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« The Most Important Thing I've Ever Written? | Main | Real Autofocus? »

"Standing Out"

In the instructions for Real Autofocus - and many of my other systems - I make reference to doing tasks when they “stand out”. Some people find this quite a difficult concept, and others can’t understand it at all.

“Standing out” is what happens when your conscious mind instructs your unconscious mind to identify tasks/items that fit certain criteria.

So for instance if you were given a list of well-known places and asked to tick which ones you would really like to visit, there are two ways you could do it:

1. You could draw up a list of factors, assign a weight to each, grade them with the weighted score, and then tick the places with a score above a pre-determined minimum


2. You could scan through the list ticking the places that stand out as places you’d really like to visit.

My contention is that as well as being much quicker, you are more likely to end up somewhere you really enjoy visiting if you use Method 2.

Of course, method 2 won’t work if you don’t already know at least something about the places in question.

But when we’re talking about tasks on your to-do list, you do know something about the tasks. In fact you are the world’s greatest expert about your life and how it all fits together. You can trust your unconscious mind to come up with better answers than your conscious mind, just as it it did in the places to visit example.

But only if you give it the right instructions.

What are the right instructions?

Tell your unconscious mind to make tasks stand out that you want to do now. Very important - don’t attempt to tell it what you mean by “want” - that’s something the unconscious mind can identify much better than your conscious mind can.

For the DDD list the instructions are a bit diifferent - want to do now  changes to:

DELETE: don’t want to do at all

DEFER: don’t want to do now

DO of course doesn’t need an instruction because it’s everything left over from DELETE AND DEFER.

Reader Comments (10)

Hi Mark, interested to test this and hear from other readers if this concept really works in practice.
I know I'm quite rubbish at picking the right tasks to do if I'm left to my own devices.
A few tasks seem to get deferred now and again when I know they really shouldn't...
I will give it a go...
July 25, 2017 at 20:43 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog

It's like almost any human action. You get better at it the more you practise. But it's important to be practising the right way - that's why the framework is so important.
July 25, 2017 at 20:50 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Standing Out has been a major feature of Mark's systems at least since the original Autofocus system. It has worked well for a lot of people over the years.
July 26, 2017 at 2:37 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Giving it your subconscious the right instructions is the most important part of this, and one I often fail at.

Much of the time, I can't think widely enough. It helps if I think in a different way each pass. Sometimes I group them. Sometimes I get very specific.

What would 1-minute-future self think? 1-hour? 1-day? 1-month, season, year, decade? Or think of landmarks. Yes, this chair and book are great right now, but at the end of vacation, will I regret not getting the canoe out? When I retire, will I regret paying to eat out so often?

Will it make the day after vacation easier? What will happen if I repeatedly defer (exercise)? What am I resisting? What am I resisting because of fear? Because of laziness?

Thinking as a mother, which tasks are important? Thinking as a mother to my son? Mother to my daughter? Primary housekeeper? Wife? Person who needs balance? Person who will need to fix the problem if the task isn't done? Person who in six months will want all the income tax papers in one place?
July 26, 2017 at 20:53 | Registered CommenterCricket
I am often asked to do estimates for software projects. I am very, very often correct when I give back of the envelope or off the cuff estimates in meetings. These estimates are always accompanied by a series of qualifying statements but when I go back to my desk and work it through I am usually pretty close to my ballpark. Maybe this is confirmation bias? Or maybe I've been doing it long enough, and trust my gut enough, to hit a pretty close number based on the factors I am aware of.

I think the list scan is exactly that. A way to pick out the nails sticking up so you can hammer them down. They say a finger can discern an irregularity too small for the eye to see. You'll often see a woodworker run their hand along a finished edge and then go back and clean it up a little in one spot or another. That is what is going on when you scan a list. This is why the capture habit is so important.

Combining this with your "feeling good" experiment can be tricky. If you have too many responsibilities it can be hard to know which finished surface you should run your hand along to find an imperfection. I love your blog and look forward to seeing how this latest thing turns out.
August 6, 2017 at 1:00 | Unregistered CommenterScott

My feeling is that you are over-intellectualizing this. The instruction to your subconscious is to make tasks stand out that you want to do now.

No further instruction is needed. Your subconscious will sort all the rest out if you let it.
August 6, 2017 at 19:36 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm going to intellectualise the idea further by mentioning the phiiosopher Heidegger. He stressed the importance of finding an openspace or ‘clearing within thought, where apparent paradoxes may be held,unresolved, in uncertainty, as ‘letting be’. He explained that, the clearing in its openness is thus free for interplay of “brightness and darkness” and “resonance and echo” ...

For many people the habit of busyness and distraction limits this ability.
October 19, 2017 at 14:46 | Unregistered Commentermichael

Interesting! Could you provide information where to find this quote (preferably in its probably original german version)?
October 20, 2017 at 6:18 | Unregistered CommenterLaby
Cal Newport's latest blog post talks about letting the subconscious do its thing.

This quote, from the post, is from Andrew Wiles, the Princeton Professor (now at Oxford) who in 1994 finally solved Fermat’s Last Theorem. "At this point, he explains, 'you have to stop…let your mind relax a bit…[while] your subconscious is making connections.'"
October 20, 2017 at 13:21 | Unregistered CommenterZane
At times it is folly to hasten at other times, to delay. The wise do everything in its proper time. - Ovid
October 29, 2017 at 22:15 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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