That would leave a blank space for the completed item. This allows the items to attenuate over time, just like you described for a paper-based system -- and boy does it work well!


- Erik.
December 22, 2017 at 2:56 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
Kiwi Erik :
May i know what application do you use for Your Simple Scanning?

December 22, 2017 at 5:46 | Unregistered CommenterNanda
@ Kiwi Erik

> That would leave a blank space for the completed item.

Why do you prefer a blank space to having struck-through (or otherwise marked) text?

I keep my list on my phone. Currently I leave struck-through items in place until the following day, when I review them and then delete them. I don't like to have to scroll through numerous struck-through items.

December 22, 2017 at 10:47 | Unregistered CommenterChris Cooper

<<May i know what application do you use for Your Simple Scanning?>>

I work all day in a text editor called Vim, so I use that for my "to-do.txt" file too. I use Vim for writing computer programs. It takes quite a while to learn, but is incredibly effective once you know it (basically it has keyboard shortcuts for everything), and since I basically live it in for my work it's easy for me to use for simple scanning too.

- Erik.
December 23, 2017 at 13:28 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
Chris Cooper:

<<Why do you prefer a blank space to having struck-through (or otherwise marked) text?>>

I guess strike-through or other markings would work as well, but I'd find that distracting. I think it takes longer to find uncompleted tasks if you have to search through a pile of struck-through items, though you may not find it too bad. Personally, I don't really care about the text of the completed items, so I replace them with a blank line.

I also use a plain-text editor, so I don't have the option of using strike-through or other formatting. Fortunately, with the editor I use I just have to type shift-D to remove the text of an item, so it's incredibly quick and easy to do.

<<I keep my list on my phone. Currently I leave struck-through items in place until the following day, when I review them and then delete them. I don't like to have to scroll through numerous struck-through items.>>

Yeah, that's exactly why I replace them with blank lines (or more accurately, lines consisting of just a hyphen or "+" sign -- I use Markdown formatting so these characters mark the start of a bullet point, which I use for all my tasks.

I could just change the "-" at the start of a line to a "+", which is kind of equivalent of using strike-through, but like you I'd find it too hard to scan through all the struck-through items.

For a long time, I was doing what you did and deleting the completed items -- but as Mark pointed out you lose the attenuation aspect if you delete the items. Leaving blank lines means the uncompleted items become clumped together and your eye is naturally drawn to the remaining items, rather than everything being lumped together in a single list that you eventually don't even see any more (I find it becomes a "yuck" list and I avoid it).

- Erik.
December 23, 2017 at 13:39 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
As a FYI - TaskPaper works nicely as a Mac-based Simple Scanning list. It facilitates crossing out text using the @done tag, and color-coding is not too difficult to implement and change based on the tag you add. It syncs nicely with at least iOS devices - I use it for all sorts of checklists (i.e., travel, small projects, master Simple Scanning list, etc.). Highly recommended.
December 23, 2017 at 15:49 | Unregistered CommenterBernard
Where in the world did you find the word Attenuation? I don't think I ever saw it beforehand and it definitely did not initially conjure up an accurate sense of meaning in my mind. From your description I now surmise it means something like "gradually drawing attention to itself" where attention is a related word.
December 29, 2017 at 16:18 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

Sorry, it never occurred to me that "attenuation" was a difficult word. I should have made it clearer that it's the pages on the list that get attenuated, not the individual tasks.

In this context "attenuation" means "thinning out", from the Latin "attenuere" to thin out, make thin.

As the early parts of the list get more and more thinned out, i.e. denuded of active tasks, so the few remaining tasks stand out more and more.
December 29, 2017 at 17:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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