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If you want to be tougher, be tougher. Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL Commander
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Building Good Routines

One of the things I harp on endlessly about is that good routines are at the heart of good time management. This applies whatever time management system you use (or none).

Having good routines doesn’t mean that you can’t be spontaneous or creative. In fact having good routines means you are freed up so you can be spontaneous and creative.

The key word when it comes to building routines is persistence. This is to be taken two ways:

  • Persistence at building the routines
  • Persistence in the achievement of your goals as a result of building routines.

So it’s a case of persistence building on persistence.

Among other things, it’s particulary important that routines should establish:

  • The habit of creativity
  • The habit of extending your boundaries
  • The habit of inbox zero
  • The habit of exercise

How do you build routines? Actually the answer is that you are already an expert routine builder. You have been building them every day of your life. Every habit you have is the result. This applies to bad habits as well as good habits unfortunately.

You build up the good habits I mentioned above in exactly the same way that you may already have build up their opposite bad habits:

  • The habit of not using your creativity
  • The habit of sticking to your comfort zone
  • The habit of building up backlogs
  • The habit of not exercising

If you suffer from any of these, remember that these are habits - not character flaws which are impossible to overcome. They may be difficult to break because after all you’ve spent a long time building them up!

An output (no-list) approach will help to give you a short cut to this. Using this approach, your mind will naturally fall into the same channels each day. All you have to do is check that the channels are right. Fortunately it’s quite easy to check what you have done and to correct it if it’s wrong. For example if you are having trouble exercising put exercising at or near the beginning of the day.

Habits of going to bed and getting up are also very important. The best way of establishing good practice here is to get up at the same time every day, preferably as early as possible, regardless of whether it’s a work day or a day off. If you do this your going to bed time will naturally adjust.

I find that the best output approach for this sort of good routine and habit building is the rotating list.


My Book Challenge - Update

It’s been a long time since I last reported on my book challenge - and that’s because it’s been a disaster. I haven’t made any progress on any book since.

I’ve just changed tack again, starting yesterday. My new method is this:

  1. Read for a timed half hour twice a day.
  2. I may only read from one book during the half-hour.
  3. The exception is if I finish the book, in which case I can read another for the balance of the time.
  4. The half hours do not have to be the same book each time.
  5. There is no limit on the number of books I can be reading using this method.
  6. They must however be books, i.e. not blog posts, magazine articles, newspapers, etc.

To borrow a metaphor from the world of running, I am now seeing how far I can run in half an hour rather than seeing how long it takes to cover a certain distance. I’ve adopted that for my running practice as well - with one session of an hour. (4.63 miles today since you ask!)


Input vs. Output 

In my February 12th article What is a “no-list” system? I gave an example of what a typical “catch-all” list looks like:

Tidy bedroom
Change bedding
List PR actions
Read “C——-” magazine
Read “K———” magazine
Obtain specimen legacy leaflet
Draft own legacy leaflet
Thank fundraising team
Blog result of fundraising
Thank newsletter subscribers
Cancel newsletter contract
Thank supporters
Blog latest social event news
Call David K
Read —— Newletter
Update giving page
Read “The 100 Years War”
List possible blog posts
Read “B———” magazine
Clean sink
Empty WPB
Cut hedge back
Set up L’s new laptop
Read V’s letters
Print more blank schedule sheets
Listen to French news
Sort office
Process social event photos
Walk footpaths for Ramblers Association
Weed desktop
Weed flagged emails
Contact fast walking organization
To think about…
Prune rose bush
Get prescription signed
Sort L’s mail
List action need on C Blog
New house number
Kingsley Vale walk
Destroy old notebook
Re-read L’s instructions
Expenditure audit
Tax return
Weed pamphlet rack
Withdraw money from ——
Book holiday
Check heating settings
Action needed on Legacy campaign?
Write recommendation for N’s book
Push ups
The plank
Check bank balance
Weed this list
Read Pocket articles
Synchronise diaries
Put books away
Thanks to N for party
Check diary
Rake leaves
Do dishes
Adjust carriage clock
Charge batteries
Check heating settings
Ideas for new projects?
etc etc

I also gave an example of what a typical “no-list” looks like. Many “no-lists” are actually or shorter than this:

List ideas for new book
Publicity Project
Walk 3 miles

And I asked the question “Which do you think is likely to produce the most focused action?”

I was re-reading this article yesterday evening, and it struck me that the real difference between the lists was not their length, but the fact that the “catch-all” list concentrates on input while the “no-list” concentrates on output.

The “catch-all” is basically a list of everthing that might, should or could be done sometime in the near future. It gathers together all the ideas, requests, thoughts, obligations, necessities, commitments that continue to enter one’s life in an almost incessant stream. It is in other words a list of all the input into one’s life. When, how and whether it will all actually get done is another question.

