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« High Volume, High Speed, Low Resistance | Main | Anchored Autofocus2 »
Sunday
Jun252017

Thoughts on the Long List (2)

I wrote about about the natural selection of tasks back in February this year, and it would be well worth your while reminding yourself what I said then. One of the most important things was:

There is no such thing as procrastination. What we call “procrastination” is just our minds working through the selection process.

What I want to look at in future posts is what happens when we take this principle seriously.

Reader Comments (23)

I'm interested in this topic as I do suffer with naturally selecting easier/less important/less urgent tasks. The tasks all need to be done in the end, but the timing of when I do them is not always the best.

Over the years I can look back on how I have neglected tasks that really needed doing much sooner and have become a problem unnecessarily.

For some strange reason, when I mark things as urgent that tends to build up some unconscious resistance to doing the task...

I wonder if some people are prone to putting things off even when knowing they should be done. However, others will naturally select the urgent tasks first and put off the less urgent or important.

Interesting how our minds work....
June 26, 2017 at 12:35 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
I have always liked the "Natural Selection" post. My thoughts on list-all systems have been gravitating towards those same principles for several months even before that blog post, and since then I have consciously been trying to use list-all systems by those principles, and shy away from systems that seem to hinder the practice of those systems.

I am eager to see where your posts will go, Mark.
June 26, 2017 at 18:38 | Registered Commenternuntym
I find it effective to break bigger tasks down into verb tasks (like gtd). For me, it creates a level playing field where tasks are a similar level of difficulty. I find that the catch all list approach (especially when items are vaguely defined like in autofocus) leads me to 'cherry pick' the most enjoyable or easy tasks.
June 27, 2017 at 10:10 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
MrBacklog:

<< For some strange reason, when I mark things as urgent that tends to build up some unconscious resistance to doing the task...>>

Yes, the whole idea behind the natural selection of tasks is that we should not prioritize or put any type of pressure on individual tasks. Instead we allow full rein to our intuition which will take everything into consideration that needs to be taken into consideration.
June 27, 2017 at 15:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Leon:

<< I find it effective to break bigger tasks down into verb tasks (like gtd). >>

I assume by verb task you mean writing "Buy Present for J" instead of "Present for J". I've never personally found that it makes the slightest difference to me. If I see "Present for J" on my list I know what that means.

<< For me, it creates a level playing field where tasks are a similar level of difficulty. >>

But that is actually irrelevant to me because whatever the task is I will always tackle it in the same way, i.e. work on it for as long as I feel like working on it, then re-enter it if it's not finished.

<< when items are vaguely defined like in autofocus >>

If you look at one of my autofocus lists and the items seem vaguely defined to you, that's because you don't know what I mean by them. But I do.

<< I find that the catch all list approach leads me to 'cherry pick' the most enjoyable or easy tasks.>>

That may well be the case until you've got the hang of only working on things for as long as you feel like working on them.
June 27, 2017 at 15:44 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark Forster:

<< Yes, the whole idea behind the natural selection of tasks is that we should not prioritize or put any type of pressure on individual tasks. Instead we allow full rein to our intuition which will take everything into consideration that needs to be taken into consideration. >>

Hi Mark, thanks for your useful advice as always. I have been trying recently to see if I can not put off any task whatsoever and at least do a little bit of it. It is really hard!

I wonder if that could be a new challenge that some of your readers may enjoy (or not...).
I remember in the DIT book about the example of doing a task that gets harder every day and how difficult that can be.

I will carry on with the little and often approach as it is certainly making me feel much better.
I could be ready for a change of name soon!
June 27, 2017 at 17:11 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Hi Mark, mainly reflecting on what has been working well for me over the last few months (defining tasks more clearly / reducing ambiguity in my own mind I guess), I'm sure the way you approach items on your own list works well for you and I sincerely hope that it continues to.
June 27, 2017 at 18:21 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Mark, it's very cheering to see you posting again! I've missed your relentless creativity and insight.

The problem for me is when I am under stress, or generalized time pressure (e.g., too many meetings), or am merely tired, and my intuition isn't really working up to par. It's times like these when I simply follow the path of least resistance.

And with any catch-all list, there is a very high probability that the new incoming tasks will be lower resistance than the tasks already on the list. This is simply a matter of probability.

Here is how that works:
- Let's say I start with several tasks on my list.
- I work some of the tasks -- most likely, many small/easy tasks (to get them out of the way, if nothing else), and maybe a few of the harder tasks
- Result: the things remaining on the list are mostly the harder things
- Then I get a batch of new incoming tasks -- let's say it's in typical proportions of easy-to-hard
- Result: there are even more "hard" things to deal with. And there are several more "easy" things, mostly toward the end of the list
- I then start to feel a little niggling pressure that I need to work more on the "hard" things. But now there are more things to choose from. This doesn't make it easier to get started on any of them -- it makes it harder. And it increases the pressure.
- So my tendency (under duress) is to cherry pick from the easy things. That's the path of least resistance. And my main point here is that there is always a constant flow of new easy things to pull me away from the hard things.

