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« "Standing Out" | Main | High Volume, High Speed, Low Resistance - Final Test Result »
Wednesday
Jul192017

Real Autofocus?

French translation by Fred Mikusek

This method of dealing with a task list is the most effective I have yet found. It is based on simple scanning, that is to say going round and round the list doing tasks as and when they stand out.

This is in itself quite an effective method, but as I said here it suffers from two major related problems:

  1. The list tends to grow uncontrollably
  2. It gets spread over a large number of pages if you are using a notebook and pencil/pen. 

So what one ends up with is a huge backlog of tasks, which one doesn’t have a hope of ever clearing.

What is needed is a way of getting the list to self-limit in such a way that it focuses on what one can actually do within a couple of days or so.

Here’s how it works step-by-step. I’ve assumed you are using paper and pen/pencil, but it is easily adapted to work electronically. 


FIRST DAY 

  1. Start a new list. Don’t use an existing list.This is very important, otherwise you will overwhelm it before you’ve even started.
  2. Add other tasks to the end of the list as needed or as they occur to you throughout the day. Allow the list to build up gradually.
  3. Work the list by scanning it, taking action on those tasks that feel ready to be worked on.
  4. When you’ve worked enough on a task. cross it out. If it’s unfinished, re-write it at the end of the list. Do the same with tasks that will recur the same day or the next day.
  5. When you finish for the day draw a short horizontal line in the margin immediately after the last task on the list.

 

SECOND DAY

 

  1. Starting from the beginning of the list work as in rules 2-5 for the First Day.

 

 

SUBSEQUENT DAYS

 

  1. Extend the first of the two short line end-of-day markers (see rule 5) so that it goes right across the page.
  2. Start working from that line (i.e. ignore any tasks before it for the time being)
  3. When you reach the end of the list, go back to the beginning of the list.
  4. You now work only on the tasks between the beginning of the active list and the long horizontal line you drew at the beginning of the day:
    1. Scan them and DELETE any you no longer want to do at all
    2. Scan again and DEFER any you don’t want to do now to your schedule/calendar (do not just re-write them at the end of the list without taking any action on them)
    3. DO all the remaining tasks in order
  5. Continue working the rest of the list as in rules 2-5 for the first day.

 

IN SUMMARY, at the beginning of each day you work on yesterday’s tasks in the normal way, followed by today’s tasks. Then you clear ALL tasks remaining from the day before yesterday (DELETE, DEFER or DO). Once you’ve done that you carry on working yesterday and today’s tasks as normal.

Using this myself I was surprised how few tasks I needed to delete or defer. The list seemed to conform almost automatically to the amount of time I had available. I’ll be interested to know if it works that way for you too.

 

 

Reader Comments (150)

<<SECOND DAY
Starting from the beginning of the list work as in rules 3-6 for the First Day.>>

Shoudn't it be: .... as in rules 3-5 for the First Day?
July 19, 2017 at 18:26 | Unregistered Commenternick61
Thanks Mark. You are the best. I have been checking hourly for a couple of days for this to show up.

This sounds quite promising - giving it a try now.
July 19, 2017 at 18:32 | Unregistered CommenterEric
Would this work in a daily planner? I'm at the point where keeping a daily appointment book could work better for me, & it would be nice to integrate tasks like DWM did. That was the version that worked best for me in the past, but between how spread out the list got & not having many appointments I quit using a daily planner.
July 19, 2017 at 18:41 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
<<Shoudn't it be: .... as in rules 3-5 for the First Day?>>

Or 2-5?
July 19, 2017 at 19:30 | Unregistered CommenterGadgets
Quick question:
What happens if work on or finish the task from step 5 on day 2? Does day 2 become the new day 1?
July 19, 2017 at 19:41 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Coyer
In addition to DO, DELETE, DEFER, isn't there some justification for further option? I'm thinking of of what Alan Lakein calls the 'CZ' list. If you can't bring yourself to work on a task, but don't want to completely forget about it forever, you'd dump it there, and check it once a month, or whatever.

