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« Top Ten Things to Avoid When Using the Long List | Main | A Simple Vocabulary Memorization Method »

Top 10 Things to Remember When Using The Long List

1. Use Little and Often. This is one of the most important principles in all of time management theory. The secret of success in any field is regular, consistent attention - not huge one-off bursts of activity.

2. Resistance Doesn’t Exist. If you tell yourself you’re resisting something, you will resist it. What has happened is that you have created that resistance out of nothing. In fact the feelings we identify as resistance are just your intuition saying “Not yet” or “Not at all”. Accept them as such.

3. Everything Is Equally Easy. What I’m referring to here is not the objective difficulty of the task, but the ease with which we mentally approach a task. This is where “little and often” comes in. The old saying is “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. What the saying omits is that a journey of two hundred yards also starts with a single step. The first step of writing a short blog article is the same as the first step of writing an 80,000 word novel . You just start. 

4. Trust Your Intuition. Get out of your head the idea that intuition is a magic voice from the gods telling you what to do. Intuition is your subconscious mind assessing all the information and experience known to it and producing an answer. The thing to note here is that you can only act intuitively in a situation in which you have knowledge and experience. A fire chief acts intuitively in a major fire. A fighter pilot acts intuitively when faced with a battle situation. Put either of them in the other’s shoes and they would have no idea what to do. In the same way your experience and knowledge of your own life and work enables you to act intuitively. The Long List acts as a vehicle for your intuition to work on. It will give you the best answer that your knowledge and experience can provide.

5. Keep Moving

It’s important not to forget the “often” in “little and often”. This applies to all sizes of projects. Doing a huge amount of work on something and then leaving it for weeks or months is worse than doing nothing at all. You’ve wasted the time you did put in and could have used it for other things. You can keep on top of almost anything by giving it regular focused attention. If you want to be keeping on top of a lot of things then you need to be moving quickly among them.

6. The List Reflects You

You write the list. You work the list. That puts a lot of information on the page about you. This is real information which your intuition can use. The great advantage of The Long List format is that it’s all there - what you want to do, what you have done and what you haven’t done. Just by looking at the list you can see what’s moving and what isn’t.

7. Break Things Down

One way of handling a project is to break it down into every task you can currently do and enter them all onto the list. Don’t put things on the list which cannot be done at the present time - these should be entered in a reminder system to be brought forward at the right time. Once you have done one task, it may open up the way to further tasks which can be entered on the list in their turn.

8. Lump Things Together

Another way of handling a project is just to put the project name on the list without attempting to break it down any further. Then when the project is selected by the scanning process work on it for as long as you wish. This approach suits some projects better than others. I have a mixture of 7. and 8. on my list.

9. Do Lots of Thinking

The first step with almost any project or non-routine task is to think how to proceed with it. You don’t need at this stage to plan the whole thing out to the end, though planning will be part of the process eventually. Rather it’s a time for collecting ideas, some of which will work out and some which won’t. The thinking processes described in my book Secrets of Productive People are excellent for doing this.

10. Quality Equals Quantity

We’re usually told that quality is more important than quantity, but this is misleading. Good quality comes from quantity. This is why your intuition will almost certainly focus at the beginning on getting simple routines established in your work life. Don’t mistake this for resistance to the important stuff (see 2. above). The important stuff will be much easier when you are not constantly fighting your own lack of organization. Consistency is the key here, and consistency involves a lot of practice.


For further reading:

Top Ten Advantages of The Long List

Reader Comments (33)

Very interesting and useful.

Do you still prefer FVP to select items from the Long List and does it matter which particular method is used? I still keep coming back to the Flexible Autofocus method personally.

Do you still advocate a "weed list" task as a method for getting things off the list?
September 9, 2018 at 11:07 | Registered CommenterCaibre65

I deliberately made the Top 10 non system-specific. It applies to any long-list system, including the AFs, FVP and all the others.

You can use a "Weed List" task if you like or just cross tasks out you don't want when you notice them.
September 9, 2018 at 12:50 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark - it's been a while since I've used one of your systems. I'm in the market/headspace to try a list-oriented workflow. Which one of your systems to you use most consistently?

Curious to hear from others... anyone still using AF 1? DWM?

Anyone using any of the systems with an iPad and Goodnotes/Notability/Noteshelf? If so, how?


p.s. Mark, I've purchased (and currently reading) "Secrets of Productivity". So far, it's very good.
September 9, 2018 at 16:23 | Registered Commenteravrum

<< Which one of your systems to you use most consistently? >>

I'm still on the search for the perfect system. The nearest I've got to that description, which is the one I'm currently using, is No Question Fast FVP.

