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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 (157)

Hi Mark,

Thank you so much for your posts, systems and insights which are really helping me to avoid things like "analysis paralysis" and not knowing what to do when I have large blocks of unstructured time in between scheduled events or appointments.

With that said, I have begun implementing Real Autofocus in my daily work, but I have a question regarding Step 4 on Subsequent Days. It says:

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:
Scan them and DELETE any you no longer want to do at all
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)
DO all the remaining tasks in order

When you say "do the remaining tasks in order", does that mean you need to finish them then and there? Or can you simply do some work on each (i.e. just make some progress) and then cross them off and re-enter them at the bottom of the list if they are still unfinished? (In other words, transfer them from "older" tasks to "still active" tasks.)

As a musician I tend to have quite a few medium- to long-term projects (writing music, practice etc.) on the go at once (running from tens to hundreds of hours of work) which can become organisational behemoths if I don't keep on top of them, but I may or may not be able to work on every project every day (due to my work often taking so many hours each day that I can only manage one or two musical projects per day out of the many), but still want to keep everything ticking over on a regular basis, as well as having time for personal projects and non-music related work or study. How does one manage something on this level?

I like the autofocus system as a way of managing my work according to my energy level and intuition, but how can I keep track of which tasks are part of a project or have been broken down into smaller tasks from a bigger one? I used to use a GTD system for this purpose but the downside was that I ended up doing far more organising than doing, and really not making an efficient use of my time, as I was putting off tasks due to not managing my energy levels well, tending to leave big tasks until far too late in the day to do anything meaningful about them. Thankfully, autofocus has redressed the balance somewhat but sometimes it's still difficult to see the forest for the trees. What might you suggest to deal with this?
September 28, 2017 at 0:08 | Unregistered CommenterAshley
Ashley:

<< When you say "do the remaining tasks in order", does that mean you need to finish them then and there? >>

No

<< Or can you simply do some work on each (i.e. just make some progress) and then cross them off and re-enter them at the bottom of the list if they are still unfinished? >>

Yes

<< As a musician I tend to have quite a few medium- to long-term projects .. How does one manage something on this level? >>

Keep a separate list of all your music projects. On your to-do list have a task "Music Projects". Each time you select that task for action, choose one project off the music-projects list and work on that. When you have worked on it for as long as you want to, re-enter it on the music-projects list. Then go back to the main to-do list.

<< How can I keep track of which tasks are part of a project or have been broken down into smaller tasks from a bigger one? >>

Similar answer to the music projects question: keep separate lists of actions for each project, and enter the project name on the main to-do list rather than individual actions.
September 28, 2017 at 13:41 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"re-enter it on the music-projects list. Then go back to the main to-do list."

What do you mean by this exactly? For example, if I've worked on "Music-projects" today for an hour or two, should I check it as completed, and enter "Music projects" again for tomorrow's list? (Since they're probably big projects and require daily work and focus).
October 11, 2017 at 16:54 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
Yoyorast:

<< if I've worked on "Music-projects" today for an hour or two, should I check it as completed, and enter "Music projects" again for tomorrow's list? >>

We're talking about Real Autofocus. There's no such thing as "tomorrow's list" in this system. You just write it at the bottom of the list. You may want to work on it more than once in the same day.
October 11, 2017 at 17:36 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yeah, I meant day 2.


Anyways, I really love this system. It's great for becoming disciplined across lots of areas in your life. As you can enter anything that crosses your mind, focus on the important things, also, being able to see tasks you've completed really gives me focus, lots of energy, and motivation to get more and more stuff done. It feels like it's all being gamified (thanks to the weeding out rules) and that I'm a robot now. Lol.
October 11, 2017 at 18:06 | Unregistered CommenterYoyorast
Hi again Mark,

Thank you for your previous reply. In the time since I last posted, I've tried out some of your other methods (some other autofocus variants, DWM2 and a couple of "no-list" ones) and I always seem to find myself coming back to RAF as my weapon of choice for getting things done.

Now, instead of staring at a long list and wondering about priorities, how much time something will take, what to get started on and when, etc., RAF really alleviates the pressure I feel on a daily basis to actually get my brain started on focusing on work when my day begins, and after breaks in my day. I can just start my day by picking anything I feel like doing, and simply work on it for 5 minutes to kick-start myself. After that inertia is overcome, it's a lot easier for me to continue working.

With that said, I have a quick question.

You wrote in the main post in the SUBSEQUENT DAYS heading, under step 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:
Scan them and DELETE any you no longer want to do at all
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)
DO all the remaining tasks in order
Continue working the rest of the list as in rules 2-5 for the first day.

My question refers to the DEFER step, specifically to the "do not just re-write them at the end of the list without taking any action on them" part. If you have written something on your list that is actually more than one actionable step, or a "mini-project", is it OK to cross it out and rewrite it at the end of your list if you rephrase it in a way that makes it more actionable (for example, clarifying what is the first step in the process of doing that big task that is due for deferral). Does rephrasing a task in this way (breaking down a task into smaller chunks or the next actionable step) count as "taking action" on that task? Or must "action" constitute something more concrete than simply rephrasing a task?

Thanks for your time and help.
Ashley
December 5, 2017 at 17:10 | Unregistered CommenterAshley
Ashley:

<< If you have written something on your list that is actually more than one actionable step, or a "mini-project", is it OK to cross it out and rewrite it at the end of your list if you rephrase it in a way that makes it more actionable >>

If it works for you, then it's OK.

What you need to avoid is endless re-circulation of tasks without doing any action on them. That's why I don't generally advise deferring tasks to the end of the list. But if you are satisfied that this will make it easier for you to do the task, then go ahead. If you find it doesn't work out that way, then you can have a rethink.
December 6, 2017 at 13:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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