When I do get some breathing space and can allow myself to think and intuit, I can ignore the easy distractions and sort out the hard things more easily -- but there are usually "too many" of them, and that makes it harder to get started. As a group, the "hard things" start to generate a bit of resistance to the list as a whole.

It might take a long while for any given system before it reaches this level of generalized resistance, but every system I've ever tried does reach that level eventually.

I am wondering whether the logical steps I outlined above make this inevitable for any catch-all list, unless specific actions are taken to alleviate it (algorithmically or otherwise). (This also happens with no-list, if I keep a side list of authorized projects that tends to grow over time... The backlog is merely revealing itself in a different form.)

Mark, it would be wonderful if your new approach addresses this fundamental problem! (here's hoping!!) :-)
June 27, 2017 at 21:36 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Seraphim,

Ditto your relentless analysis.

You perfectly describe my experience.
June 28, 2017 at 10:55 | Registered CommenterWill
Seraphim:

Thanks for you thoughts. Since they deserve a full reply and typing is still very difficult for me I may have to take several comments to answer.

I think I want to start by saying again that this "new approach" of mine is not related to any particular system but is more a change of attitude. The change of attitude could be summed up in what I said to MrBacklog earlier:

"... the whole idea behind the natural selection of tasks is that we should not prioritize or put any type of pressure on individual tasks. Instead we allow full rein to our intuition which will take everything into consideration that needs to be taken into consideration."

So how could this be applied to what you are saying?

<< The problem for me is when I am under stress, or generalized time pressure (e.g., too many meetings), or am merely tired, and my intuition isn't really working up to par. It's times like these when I simply follow the path of least resistance. >>

In those circumstances the path of least resistance is usually the most sensible path to follow. But it is important to be following the path and not just wandering aimlessly. So the most important thing is to get back to your list, and (as soon as you have entered the new task "Reduce Number of Meetings") get back to scanning it.

Don't worry if the only tasks you select are trivia. They will be what's right for you at the time.
June 28, 2017 at 16:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Seraphim (continued)

<< So my tendency (under duress) is to cherry pick from the easy things. That's the path of least resistance. And my main point here is that there is always a constant flow of new easy things to pull me away from the hard things.>>

What exactly do we mean when we say something is "easy" or "difficult"?

Is something which is easy at 11 a.m. necessarily also easy at 11 p.m.?

Does "difficult" relate to mental or physical effort? or to skill level required? or to how much we do or don't want to do it regardless of other factors?

Does something seem easier if we really want the result?

Is something which is easy necessarily less significant than something which is difficult?

Is working on something difficult for 5 minutes more or less difficult than working on something easy for 5 hours?

I like answering comments on this blog and it's easy for me, but on the other hand it's really physically difficult to type an extended answer at the moment. Which is going to win?
June 28, 2017 at 18:30 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,
Thank you for this! It made me think of trying something that I'll share here.
*please note, I don't think this would work on a giant list (pages & pages of tasks) therefore I've been keeping my list as short and to "active" items as I can.

-List what I need to do
-Set a chime reminder on my phone to ding at the top of each hour
-When it chimes I scan my list fully (this is in the spirit of continuously scanning & pondering tasks. I find my subconscious works on them & softens resistance
-Select any tasks that I'll work on during the next hour. Most commonly I select none or one task. The most has been four. The trick here is to not over estimate what I'm going to do. I find an hour length good as it is long enough but short enough to make me focus on just a task or two
-I mark the selected tasks with a dot
-Over the hour I do it/them
-If a repeating task, or further work will be needed, I reenter at end of the list
-Cross off the tasks as completed, or when the next chime chimes

That's it. Very simple but I'm liking it so far!
June 29, 2017 at 4:17 | Unregistered CommenterTommy
BJ Fogg's model of behaviour may be of use when considering Mark's point about motivation to do a task and the about having the ability to do it.

It's very practical and easy to map a range of behaviours to (which could include tasks).

B = MAT (Behviour happens when Motivation, Ability and a Trigger (or prompt) come together at the same time).

I have been approaching verb tasks as 'starter steps' (with the above model in Mind). So, I continue to work on tasks after I have completed the verb task, if I want to.

A 'live' example: 'Identify ivy root locations'. (This is clearer to me, and offers me a way in to this project than using a vague description like 'clear ivy').

I have completed two difficult home projects over the last two months in this way.

I have used my own system (similar to GSD or Getting Sh*t Done) but in my view it is an improvement on it.

