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« Natural Selection Changes the Emphasis | Main | Flexible Autofocus »
Monday
Feb062017

The Natural Selection of Tasks

When I first started developing Autofocus one of the ideas that was at the foundation of what I was trying to achieve was the natural selection of tasks. By this I meant that I wanted to find a method that would free our minds to naturally focus on what was important to us and leave the rest.

This never quite worked out with Autofocus or its successors. Recently I been spending quite a bit of time trying to work out what I was doing wrong.

Here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to: 

  • We should consciously interfere with this natural selection process as little as possible.
  • We need to rid ourselves of all ideas that we “should” be doing this, that or the other task.
  • If we don’t get round to doing a task, that’s a sign that we should let it die.
  • A prerequisite for natural selection is a large seed-bed of possibilities. This would imply that we should use a “catch-all” list and add every fleeting idea to it. 
  • We should rid ourselves of the idea that putting a task on the list implies any commitment to doing it. It does however imply a commitment to keeping it under consideration for as long as it remains on the list.
  • There is no such thing as procrastination. What we call “procrastination” is just our minds working through the selection process.
  • A method of weeding out tasks which are showing no sign of getting done is required. This implies no condemnation - it is purely housekeeping to keep the list manageable.
  • Our method of working the list should put no pressure on us to do any particular task or tasks. 

If you compare the above list with Autofocus you can see exactly why Autofocus ultimately failed to provide a long-term satisfactory answer.

The solution is not to make Autofocus more complicated or effective. It is to radically simplify it and remove even the faintest suspicion of compulsion from every part of it.

Current Method

What I have been working with over the last few days is a “Catch-all” list to which I add everything that I think of. I scan it continuously as one list from one end to the other, taking action on tasks that stand out and re-entering recurring and unfinished tasks.

At the end of the day (or beginning of the next) I remove pages on which there has been no movement during the day. This purely a housekeeping matter to keep the list manageable. It’s not a penalty or “dismissal”.

This is proving extremely effective. I’m getting a vast amount of work done without any of the usual heartache (or brainache) about what I should be doing.

Conclusion

As you will realise if you’ve been around my website for a bit, there’s nothing new about any part of this. In fact the difference is not so much in the method as in the mental attitude that goes with it. It’s a matter of learning to trust that your subconscious mind is quite capable of sorting through your tangled priorities without any interference from your conscious mind. In fact it does a much better job on its own.

Reader Comments (14)

I was using No-List Autofocus recently to re-familiarize myself with its immediate doing of tasks in order to get them on the list, and the various ways that were published on how to dismiss pages that hadn't been worked on during the day—counting up the tasks on the page; using dashes or slashes; or adding the date when a page is filled.

Perhaps if one prefers a bound notebook they might use a dismissal method similar to one of the above and simply delete the unactioned pages with a big "X", then skip over them during subsequent scans.
February 7, 2017 at 5:46 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Michael B:

When I wrote "remove pages" I actually meant cross them out rather than physically remove them - though the latter is feasible if you are using a ring-binder and only one side of the paper.

I simply add up the number of live tasks left on each page at the end of the day and record it at the top of the page. That allows you to check how much movement there has been on the page during the day. I read through the methods proposed by other people at the time but didn't think any of them had any particular advantage over that. But it doesn't have to be done any particular way.
February 7, 2017 at 11:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, very good to see you posting on the site again. One question. My first reaction on reading the instruction about removing pages when no action taken on the tasks on the page during that day was "oh no I can't remove up to 30 tasks". I accept its probably a lot less than that but did you find that the fact that you were removing that page that evening if no tasks were worked on, made you work on at least one to keep the page in the system? Not saying this is a bad thing, it makes me work on tasks in Autofocus that I was resisting to stop me dismissing the whole page.

I appreciate using terms like make/resisting/dismissal are not how to think about this system but just how I think about the AF systems which I use the most.
February 7, 2017 at 11:52 | Unregistered Commenterskeg
Mark

Do you review the "removed" pages or just let the tasks return naturally to the active list?