This is, of course DEFERRAL, but of an indefinite sort.
July 19, 2017 at 20:30 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Williams
nick61 and gadgets:

Sorry, i removed an unnecessary rule and forgot to renumber the reference. It should be 2-5. I will correct.
July 19, 2017 at 22:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Martin Williams:

<< If you can't bring yourself to work on a task, but don't want to completely forget about it forever, you'd dump it there, and check it once a month, or whatever.>>

I suspect all you'd succeed in doing is creating a huge list of stuff you're never going to get round to. Exactly what this method is intended to avoid.
July 19, 2017 at 22:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Jessica:

<< Would this work in a daily planner? >>

I don't see why not. Why don't you try it out and report back?
July 19, 2017 at 22:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
David Coyer:

<< What happens if work on or finish the task from step 5 on day 2? Does day 2 become the new day 1? >>

That's actually happened to me a couple of times during the testing.

At the beginning of the day you work on yesterday’s tasks in the normal way, followed by today’s tasks. Then, since there's nothing left over from the day before yesterday, you just carry on working yesterday and today’s tasks.
July 19, 2017 at 22:37 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
For the final task under SUBSEQUENT DAYS, "DO all the remaining tasks in order" - did you find it important that they be done "in order"?
July 19, 2017 at 22:44 | Unregistered CommenterZane
Again on "Do all the remaining tasks in order."

Does "do" mean "do some work on"?

Thank you so much for this new method!
July 19, 2017 at 23:25 | Unregistered CommenterLaby
Zane:

<< did you find it important that they be done "in order"? >>

I tried various ways of doing this. I found that that the knowledge that one was going to DO the tasks in order gave an overall greater sense of purpose which even affected the DELETE and DEFER stages.
July 19, 2017 at 23:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Laby:

Yes. It means that throughout the instructions
July 19, 2017 at 23:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I think this is an excellent idea, especially the way you've nailed the problem of uncontrolled growth in a simple way.

I do have another stupid question: Would you limit the contents of this catchall to actionable tasks, or would you also throw non-actionable things at it like ideas, new project possibilities, etc.?
July 19, 2017 at 23:32 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Williams
Martin Williams:

<< I think this is an excellent idea, especially the way you've nailed the problem of uncontrolled growth in a simple way. >>

The thing I wasn't expecting about this method was that it seems to have a psychological effect on my mind so that I'm much more aware of how much is a realistic amount I can put on the list and get it all done.

<< I do have another stupid question: Would you limit the contents of this catchall to actionable tasks, or would you also throw non-actionable things at it like ideas, new project possibilities, etc.? >>

Thinking is the most important part of action - so yes I'd include them.
July 19, 2017 at 23:42 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Of all Mark's systems, this one has the coolest acronym. :-)

I'm going to try it today!
July 20, 2017 at 0:06 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
"Once you’ve done that you carry on working yesterday and today’s tasks as normal"

This is basically an everyday loop?

Also, wouldn't it be great to use this with a daily journal on Evernote for example? And then use checkboxes are for the tasks. You'll review the previous day's journal entry, and the day before that, daily.
July 20, 2017 at 1:48 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
Remarkably this innovation is extremely similar to what I just read earlier today in "18 minutes" by Peter Bergman. (Highly recommend the book, time management is the subject, but the Todo list is a tiny part of his writing.). Allow me to quote from chapter 25, "The three day rule":

[After filling out today's schedule from items on the the todo list] I review what's left on the list. If there are new items from today or the previous two days, I leave them.... But for everything else..., I do one of four things:
1. Do it immediately [most leftover things get finished in a flash once you actually start]
2. Schedule it [for a future date]
3. Let it go. [delete]
4. Someday/maybe. [the coward list for things you don't have the courage to fully delete]

Why did Peter add this rule? "...the probability — of a long list of items... And that list will simply grow longer and more stressful — a continued reminder of what you aren't accomplishing— day by day.... This is where the three-day rule comes in."
July 20, 2017 at 5:49 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
@Alan Baljeu - I like the parallel you draw between this system and the Bregman one.

