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End of the Challenge

Well, the Lenten challenge has now ended. How did you all get on?

Please report what lessons you learned - positive and negative - in the Comments to this post.

As for myself I got enough insights for a new book and developed a really good way of keeping a “catch-all” list fresh and up-to-date.

Reader Comments (16)

That sounds intriguing, keeping a Catch-all list fresh has always been the major problem with this kind of system for me. As for the challenge, I stuck with DIT and yes, it's a great system for keeping on top of your worklife. It just took two days to clear all backlogs.
I've never managed though to make this system work for my private tasks. Therefore, I'd either have to work with two separate systems forever or switch to a system like FVP that can handle all of my tasks.
April 16, 2017 at 12:34 | Unregistered CommenterDino
Hi Mark, good to hear from you and I hope you are well...I think I switched systems four or five times during Lent, which I'm not thrilled about. Great to hear you have had new insights, I will look forward to reading about them!
April 16, 2017 at 17:47 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Thank you so much, Mark, for suggesting the Lenten Challenge -- I've learned a ton about myself, time management, and the value of consistency.

Before the challenge, I was trying various TM systems (mostly your's), and switching back and forth quite regularly. Often, I'd go through a day without using a list at all, thinking that I already knew what I had to do that day. But at the same time, lots of things were getting missed or abandoned, and I wasn't being particularly productive. Procrastination was a huge problem for me.

For the Lenten Challenge, I decided to go with one of your earliest systems -- the original AutoFocus -- because it's simple and because so many people said they found it so useful. At the same time, I decided to do something very radical for me: I would use this system on paper rather than using an electronic-based TM system.

I had a big list of reasons why I couldn't use pen and paper: my handwriting was terrible, I didn't want to have to carry a pen and notebook with me when I already carried my phone everywhere, I could type a hundred times faster than I can write, I often couldn't read my handwriting, I'd lose the pen, and so on.

So...since I've always resisted paper-based solutions, I decided to go all out and use a pen and notebook for the Lenten Challenge. On the first day, I drove into town and purchased a small notebook and a pen, and started on my list as soon as I left the store.

The result was nothing short of transformational. As I worked away, adding new tasks, scanning the page, crossing things off, rewriting tasks on the end of the list if necessary, I found myself rediscovering the value of "little and often". I began to realise how AF gradually lets you work away at the easier tasks on a page, leaving behind the things you've been dreading or are lower priority -- which is what Mark calls structured procrastination. All this became real for me as I worked away at the list, day after day.

Because of the challenge, I kept coming back to the system and used it consistently for the entire time, where before I would think I would like to try and do something different. There was a point where I was away for five days attending a workshop, and couldn't use my list at all except to write a few things down to do later -- but I realised that this was okay as I had zero discretionary time, and I picked up my list again as soon as I got home.

I think I've always been expecting a TM system to be "magical" in some way -- to somehow inspire me, to make my tasks more enjoyable and to take away the uncertainty about what I should be doing. I felt that a TM system should be fun and exciting to use. But what I've discovered, thanks to the Lenten Challenge, is that using a TM system isn't like that at all. I don't feel anything in particular about my TM system. It isn't magical, it isn't exciting...but that's okay. What matters is that it works. I've come to realise that a TM system is like scaffolding that holds up my day, rather than an exotic dancer luring me forward to do my tasks.

It did take me a while to really get the essence of the AF1 system. I found myself working only at the end of the list, and ignoring the earlier pages. But after re-reading Mark's suggestions for using AF, I began to cycle through the pages more regularly again, and of course this meant I eventually faced the spectre of dismissal.

I was dreading this -- what was left on the first page were two items I didn't feel I wanted to work on right now, for various reasons, but which I couldn't let go of. But I did -- I highlighted the two items, and then physically cut the page out of my notebook and threw it away. What a feeling that was -- I knew I'd let those two items go, but that doing this was the right thing to do. This changed my whole perspective, and was incredibly freeing: my list was about what I had accepted into my life and was still willing to work on, rather than being filled with things I "should" be doing.

I've since dismissed several more times, as well as just crossing things out when I think they're not longer relevant. My list is moving forward nicely now, and reflects what I want to do now, rather than being a historical record of the things I thought were important a week or more ago.