I don't think I've ever described it as such, but the title should be enough description for those familiar with my systems. I intend to write about it in the near future.
September 9, 2018 at 17:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<< one I'm currently using, is No Question Fast FVP>>

Drats - I've sent the past hour or so reading the rules (and setting up) for Simple Scanning. I think that'll play nicely with your Ridiculous Goals concept. I'll give it the ol' 3-4 week try and report back.
September 9, 2018 at 17:46 | Registered Commenteravrum

Simple Scanning works just fine.
September 9, 2018 at 18:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
What an amazing and insightful post. Avrum: About a month or so ago I went back to AF1 and I love it, I'll probably just settle on this one forever. This was the one I started with back in -- I think it was 08. I use a paper list in a 30 line moleskin notebook. At this moment, I have 52 tasks and the oldest task is from September 4 (I write the current date on the last open line on the page).
What I like about AF1:
1. The balance between my rational and intuitive mind. This was part of the original impetus of AF1 I believe. In any case, I always feel that the task I'm working on is the one I should be working on.
2. Overcoming procrastination -- there are two realities which help keep me moving (I sometimes have to force my self to stop in fact). The first is the number of open tasks on a given page, which decreases over time. This is fun to watch and when there are only a few tasks on the list I feel compelled to work on them so I can "close" the page. Secondly, my oldest task is only 5 days old -- I like to keep that number of days as small as possible. I feel like I'm very much in control of my work.
3.The dismissal process in AF1 is quite rigorous. If I don't see any tasks on a page that I want to work on, then they are dismissed. Gone. Poof. If I'm not going to be serious about them, then I don't need them cluttering up my life. Sometimes it feels weird doing that, but wow it's liberating. This also keeps the list down to a manageable size. I think it's what Mark had said about throwing everything at the list and trusting the system to weed out the dross.
Together, what's been happening with this system for me is that I'm coming closer and closer to what I would consider the ideal in time and task management -- that the work coming in matches to work going out (i.e the "age" of the tasks approach 0 -- same day). The closer I get to this ideal, the freer I feel and the more I feel in the "zone" or in a state of flow. Anyway, I am forming the opinion that the AF1 approach to time management is head and shoulders above any of the most recent theories about productivity.
September 10, 2018 at 3:33 | Unregistered CommenterPaul MacNeil
Paul MacNeil:

Thanks for this comment. I've always had a sneaky feeling that AF1 is actually the best system and that nothing I've developed since has been an improvement. So it's good to hear of someone who is using it the way it's supposed to be used.
September 10, 2018 at 9:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
The strongest feature of AF1 in my opinion is the Closed List principle, something which seems lacking in Simple Scanning and FV(any). (The principle is specifically applied to backlogs, so any attempt to make the FV selection list an equivalent doesn't make sense.) I myself found AF1 too slow, but that might be remedied by newer philosophies to keep the list tight. For example:

"Don’t put things on the list which cannot be done at the present time" from the article above, is a different way of thinking than "Write everything you can think of and let the system weed things through dismissal".
September 10, 2018 at 14:17 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

I think that "can be done at the present time" is merely common sense. But in any case in AF anything which can't be done at the present time will get weeded out pretty quickly.

Far more important for AF1 is "5. Keep Moving". I think a lot of people when AF1 was first introduced tended to a) do too many tasks on a page, and b) spent too long on individual tasks without moving on. The result was that the list slowed to a crawl. As well as being thoroughly boring, this also produced problems dealing with the more urgent tasks, and prevented the dismissal process from working properly.
September 10, 2018 at 15:27 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
> I think that "can be done at the present time" is merely common sense.

I dispute that. It may be sense, but it is not common, especially given the description of AF1 as a catch-all list. "Keep Moving" is a challenge for me. I have many things that can't be effectively done 5 minutes at a time (30 or 60 is more likely), and since these are important (urgent by your definitions though without imminent deadline), "keep moving" just didn't work for me with that process.
September 10, 2018 at 15:54 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
<<"Keep Moving" is a challenge for me.>>

Often, I need to remind myself of Mark (and others) suggestion to adopt a system that works best for you.

AF - in theory - sounded wonderful. In practice... I disliked the process of the system. Scanning the full page, re-reading the same page, this time slower. Etc. etc.