Peter Bregman's 18 Minutes is indeed an excellent read. I think several principles in it complement Mark's system quite nicely, as it also provides some guidance on setting up areas of focus, which could then allow you to populate the to-do list in a way that is in alignment with goals/objectives you set out to achieve.

@Mark - Looking forward to testing your system, Mark! Thank you for sharing it with us, and I hope that you are well!
July 20, 2017 at 7:01 | Unregistered CommenterBernard
As usual from Mark, this is brilliant. It combines what I liked about AutoFocus (do things as they stand out) with what I liked about DIT (get a grip on what constitutes "a day's work"). Starting my testdrive today, looking forward to see how it works for me!
July 20, 2017 at 9:00 | Unregistered CommenterNicole
How do you go about handling big goals with this
July 20, 2017 at 9:16 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
When you defer a task to your calendar/schedule, how do you handle the task in practice when the scheduled day comes?

Do you actually schedule a block of time and use this time to work on the task? Or do you add the task to the end of the list on the scheduled day? Do you then force yourself to do at least some work on the task on this day?
July 20, 2017 at 9:53 | Unregistered CommenterChristian
Yoyorast:

<< How do you go about handling big goals with this? >>

Every goal is made up of actions. This method is about handling actions. All the following are actions:

Plan
Think About
Discuss
Draft
Review
Research
Organize

And many other management type words
July 20, 2017 at 10:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Christian:

<< When you defer a task to your calendar/schedule, how do you handle the task in practice when the scheduled day comes? >>

First I'd check that I still wanted to do the task at all. Then I'd put it on the list and handle it like any other task on the list.
July 20, 2017 at 10:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,

[Looking forward to test driving this after the forthcoming hols]

Re <handling big goals>: would you keep a parallel overall projects list, or would you advise/prefer leaving these to the intuitive process of the list?
July 20, 2017 at 10:27 | Unregistered CommenterColin
Colin:

<< Re <handling big goals>: would you keep a parallel overall projects list, or would you advise/prefer leaving these to the intuitive process of the list? >>

I think it depends on your circumstances, Projects should be neither over-controlled nor under-controlled. So what suits one project won't suit another.
July 20, 2017 at 11:06 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Alan Baljeu:

<< "The three day rule":>>

I've not read the book so I'm I'm probably missing a lot of background, but I'm not so sure that the resemblances are as great as they appear at first sight.

For a start Bergman refers to "filling out today's schedule from items on the the to-do list". I'm not sure what he means by that but it certainly doesn't sound like what I'm advocating in my method.

Secondly, mine is a "two day rule" by his definition, not a three day rule

Thirdly he goes for do, defer, delete. I go for delete, defer, do. This is important psychologically.

And fourthly, a someday/maybe list? Just exactly what I'm trying to get away from!
July 20, 2017 at 11:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
The similarly between Bregmanns "3-day-rule" and Marks new system are in my opinion a perfect example that two experts, who are dedicated to the same topic, come to similar conclusions, without even knowing about each others work. Kudos to both experts.
July 20, 2017 at 11:40 | Unregistered CommenterNordwind
In the end, you'll have a really long list with stuff you've completed, and it'll grow and grow (digital, using something like evernote). Is this the goal?
July 20, 2017 at 12:02 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
@Yoyorast: As long as you do any of the tasks on your todo-list and not just stare at them, this is what inevitably will happen - no matter which method you use. But what prevents you from archiving/deleting old pages, on which no unactioned tasks are left?
July 20, 2017 at 12:29 | Unregistered CommenterNordwind
@Nordwind, I already know what sets this apart from any other todolist or system.