One thing I've really discovered during this 40-day challenge was how much freedom you can get from following the rules of a TM system. It's easy to think, "oh, damn, I need to do X because the rules tell me to", but in reality the rules are supporting your life, and you can use them to encourage you to do the things that matter to you. Dismissal, structured procrastination, little and often, and Mark's golden rule ("if something needs doing now, just do it") give you an amazing sense of freedom once you start following the rules consistently.

As for using pen and paper, I was amazed at how well that worked. Yes, I did lose my pen at one point, and had to find another one, but that wasn't so bad. Yes, the pen does stop working occasionally while I'm writing, and I have to draw circles on an old page to get it working again, but that's okay. I'm really enjoying the physicality of it. My handwriting isn't as bad as I had thought it was, it is quicker to write on a page than I had thought -- especially as I'm only writing a few words at a time. And I haven't had any trouble with reading my handwriting.

I think part of the reason that pen and paper works for me is that it's separate from all the other typing-related work that I do. I type a huge amount every day for my work, and the fact that I keep track of my TM system using pen and paper seems to make it separate from my work, somehow more fundamentally part of my life rather than just another job to be done. There really is something amazing about using a pen and paper in this way.

For me, I've found that just using a cheap notebook and a simple pen works better than having an expensive nice-looking notebook and a fancy metal pen. The parts of my system are replaceable, and I find that I'm less worried about how it looks or if I write something wrong when using everyday items like a cheap pen and notebook.

Now, I have dabbled with having two lists, one in the front of my notebook for my work and a second list in the back for home tasks. For some reason, this hasn't worked as well as I thought it might. I've gone through 12 pages on my work list, but only two on my home list, and I've only done about half the tasks on that home list. It just seems that my home list is moving much more slowly than my work list.

I think that's okay, though, as the items on my home list are important, and I generally only spend one day a week working on them as so much of my home time is spent with the family, and so much of my home activity isn't based on my TM system at all. I think the home list is basically just a set of reminders for things to do when I have the time, rather than a system for guiding me during the time that I'm home.

Overall, I'm incredibly grateful to Mark for suggesting this challenge. It came just at the right time for me, and has completely changed the way I work. I really am way more productive than I was before (just ask the people around me!), and I feel I'm working on the things that matter, chugging away at the big projects and at the same time not avoiding the other things I need to be doing. All my projects seem to be moving forward at the pace they should be, and even the things I'm dreading get the attention they need.

I do think that which system you're using is much less important than the fact that you're using a system consistently. A TM system is like sleep -- it's just part of your life, and you shouldn't need to tweak or change it at all.

For me, this challenge isn't over. I'm not going to change a thing: I'm going to continue using AF1, and my paper notebook, forever.

Okay, now I can cross "Write note -> MF forum" off my list and start scanning for the next thing to work on!

- Erik.
April 16, 2017 at 22:47 | Unregistered CommenterKiwi Erik
Lessons learned:

Actually, quite a few, since I'm pulling out of a very deep two (three?) week crash. I'll keep this to the ones from the two methods I tried during the challenge.

Electronic doesn't work for me. The automated sorting and re-entry of recurring tasks was nice. So was the ease of printing the Honey-Do and Sonny-Do lists. However, turning on the tablet and fighting with its keyboard broke my concentration. Going to the computer was even worse, since it's on the internet. Also, the electronic version required priorities and dates immediately.

So, back to paper.

Finishing a notebook (or switching from electronic to paper) is a dangerous time. Temptation to get fancy.

Bound notebooks I can fold back work best. Binders seem nice, but then I spend time designing forms, and I add in calendar pages, so need a bigger binder, and it takes up too much room on my desk, and doesn't open nicely to the right page.

I should use the same notebook for all meeting notes, rather one book per per group, or electronic. It's calmer to review one meeting notebook, one home notebook, and my email, than to review the notebook for each group, even if the main book says, "Get notes from Fri's meeting from group bag and see if something's lurking."

When too many routine-destroying energy-sucking events, even ones I should be used to by now, hit at once, time spent playing video games is a form of avoidance, not recuperation. (Appointments, then a sick teenager who prefers the living room, aka my office, then more appointments, plus added three social groups to replace one that's done for the year.)

More than a day or two skipping my review and planning is not a sign that everything is under control and I don't need them. It's a sign that I'm either over-confident or over-whelmed. Either way, I end up crashing.