Because I'm reading Mark's book "Secrets of...", I think I'm going to try 5T. If that doesn't prove effective, I'll try a longer list system, likely Simple Scanning.
September 10, 2018 at 16:17 | Registered Commenteravrum
Alan Baljeu:

In the context of breaking down a project into its constituent tasks, "Don’t put things on the list which cannot be done at the present time" but instead put them into a reminder system sounds like common sense to me. If it doesn't sound like common sense to you then so be it.

<< I have many things that can't be effectively done 5 minutes at a time (30 or 60 is more likely) >>

I'm striving to find where I said that things should be done 5 minutes at a time - either here or in the instructions for any of the Long List systems. I've always said that "little and often" is a relative term. For instance for a concert pianist "little" might be four hours and "often" once a day.
September 10, 2018 at 16:58 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< Scanning the full page, re-reading the same page, this time slower. >>

What you're supposed to do in AF1 is give the page a quick read through to see what's on it, then scan it for tasks that stand out. It's not the laboured process which you seem to be interpreting it as. I'm not surprised you disliked it if that's what you think it is.
September 10, 2018 at 17:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<< It's not the laboured process which you seem to be interpreting it as. >>

Many years ago, this is the video that I used (to supplement the online instructions) to do Autofocus:

I found the process to be quite laboured. After one "quick read through", I simply didn't want to go through the slower process of scanning for a task that stood out.

I've tried many of your systems, then developed my own, now I'm considering 5T (to use with my meaning-making journaling process). I'm open to the possibility that my unwillingness to stay with one system has more to do with me, than the system itself.
September 10, 2018 at 17:13 | Registered Commenteravrum

So in the video I took 19 seconds to read through a page of 34 lines while explaining how it worked and pausing twice while emphasizing a point. Right...
September 10, 2018 at 17:40 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

This is an odd back and forth. I purchased (and am reading) your latest book. I've stated on this forum that I'm going to try 5T. The very system that you claim, in your book is:

"... the one I find works best." (Loc 966, Kindle)

Is this claim no longer correct?

Either way, the shorter list works better for me.
September 10, 2018 at 18:31 | Registered Commenteravrum

The discussion was about the point I made in my article on The Long List about "Moving Quickly". This thread is that article's comment thread. I answered from that perspective.

If you want to talk about 5T, or Short List methods in general, then please open a thread on the Forum and I will be happy to to take part in that discussion.
September 10, 2018 at 19:01 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ok - thanks Mark. Will do.
September 10, 2018 at 19:55 | Registered Commenteravrum
Mark: "I'm striving to find where I said that things should be done 5 minutes at a time."

You didn't, but to me, AF1 seemed problematic because doing things 30 minutes at a time, when combined with the page cycling/dismissing rules conflicted with "Keep Moving" (which I agree is important) and having a relatively long list. I couldn't do all of these at once.
September 10, 2018 at 20:00 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

I'm now striving to find where I said that things should be done 30 minutes (or any other set period) at a time.

What the instructions to AF1 actually say is:

" ---- Work on that item for as long as you feel like doing so ---

"Don’t force yourself to continue working on the item for longer than you feel right doing so. This system encourages a “little and often” approach. Once you feel you’ve done enough, stop."

What went wrong with many people in the early days is that they didn't take enough notice of this instruction and were forcing themselves to continue working for as long as they could.
September 10, 2018 at 21:28 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, you did not say 30 minutes, I did.

I accept the maxim "Don’t force yourself to continue working on the item for longer than you feel right doing so." Yet, to me, for certain kinds of tasks "feel right" equals 30+ minutes.

And the effect of this (in combination with the other factors) is that AF1 didn't fit, though AF4 did, SS does. And I think FV* maybe suffers as I think the preselection depends on mood, which after longer working periods that mood changes.

