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« When You Feel You are Getting Nowhere... | Main | Top 10 Things to Remember When Using The Long List »
Sunday
Sep092018

Top Ten Things to Avoid When Using the Long List

1. Special markings

For your intuition to work properly it’s important that you scan the list attentively according to the rules of the system you are using. You should avoid using special markings to distinguish degrees of urgency, categories, etc. The reason for this is that these markings draw attention to certain tasks and not to others. This results in unbalanced scanning. In other words they will have the opposite effect to what is intended.

2. Switching systems

One thing that’s absolutely guaranteed to ensure that your long list doesn’t get processed properly is constantly switching systems. Pick one system and stick to it. It takes practice and consistent application to get a system to work well and switching systems gets in the way of this.

3. Starting new lists

There’s only one thing worse than constantly switching systems and that is constantly starting new lists. If you feel you really must change your system then at least keep the same list. The long-list systems are interchangeable and can be applied to an existing list. The worst of all possible worlds of course is switching systems and starting a new list both at the same time. You will completely destroy all the momentum you have acquired so far.

4. Master lists

If you need to be working on something at the present time, then it should be on your Long List. If you need to be doing something in the future but not currently, then schedule it in your reminder/calendar/diary. If you have something that you might get round to sometime, then send yourself a Future Self email to be received in a year’s time to remind you of it - chances are you’ll defer it for another year. Until then forget about it. None of these constitutes a Master List, and Master Lists are completely unnecessary. Don’t use them - they are a waste of time and give you the illusion of progress without the reality.

5. Allowing tasks to proliferate

A long list should be able to handle all your work, but it is of course possible to break anything by overusing it. Adding tasks willy-nilly, without any real consideration of whether you are likely to be able to take them to completion, merely wastes time and holds up the real work. How many tasks you can realistically enter on the list depends on how willing you are to dismiss tasks - either according to the rules of the system or because you see they are going nowhere.

6. Backlogs

A Long List system can handle a huge amount provided that you are prepared to weed out stuff which is not progressing. In that case it is working properly by telling you what to concentrate on and what to jettison. But what you cannot afford to do is to build up a huge list which is hardly progressing at all. Taking on more work than you can handle is a problem which can only be solved by reducing your work commitments. If you don’t do this you will build up a huge backlog of work which will negatively affect everything you do.

7. Failure to scan the list properly

The scanning process is essential to the success of any Long List system, and it will only succeed if your intuition is based on a good knowledge of what is on the list. This depends on how well you scan the list. Skimming over the list without really reading it or taking in what is written there will not feed your intuition. The result will be poor selection. It’s often the older tasks on the list that get neglected when scanning because you think you already know what they are. The result is that they not only get neglected while scanning but get neglected in reality.

8. Not writing tasks clearly

There’s only one essential when writing a task on the list - that you can remember what you meant by it. There’s usually not too much problem if you write “Email” or “Paper Backlog”. But how about “John”? It may make perfect sense to you when you write the task - you want to invite John Smith to join the co-ordinating committee for the Christmas Party. But when you get to the task in a couple of days’ time, you’ve forgotten what it’s all about. John who? You know at least ten people called John. Did you want to call him or meet him or check if he’s replied to an email, or even recommend him for promotion? What was the subject? All this uncertainty could have been saved if you’d only written “John S for Xmas Party Cttee”, or similar words. 

9. Restricting the time you use for the list

My experience with Long Lists is that the more things you use one for the better it works. I prefer to combine work and personal in one list, but then i work at home and don’t really make much distinction between tasks - they all require action. You may prefer to separate Home from Work, but I wouldn’t break it down further than that without good cause. 

10. Packing the List

Although Long Lists are on the whole pretty resilient to having a large number of tasks on them (that’s why they are called Long Lists), one of the most effective ways to sabotage the list is to introduce a huge number of tasks at the same time. This is particularly so when you are beginning a new list. By far the best way of starting a new list is to write down about ten tasks to start off with, and then to add new tasks as they occur to you or as they come up. Doing it this way will ensure that what is on the list is relevant and up-to-date. Copying over the contents of a number of old lists onto the new list ensures that the list is neither relevant nor up-up-to date. If you don’t have a good mental grasp of what is on the list, your intuition will suffer. 

Reader Comments (11)

Mark wrote:
"You should avoid using special markings to distinguish degrees of urgency, categories, etc. The reason for this is that these markings draw attention to certain tasks and not to others".

That is interesting - I do highlight urgent things, but I notice a bit of resistance can kick in. Do you think this could be one of the reasons why procrastination can occur? Maybe my brain subconsciously thinks it is difficult.
I guess it is best just to let it stand out and then do it.
September 14, 2018 at 14:08 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Thanks for the great post, Mark! I'm finding this article and the previous one very useful in my daily process.

As a recovering GTD addict, I'm learning to adapt without the latticework of elegantly laid out projects and interlocking contexts. What made me give it up was the sheer complexity of stuff in the system, resulting in a lot of paralysis at the action level.

What I feel I've gained from using a long list (esp. w/Fast FVP) is a better sense of the flow of actions throughout the day.

Two things I've noticed making the switch:

1. In GTD, an item is either done or not done. With a long list, taking action on a large-scale item until it feels right to stop, re-entering it at the end of the list, then working on it again at a future time (aka Little and Often) helps to keep the mental wheels turning on that item, especially when it might need to be an item in progress for a while, and that's okay. Whereas in GTD it's simply not checked off, creating a roadblock.

