Top Ten Things to Avoid When Using the Long List
Sunday, September 9, 2018 at 9:19
Mark Forster

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. 

Article originally appeared on Get Everything Done (
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