Maybe if I really tried to experiment I could try to downsize those work periods and see if that works.
September 10, 2018 at 22:02 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

The point I was trying to make is that there is no set time. Working for as long as it "feels right" on a certain task may mean you work for 30+ minutes. That's fine. And the next task may be 30+ minutes too. Or it might be 5 minutes or less. Whatever the time, it's ok as long as it "feels right". The problem comes when one pushes on regardless of whether it still feels right. It can go wrong the other way too, stopping while it still feels right, but that is rarer.
September 11, 2018 at 1:51 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Interesting discussion of AF1. If I can weigh in a bit, for me, AF1 requires a light touch, a little thoughtfulness and a little trust in my intuition. I like what David Allen had said once - "“You have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might." So, imagine four quadrants. Put intuition on vertical axis and thought on the horizontal axis. Top left quadrant is high intuition but low thinking. I would call this quadrant "reckless and undisciplined." Bottom right quadrant is the opposite, high thinking but low intuition, I would call this quadrant something like "spiritless" or "mechanical." The bottom left quadrant - low thought and low intuition is just "passive" -- life just happens to you and you surrender to it. The top right -- quadrant II to be consistent with Covey's numbering of such things, is high thought and high intuition, which, I believe, is wisdom.
September 11, 2018 at 4:23 | Unregistered CommenterPaul MacNeil
Paul MacNeil:

You make a good point, though in the article (Point #9) I envisaged the thinking being done as part of the preparation for a project/task rather than in the selection process.

Intuition should not be a reckless and undisciplined approach to selecting tasks. It comes from experience, knowledge and training. Of course if you have no experience, no knowledge and no training then intuition isn't going to very effective. But then neither is thinking if you have no experience, no knowledge and no training.

As I have been frequently heard to say in the past, you are the number one expert on your life. You know what is involved in living your life better than anyone else. Your intuition about your life is based on that knowledge, and it will get more and more reliable the more you train yourself in using it.
September 11, 2018 at 10:01 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
"It can go wrong the other way too, stopping while it still feels right, but that is rarer."

Mark, I think this applies to me. I've been using your systems for years, but I often work on items in time bursts from your book, Get Everything Done (work on an item for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes the next time it's selected, then 15 minutes etc.) I do this a lot because I often worry that I have a handful of tasks that all need action quickly, so I think this will help me to touch a lot of those important tasks, especially if there's one big item that needs tackling and needs a lot of time but I also want to make progress on smaller things at the same time.

This ends up with me often abandoning a task when the timer goes off even if i don't feel its "right" to stop working on it or I'm in the flow. I want to stop doing this, because although there are certainly benefits from working in time bursts, whenever I do AF1 I don't use time bursts (for some reason) and I love how it flows just working on tasks for as long as I feel, and I feel free from my OCDish habit of doing everything according to a timer.

I'm hoping to start relying on my intuition more to know when to switch tasks and to keep all of the plates spinning. Thanks for everything you do, I love learning about your systems (including those unrelated to task lists) and I can't help thinking how bored I would be at work without one of your systems to keep things fun and to keep me productive.

P.S do you have any tips on when you should take a break from the list, e.g. on Sundays or any other day you feel like taking a rest? While I love working from a list, sometimes I feel a bit OCD about it if I don't spend time away from the list.

Thanks again,

September 11, 2018 at 13:20 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

<<do you have any tips on when you should take a break from the list, e.g. on Sundays or any other day you feel like taking a rest?>>

Well, I have to confess that I use mine all the time. It helps of course that I'm retired and therefore don't have any bosses breathing down my neck. My list contains a huge variety of things, including Amazon Prime videos, books to read, exercise and so on, as well as more work-like things. That means that I can select tasks that are suitable for the time and day with ease.
September 11, 2018 at 14:47 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Joe, I put things away every evening about 9ish and also Sundays.
September 11, 2018 at 16:31 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I'm going to print this and stick it into my notebook, Mark. I think I could benefit from reading it once a week for a while.
September 11, 2018 at 20:47 | Unregistered CommenterR.M. Koske
R.M. Koske:

I'm in the middle of writing a list of DON'Ts to go with it. I hope you'll find it equally as useful.
September 11, 2018 at 22:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, I have been following you since I bought 'Getting things done' in the early 2000's, and you are still helping me (post retirement) - viz 'Top 10 Things...' A profound thankyou, and please keep posting! Linda
September 13, 2018 at 20:42 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Wilkinson

I'll do my best!
September 13, 2018 at 21:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I agree very much that steps 1-10 above are 100% the way to go. But I'm finding putting these steps into practice actually quite hard to do, even though they are simple.

My intuition seems to be flawed and too much, as Mark puts it, “Not yet” or “Not at all" creeps in when I don't want it to. Even when I know it is exactly the right time to do certain tasks, some of them seem to be dropped/put off for no logical reason. I know I have got to do the task at some point.

I guess that is why I will always be a MrBacklog as I have never ever managed to get completely up to date in my entire life. If you are a person who is totally up to date, then I admire you!
September 14, 2018 at 13:10 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog

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