The weekly review is necessary. If I do it regularly, it's only 15 minutes -- much less than David Allen describes. I used to think that if I felt ok not doing it, then it was a light week. This time, though, it was a sign that I was burned out. I needed to focus on the basics, which includes reviewing all the slowly-moving parts of different projects.

A daily short list that I fully expect to do is an experiment worth continuing. For years, I argued that an intentionally-optimistic list that I can pick and choose from during the day was better.


Mark, I'm looking forward to reading about the new catch-all method.


Eric, Agreed! A good TM system is scaffolding and a safety-net. I need to pick myself up more often than I'd like (depression and poor stress response), but as long as I review my lists, I know nothing will be forgotten.
April 17, 2017 at 1:11 | Unregistered CommenterCricket
The lesson I learned was that I could not stay with one system for more than a few days. I have always liked AF1 and randomiser and could use the same list. Went off tangent with setting up a bullet journal then the easier and more useful Strikethru system (sorry Mark I look at other sites for the perfect system but still think I'll find it on your site!). The bullet journal was more to have everything in one place rather than as a time management system.

Seriously there is no one system that works for me but by rotating how to address/attack a single list that contains everything seems to work best for me.
April 17, 2017 at 11:04 | Unregistered Commenterskeg

<< Mark, I'm looking forward to reading about the new catch-all method.>>

To be clear, it is not a new catch-all method but a method of stopping a catch-all list from getting too long. It will work with any catch-all method.
April 17, 2017 at 12:25 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

I'm suffering quite badly at the moment from peripheral neuropathy as a result of chemotherapy, so typing is very difficult for me.

So I'm sorry that I'm not currently able to reply adequately to your comments and posts. Don't let that stop you from making them though!
April 17, 2017 at 12:31 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
We're glad you are there and listening.
Take care of you.

April 17, 2017 at 15:00 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Wishing you the best. Thank you for staying with us.
April 18, 2017 at 19:18 | Registered CommenterWill
I tried not to make too many changes to my system during the challenge. One change I did make was to put the tasks relating to food and sleep in their own list with a very high priority. This means I have been stopping sooner and remembering to take breaks to eat and drink, whilst still feeling like I have done the utmost for the day.

Mostly I have been chronically fatigued lately, so the list has run away from me a little bit as things have been added but I have not had energy enough to process them. I am going to have a rethink about how best to stop this from happening (although I never add more than I should be able to do in a day at my best, lately I have very much been at my worst).

I am going to do myself a favour and have a bit of a cull, but mostly I have been concentrated on looking after myself, whilst also being able to keep on top of the housework and a few personal projects. I even finished a book for the first time in longer than I can remember, which is a marvel.

Some adjustments to be made, then. But largely I feel this was positive. I look forward to reading over everybody else's experiences. As ever, many ideas from here do go into my own system. The key one I really need to introduce, though, is a better means of dismissal for tasks that are no longer relevant.

And, probably not too unexpectedly, the biggest obstacle to the system working as designed has been myself. The balance is good in theory, but my eagerness to avoid doing anything 'difficult' - in particular (though not exclusively, alas) when feeling the way I have been - is something that needs a dramatic shift.
April 18, 2017 at 23:39 | Unregistered CommenterEiron
Eiron, it's very common to feel worse once you start looking after your body. It's temporary. When under stress, your body slows down on healing and maintenance. When the stress eases, your body needs to deal with the backlog.

I agree, it's very easy to avoid doing anything that's difficult, and doing something less valuable. Then I look back and realize that I could have done half the difficult project, a little at a time. Then I start the project, and realize that, with a bit of rethinking, I could have already finished it.
April 19, 2017 at 2:29 | Registered CommenterCricket
My "DIT + TOC" experiment has been going pretty well.

DIT has been solid as the underlying TM system. In fact, the Lenten Challenge flew by, and it never occurred to me to try to change DIT. Which means there were no real problems of any kind -- if I had run into problems, I would not have stuck with it so long, challenge or no challenge!

That's very different compared to my previous attempts at DIT, which quickly resulted in overwhelm as soon as I hit any bump in the road.

The difference was that the TOC component of my system kept me more focused. It also helped me reduce the task diary more and more as I tried to find more things to cut and more ways to reduce basic operational overhead.