I was talking about this "It gets spread over a large number of pages".

Say you've used this for a week, you'll be able to go back and view tasks you've completed right? And since you're deleting, deferring, or doing items from -2 days, there won't be any unactioned tasks.

And if you're doing this electronically, you might have one massive list in which you can view all tasks you've done right? And stuff won't be split up through pages like in a notebook.
July 20, 2017 at 12:53 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
@Yoyorast: Why don't you use one Evernote note for every day, in which you write down only the tasks of this day? In this case you'll only have three active pages.
July 20, 2017 at 12:58 | Unregistered CommenterNordwind
Question - On day three - you start at the line and work towards the end. Do you just evaluate each task in order and decide if it is ready to be done? Or do you scan around over and over again until there is nothing left to be done before moving to the other side of the line?

I am unclear as to what process gets you to the end of the list so that you can move to the beginning of the active list (other side of the line)

Thanks,
July 20, 2017 at 14:30 | Unregistered CommenterEric
Eric - here's my own little cheatsheet with points I especially need to remember. If it's incorrect someone can correct me:

...at the beginning of each day you start by working on yesterday’s tasks in the normal way (work the list by scanning it), followed by today’s tasks (work it by scanning). Then you clear ALL tasks remaining from the day before yesterday (DELETE then DEFER then DO, in order). Once you’ve done that you carry on working yesterday's and today’s tasks as normal.
July 20, 2017 at 15:06 | Unregistered CommenterZane
Hi Zane,

You wrote:

"working on yesterday’s tasks in the normal way (work the list by scanning it), followed by today’s tasks (work it by scanning)."

I don't think you separate the two days and scan each separately, but work on them as one list, scanning through.
July 20, 2017 at 15:41 | Unregistered Commentervegheadjones
Yoyorast:

<< In the end, you'll have a really long list with stuff you've completed, and it'll grow and grow (digital, using something like evernote). Is this the goal? >>

I'm not quite sure what you're getting at. Are you saying that this would be a good thing or a bad thing?

Either way, if you want to keep them for reference you can, or if you want to get rid of them you can because there are no unactioned tasks left on them.

When I mentioned "gets spread over a large number of pages" in the instructions, I was referring to unactioned tasks, not completed tasks.
July 20, 2017 at 15:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Eric:

<< On day three - you start at the line and work towards the end. Do you just evaluate each task in order and decide if it is ready to be done? >>

Yes, though "evaluate" is too strong a word. You scan rapidly through the list and only stop when a task stands out as being ready to be done.

<< Or do you scan around over and over again until there is nothing left to be done before moving to the other side of the line? >>

No, you do one pass through Yesterday and Today (treated as one), then you go back to the Day Before Yesterday at the beginning of the list and clear it using Delete, Defer, Do. Once it's clear, you circle through Yesterday and Today (treated as one) for the rest of the day.
July 20, 2017 at 16:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Good catch vegheadjones. Thanks!
July 20, 2017 at 16:41 | Unregistered CommenterZane
The process for the oldest tasks seems to be the most different from the dismissal process on other methods. Instead of automatically deleting or deferring the oldest chunk, or giving them a last chance to be done before deleting, you are considering each task individually for deletion, then the remaining ones for deferral, and then doing the rest. Also, the tasks are not allowed to get stale.

At first it seems like it would be more efficient to consider "delete, defer, do" on each task, but that is a different mental process than the one Mark recommends. Why would it make that much difference?
July 20, 2017 at 16:59 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
Mark, been trying your systems here, thanks for all your effort and sharing.

what do you suggest based on your experiences, do the list with pen and notebook or digitally?


thanks, thanks, alot
:)
July 20, 2017 at 17:01 | Unregistered CommenterNanda
Jessica:

"delete, defer, do" _is_ what I recommend.

The reason I chose that order is because deleting or deferring a task takes exactly the same effort regardless of the difficulty of the task, whereas doing a task takes more effort for a difficult task than it does for an easy task.