2. With Fast FVP, I've noticed a strong bias towards action and a respect for intuition regarding the timing and weight of those actions. That's something that has resulted in a pretty discernible reduction in stress over the last few weeks.
September 15, 2018 at 3:14 | Unregistered Commenterfoleymeister
Oh boy, new ideas to ingest and debate! Can't tackle them all at once, so we'll start small:

>3. Starting new lists

<<There’s only one thing worse than constantly switching systems and that is constantly starting new lists. If you feel you really must change your system then at least keep the same list. The long-list systems are interchangeable and can be applied to an existing list. The worst of all possible worlds of course is switching systems and starting a new list both at the same time. You will completely destroy all the momentum you have acquired so far.>>

Early days of autofocus, the instruction was clearly to always start a new list, as an old list will overwhelm a new system before it even gets off the ground, particularly when you are still learning the mechanics. In my experience, when switching systems it is because I have ALREADY destroyed all the momentum and am looking for a kickstart. Much of the old list has stagnated and the partial remedy is to engage your old trick "Declare a backlog". Now I have a fresh happening list, and a closed-list backlog that you will overtime shrink and eventually discard.

Can you enlighten us further on why this is no longer de jure?

edit: Rule 10 seems to be what I'm talking about, but how is 10 not a total contradiction of 3?
September 15, 2018 at 13:27 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
foleymeister: Glad to hear you finding success. Here's a suggestion that may be useful or not: Sometimes I find a task that takes a long time to complete is better addressed by defining a smaller subtask and writing that instead. Let's say instead of "Clean House" I write "Clean living room", and after that's done I cross it out as DONE, and then write a new task "Clean Kitchen".

(A routine task like cleaning might not be the best example. I think it's more interesting to do this sort of thing with a medium-complex project.)
September 15, 2018 at 13:41 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

<< Early days of autofocus, the instruction was clearly to always start a new list, as an old list will overwhelm a new system before it even gets off the ground, particularly when you are still learning the mechanics. >>

What I actually said in the Autofocus instructions was:

"You may already have some backlogs of work when you start this system. If you have a backlog of tasks then I recommend you enter all the tasks into the system in one go and let it sift them. If you find some of them end up being rejected then you need to ask serious questions about whether they really need doing at all."

<< In my experience, when switching systems it is because I have ALREADY destroyed all the momentum and am looking for a kickstart. Much of the old list has stagnated and the partial remedy is to engage your old trick "Declare a backlog". Now I have a fresh happening list, and a closed-list backlog that you will overtime shrink and eventually discard. >>

If you've already destroyed all the momentum then the remedy is a good weed of the list, getting rid of everything that isn't moving. In Autofocus 1 of course this process is built in.

<< Can you enlighten us further on why this is no longer de jure? >>

The backlog declaration is designed for individual backlogs, i.e. email, paper, etc, not for your work as a whole.

<< edit: Rule 10 seems to be what I'm talking about, but how is 10 not a total contradiction of 3 >>

Different circumstances. Rule 3 is about the inadvisability of starting a new list as a way of getting a momentum going again. The correct thing to do is to weed the existing list as I've just said. Rule 10 is about starting a Long List from scratch.
September 15, 2018 at 15:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Below the AF4 instructions,in response to a question by a reader, Mark wrote:

<<Annette: you might want to start a new list for AF4 rather than use your existing one if your existing list is very long. That is because the best way to break a new system is by overwhelming it before you've got used to how it works. The best way to start a new list is to write a short list of things which you are currently actively working on, and then add tasks to it as you thing of them or as they come up in the normal course of work.>>
September 15, 2018 at 18:04 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

Yes, that's a good example. I'm glad you understand the difference now.
September 15, 2018 at 19:05 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Alan Baljeu:

<< defining a smaller subtask and writing that instead. >>

Yes, I've been using that technique and it works well. However, it is impervious to some types of tasks that require a lot of grinding such as this:

- Transfer meeting files from .pages to .docx format

That's where I find the "little and often" concept works its magic.
September 15, 2018 at 20:25 | Unregistered Commenterfoleymeister
Yes foley.

Mark, that certainly wasn't the response I expected! I posted that clip because it represented what I thought you said before, which you now seemed to me to be contradicting, and you conclude that you are agreeing with yourself. I guess I must think this through more carefully, so far I am not understanding.
September 15, 2018 at 22:19 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan:

Oh, you didn't understand.

Let me explain it again:

Annette was starting a brand-new system called AF4 which no one had used before. She was asking for advice on it and appeared to me to be confusing the "backlog" which is part of AF4 with the general backlogs she had accumulated at work. Since she was in new territory I advised her to build up slowly, which is what I advise for anyone starting a new system they are not familiar with.

My advice not to change the list applies to people who are "system hopping" from one Long List system to another. Most people who do this are familiar with the systems. Since Long List systems all work off the same type of list it makes sense to continue with the same list. I don't advise "system hopping" but using the same list causes minimum disruption.

So:

Starting from scratch: build up slowly
Changing systems: continue with the same list
September 16, 2018 at 0:00 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This is clear. So anyway I have folliwed the advice above as I switched my my list today from No System to Simple Scanning. And I did a fair bit of weeding as well.
September 16, 2018 at 1:30 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

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