I also find that having a long list to scan can feel very tiring Whilst imposing a sense of guilt and chronic failure (doesn't anyone else feel this way too?). I also think that continually scanning a list brings an overhead of dead time.

My tasks are now always verb tasks and are presented daily as I intend to do them.
June 29, 2017 at 7:02 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Hi Leon, your post strikes a chord with me!

My "catch all" list of things to do is now a total of 218 tasks. Some task take a few minutes and others a few hours. If no more tasks were added it would probably take 2-3 weeks to clear.

I have in the past got overwhelmed and certainly feelings of chronic failure apply when the task list gets that long. I suppose one of the problems with catch all lists and potential feeling of loss of control, or have I really got that much to do!

However, Mark's comment below certainly helps me with getting a clear head on how to approach the tasks and in particular simply "to get back to your list".

I'm finding what works for me is to tackle the newest tasks in the morning and the oldest in the afternoon. I know the tasks will all then get done in a timely manner. After all, the title of this blog is getting everything done...
For me, scanning the tasks does not really achieve anything as they are more or less all the same priority. i.e. they all "stand out" the same.
For sure, there are tasks that I don't want to do but I am trying to condition myself to do them anyway or at least a little bit of the task. I find with doing a mixture of easy ones and a few harder ones each day, that has a good balance and follows the natural selection advice of being more ready to do the task.

I'm finding that trying to forget about how much I have to do and instead just working from the top and the bottom of the list creates a sense of calm. ie. following the path and not wandering aimlessly....

Mark wrote:
<< In those circumstances the path of least resistance is usually the most sensible path to follow. But it is important to be following the path and not just wandering aimlessly. So the most important thing is to get back to your list, and (as soon as you have entered the new task "Reduce Number of Meetings") get back to scanning it. >>
June 29, 2017 at 11:28 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
MrBacklog:

<< For me, scanning the tasks does not really achieve anything as they are more or less all the same priority. i.e. they all "stand out" the same. >>

In that case you might find The Random Method ideally suited to you.

http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2014/1/22/random-time-management.html
June 29, 2017 at 11:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks Mark, I will have a read of that.

I was initially a bit sceptical about the system, as I thought some tasks would never get done. However, I can see from the instructions there is a bias towards older tasks so I can now see how it would work fine.

What I find interesting is the many different ways of doing tasks in this website.Trying to find the one that works perfectly in all circumstances always seems a challenge. I guess many of us seem to switch systems after a short while for one reason or another.

Still waiting to find "the one", so please do keep on sending them through and I will read with interest. Happy to be a guinea pig.
June 30, 2017 at 11:44 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
MrBacklog:

<< I can see from the instructions there is a bias towards older tasks >>

That's correct. On average two tasks are selected per active page on each pass, regardless of how many active tasks there are on the page.

If you wanted to, you could have a non-random version of this in which you simply select two tasks per page each pass.
June 30, 2017 at 12:41 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Maybe "hard" just means "high resistance" and "easy" is "low resistance." And yes, it can change depending on context.
July 2, 2017 at 1:52 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
hi Mark,
I am a hacker a good one , I want to help you with your typing issue. I can provide some solution so that you can talk instead of using the keyboard with very accurate results in any software, viz Microsoft Word, or any word processing app, or browser for mail writing etc.
Please let met know .....
July 2, 2017 at 7:29 | Unregistered CommenterGlen
Seraphim:

<< Maybe "hard" just means "high resistance" and "easy" is "low resistance." And yes, it can change depending on context. >>

If you substitute "high resistance" for "difficult" and "low resistance" for "easy" in the post of mine you are replying to, it doesn't take us much further forward.
July 2, 2017 at 9:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Glen:

Thanks very much for your offer of help. I do already use audio dictation for emails and memos where a logical sequence of thought doesn't matter very much, but I have always found it very difficult to get my thoughts in order while dictating - and I go back to the days of shorthand-typists!
July 2, 2017 at 9:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Its O.K, but if your dictation system is not based on google voice.I would request you to just try this new Google innovation. , which is really awesome, you may even test in the Google Chrome browser just go to https://speechnotes.co/ , select British English, give permission to use your mike, click the mike icon and start dictating , If you are satisfied with the accuracy of the recognition, I can write for you a script which can transfer whatever you talk to whichever text editor software ever you need, you mentioned your difficulty getting your ideas and thoughts in order, for which i would suggest you some Mind Mapping application like Freemind, which after you've done can generate a summary in whatever order you want .. I am using the above system to talk to myself, in third person planning some project details. or just for fun.
I am thrilled to see so much text material generated talking, but that's another issue, Thanks
July 2, 2017 at 13:08 | Unregistered CommenterGlen
Glen:

Again it's very kind of you to offer, but the problem does not lie in the software - it's the fact that I simply don't like dictating.
July 2, 2017 at 14:31 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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