Therefore if you delete and defer first you are more likely to get a answers uninfluenced by the difficulty of the task. The tasks left to be done will be the ones that should be done.

If you put doing first, then your decision will be effected by the difficulty of the task. This will result in some tasks being done just because they are easy and others being deleted or deferred just because they are difficult.
July 20, 2017 at 17:41 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Nanda:

<< do the list with pen and notebook or digitally? >>

This is very much a personal preference. My preference is for paper and pencil except where I am likely to have to do a lot of re-arranging.

And yes I do use a pencil - a Kuru Toga to be precise.
July 20, 2017 at 17:47 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark

Thanks a lot for sharing your new system with us, I tried it today and it was great as all the tasks are fresh to me and I am quite motivated to work on the system.

However I have a question, are you seperating your list with work and non-work list? For example, I have a daily routine task "Cleaning my office table", which I will do it daily on my work day Monday to Friday. However on Saturday and Sunday, I will not go to office, therefore "Cleaning my office table" will be left on the list until Sunday. Such "Cleaning my office table" task will undergo the progress of "delete, defer and do" on Sunday, in this case, shall I defer such task to calendar on Monday and add back to the list?
July 20, 2017 at 18:12 | Unregistered Commenterellie520
I think was you suggest for the oldest tasks is to ask:

Delete? for the oldest tasks
--Task A--
Task B
Task D
Task Z
...

Defer? for the remaining tasks of this list
Task B
Task D-->
Task Z
....

And then Do what is left
Task B
Task Z

As opposed to asking 3 questions of every task in that group:

Delete, Defer, Do?
Task A

Delete, defer, do?
Task B

Delete, defer, do?
Task D
....

Was I interpreting the instructions incorrectly?
July 20, 2017 at 18:25 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
Mark:

<No, you do one pass through Yesterday and Today (treated as one), then you go back to the Day Before Yesterday at the beginning of the list and clear it using Delete, Defer, Do. Once it's clear, you circle through Yesterday and Today (treated as one) for the rest of the day. >

Do you always scan beginning to end of whatever section you are in? and then return to the beginning? I think this what you mean by circling - but not sure.
July 20, 2017 at 19:30 | Unregistered CommenterEric
I quickly found myself moving over to OneNote to implement this. Here is a screen shot:
http://www.evernote.com/l/ADhCDClmshRGqY7TXghNPlHAE40ybFthHTM/

I use three sections:
- Today (all new and re-entered tasks)
- Yesterday
- Delete Defer Do

Tasks are represented by Pages in OneNote.

At beginning of day:
- Move all pages from Yesterday to Delete Defer Do
- Move all pages from Today to Yesterday
- Start working in the Yesterday section
- Then move to the Today section
- Then move to the Delete Defer Do section (and follow the rules that Mark described). (The first time I do this will be tomorrow.)
- Then cycle through Yesterday and Today as described by the rules
July 20, 2017 at 21:57 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
ellie520:

<< However I have a question, are you seperating your list with work and non-work list? >>

I can't give individual advice on how to deal with work v. non-work tasks because it differs so much from person to person. However my standard advice is to have a separate list for each location. In your case one of these would presumably be working on a 5-day basis.
July 20, 2017 at 22:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Jessica:

<< Was I interpreting the instructions incorrectly? >>

No, you interpreted it correctly.
July 20, 2017 at 22:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Seraphim:

<< I quickly found myself moving over to OneNote to implement this >>

Being an Evernote man I've never been able to understand how OneNote works. But if I were doing this in Evernote, I would have all the tasks in a single note with a marker between each day.

Or alternatively I would use a note with a 3-column box and just delete the left-hand column and add a new blank right-hand column each day. Dead easy.

Whichever I used I would give all the tasks a tick-box.

And I wouldn't need to switch to the rival program if I wanted to post a screen shot !
July 20, 2017 at 22:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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