I turned to TOC evaporating-cloud conflict resolution whenever I found myself feeling overwhelmed or stuck. Sometimes I would resist doing that, because it's always hard work to think through these things. But it always proved very fruitful, and usually very quickly. It helped me break logjams between competing priorities, helped me clarify my overall goals, and helped me reduce waste and extra work that doesn't help me toward my goals. It's also just given me lots more insights about myself and my personal, work, and family dynamics and challenges.

I was hoping I'd be able to break down those TOC processes into a simpler checklist or algorithm. I didn't achieve that, but that wasn't really my priority, either. I found that there are so many assumptions in what it means to manage time, what productivity even means, how prioritization works, or even what it means at the most fundamental level.
April 19, 2017 at 4:01 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Kiwi Erik - Thank you for such a detailed and insightful post!
April 19, 2017 at 4:02 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
My experiment with commitment to DIT evolved into:
- a daily outline task list to be pasted and edited at the start of each day (eg check calendar, review key project tasks for day, dedicated income generation slot, clear yesterday's incoming work, etc)
- discretionary / project work time managed via short no-list

While the system smoothed my day at times, when family health issues blew up for a week or so I had to revert to a brief no-list and accept that a backlog would accrue till things normalised again.

Following a regular system did expose gaps in my approach to work:
- not enough reviewing of strategic priorities (my responsibilities look set to to outstretch my capacities until we are able to afford to recruit one or two more people), need to build this in;
- goal to clear incoming work meant I could spend too much time on incoming queries that may not match our priorities, so priority work moves slowly as a result, need to get much better at weeding / dismissal / saying no (links to help on this welcome!)
April 19, 2017 at 13:21 | Unregistered CommenterColin
I really enjoyed this challenge. My plan was to use The Bounce, and use two lists, one at work and one at home.

The Bounce at work:
I managed! I used it every day when at work. My list got a lot smaller. I started with approximately 70 tasks and ended with 9. I had some hard deadlines before Easter and had to prioritize hard the last week and then dismissed some tasks.
There was one important task that I omitted. Now and then I did some small work on it. Just to move it to the end and finish that page. I knew all the time that I had big problem with that special task.
In the end it was clear to me that I could not manage that task before Easter, which was my deadline. I had to give it up and, to my surprise, it was a big relief! So hope it was the right decision. I will continue to use The Bounce at work.

The Bounce at Home
My biggest problem has always been my tasks at home. My home list was tasks on two projects that is important to me and that I want to get done this spring (decluttering at home and prepare my kitchen garden). I soon realized that the Bounce didn't work at home and on this list. Instead my new rule was to do one task on the list every day. I could pick any task on the list. It could be a tiny task, but I had to do one task. This worked fine. Earlier I often felt tired and would think: I'll do it tomorrow. But now instead, I did a small task. Then I didn't feel so tired anymore and often did several tasks once I had started.
On weekends when there is more time I used the Bounce some of the days. I’m not sure if the system made me as productive at home as I want to be, but I have been more productive than the 40 days before.

I learn that I often just need to get started. When i start it's hard to stop. And that special reason is why it’s difficult to start at home, my head is still at work! And because I also need to rest in the afternoon, it's hard to stop resting.
April 20, 2017 at 13:29 | Unregistered CommenterTobba, Oslo
Hi Mark - hope you're feeling a bit better, and thanks so much for sticking with us at such a trying time for you.

My Lenten challenge was the Bounce. I must admit I didn't stick with it all the time, but what it did do was show me that a catch-all system isn't ideal for me. I feel that I lose track of my commitments in the list when they're lumped in with everything that pops into my head and I feel totally overwhelmed. So the experiment was a success in making me realise that I need a place to capture everything, but it has to be separate from the list I use on a daily basis to take action.

I find DIT very attractive and have used it in the past, and I like the idea of "one day's work" being made clear. However, because my mind generates literally dozens and dozens of ideas and tasks that I feel I need to capture, the closed list for tomorrow contains far more work than I'm capable of doing in a day, and the whole system is overwhelmed within a few days. The audit process doesn't help with this because it's not a matter of too many commitments, it''s a matter of endless ideas/possible tasks being generated by my mind.

I've had a few ideas of how to do a version of DIT that has a separate capture system, leaving DIT free for focussed work on commitments, and for the Eastertide Challenge I'll maybe develop that. If I do, I'll report on it in the Eastertide thread.

Best wishes to everybody.
April 24, 2017 at 10:32 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

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