And do you still add tasks and projects at any level?

E.g.

Sharpen pencil
Project X
Kettle on
Annual Report
February 7, 2017 at 12:04 | Registered CommenterCaibre65
skeg:

<< did you find that the fact that you were removing that page that evening if no tasks were worked on, made you work on at least one to keep the page in the system? >>

I have to confess that I haven't yet had to remove a page under this rule. However in accordance with the principle "Our method of working the list should put no pressure on us to do any particular task or tasks", that would be undesirable. I think if I felt a task was still "valid", I would cross it out and re-enter it immediately at the end of the list. But remember that the rule exists in order to keep the list relevant, so that you don't have to plough through tons of stuff that doesn't stand a hope of getting done in the foreseeable future.
February 7, 2017 at 16:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Caibre65:

<< Do you review the "removed" pages or just let the tasks return naturally to the active list? >>

The idea is to get rid of tasks off the list that aren't being actioned, not to encourage them to be actioned. In other words it's a whittling down to what you are actually capable of and motivated enough to do.

<< And do you still add tasks and projects at any level? >>

Yes.
February 7, 2017 at 16:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I use an online list which obviously has no pages. Do you have any ideas for a different dismissal rule? I think that an approach similar to the dismissal rule in AF2 will work best. What do you think?
February 8, 2017 at 2:09 | Unregistered Commenterjames220
Another method of bookkeeping the day:

Cross tasks out as they are completed. At the turn of the day mark a veritcal line in the margin of newly completed tasks. If there are none, X-out the page.

If I were to do this natural selection system, I would be inclined to re-assess these few tasks and decide if I need to calendar them before I drop them forever.
February 8, 2017 at 2:13 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
james220, the simplest lowtech way of doing this is to make a task called "--------------" every so often to indicate a virtual page break. If you're using a checklist app, you could checkmark tasks that you complete, and at the day's roundup delete the checked tasks, or delete the page if there are no checked tasks.
February 8, 2017 at 3:19 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Just to remind everyone again that the purpose of the weeding is just to keep the list down to a manageable size and keep the tasks on it relevant. It is not intended to be a punishment, sanction or "putting the squeeze on" certain tasks in order to get them done. Those are completely against the spirit of the method.

The weeding is really a secondary matter. It doesn't matter that much how you do it, or even if you don't do it at all. The important part is the scanning and the mental attitude.
February 8, 2017 at 8:47 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
@Mark Forster

> I scan it continuously as one list from one end to the other, taking action on tasks that stand out and re-entering recurring and unfinished tasks.

"Scan continuously" sounds as if you don't use FVP-style scanning - is that right?
February 11, 2017 at 0:41 | Unregistered CommenterChris Cooper
Chris Cooper:

<< "Scan continuously" sounds as if you don't use FVP-style scanning - is that right? >>

Yes
February 11, 2017 at 2:17 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark, let's say I have a lot on my mind the first day I want to try out this method and manage to produce 10 pages of things I might want do first thing in the morning. When beginning to scan this list, I find that each and every item on page 1 stand out for me, and I work with great focus and motivation all day with these tasks, never going further, since I really want/need to do them all and don't have time to do more than the first page of tasks that day. If I never get around to even start thinking about scanning page 2-10, it seems to me strange to just cross them out, especially if this way of working is supposed to be free and natural. Might there be another way to express the rule of dismissal? Or is there a point in being forced to move on to the next pages, so that you don't have to get rid of a page that you know contains vital actions or thoughts? But forcing oneself to move on through the pages feels less "free" to me. Ideally, I should be able to stay on one page, or even one task/thought all day if I feel like it, without the system forcing me to do anything radical. Any thoughts?
February 14, 2017 at 0:37 | Unregistered CommenterAdam
Adam:

As I've already said (four comments back):

"The weeding is really a secondary matter. It doesn't matter that much how you do it, or even if you don't do it at all. The important part is the scanning and the mental attitude."

However if you are seriously going to do every task on the first page before moving onto the next, I would suggest that another system would be better for you.
February 14, 2017 at 0:56 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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