The “no-list” on the other hand is a list of the things you are actually about to do in the immediate future, usually in the order in which you are going to do them. Barring unforeseen events, they will get done more or less immediately. The “no-list” in other words is not concerned with listing input, it is purely a list of what is about to be output.

As such it will fill the entire day with output. The list of tasks on your “no-list” which have been crossed out as completed may be almost as long as a “catch-all” list. The difference is the rather major one that the “catch-all” list at the end of the day is a list of what hasn’t been done, while the “no-list” is a list of what has been done.

Of course the real question is not the mechanics of how things get done, but whether the things which get done are what should have been done. The common objection to a “no-list” approach is that one may forget to do things because one is simply relying on one’s memory. This is not really a valid objection for two reasons:

  1. The “catch-all” list provides a huge list of things to use as avoidance activities, so you are just as likely to fail to “get round” to doing something with a “catch-all” list as you are to forget something with a “no-list”.
  2. The “no-list” does not rely on memory.

Let’s look more closely at the second point. When your mind has no long list to rely on, what sort of tasks is it going to choose next to put on the “no-list”? It will probably come up with some of the following;

  • The next task in an established routine
  • Something that is on your mind because you are currently working on it
  • A project you have previously decided will be your main focus for the day
  • An urgent project or task
  • Something which is causing you concern because it is overdue or in danger of becoming so
  • Something you make a conscious decision to do because you want to do it
  • A scheduled reminder

This results in much more focused action than a long diffuse list of “everything”.


No-List Types - IV: Rotating Lists

The final type of no-list system I want to describe is the Rotating List. There are many possible variations, but the essence of a rotating list is that tasks are re-entered if they are going to be needed again at any time during the current day.

This characteristic means that they are normally started again at the beginning of the day. They grow too unwieldy if kept going for a period longer than a day.

They are usually combined with an Entry by Doing approach. The sequence of work is:

  1. Write a new task
  2. Work on the task
  3. Cross task off the list
  4. Re-enter the task at the end of the list if it will need to be worked on again that day.
  5. Revisit all tasks on the list as in steps 2 and 3.
  6. When all tasks have been worked on, go back to step 1.

A variation of this is to enter more than one new task at a time in step 1. Either way the list gradually lengthens as the day progresses.

An example of a rotating list system is Spinning Plates, though this is more complicated than the basic rotating list method described above.

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"No List" Tag

I’ve just spent an hour or so tagging all the posts about “No List”.

Please let me know in the comments if you find any that I’ve missed.


The Most Popular Discussion This Week

Making Time for Idleness and Reverie

“Perhaps working all the time doesn’t make us productive.”


The Most Popular Article This Week

Point Count Time Management

“Here’s a little game you can play to encourage yourself to do the stuff that really matters.”


Classic Time Management Articles

Here’s a selection of the best classic articles from literally hundreds on this website. You can explore further by going to the Blog Archive or by using the search box at the top of the margin.


It’s Like Walking Across a Muddy Field
How to get rid of backlogs

I’ll Just Get the File Out
Conquer Procrastination for Ever

Expand Your Ideas the Easy Way!
From first idea to fully developed concept

I’m 90% Sure That …
Find out what you really mean when you say you’re 90% sure

Wholehearted Living
When to say Yes, and when to say No

To Do Lists — How we hate them!
Tips on how to make your to-do list loveable

How to Get Any Project Up and Running
Putting First Things First

One Thing at a Time
Exercise complete control over your projects

An Easy Challenge
Plan your day’s work realistically

Guilty Goals
Do you really want your goals to come true?

Feeling Good
Live better by monitoring your mental state

Keep Your Life Moving
The top 10 tips for keeping out of the rut


“Forget hard and fast rules and commandments of time management - how about some flexible principles which allow for the reality of interruptions, harness the fact that most of us work better with a cut-off point approaching, and let you modify your approach depending on your job situation, your current workload or even your daily mood?
Kevin Burch, The Confidence Coach



No-List Types - III: Just Do It

The third type of no-list method I want to describe is to get on with your tasks without doing any writing at all. This is of course the method used by the vast majority of people in the world.

Doing it effectively is quite another matter though.

I described this method in detail in my book How to Make Your Dreams Come True (Hodder 2002). In it I showed how to arrive at clarity about your goals and keep progressing towards them. Most of what I say in Secrets of Productive People (Hodder 2015) is also relevant to this method.

I’m not going to repeat here what I said in either book. But here are a few practices which will make this method more productive for you:

  • Journaling
    The practice of daily journaling - however you do it - is one of the best for increasing clarity and motivation. There are many different methods, but far more important than the method you use is that you do it regularly every day.
  • Exercise
    Everything I’ve just said about journaling also applies to exercise, plus some. We all know about the health benefits of exercise, but one huge benefit of exercise from a productivity point of view is that if you learn to push yourself physically, you won’t have too much trouble with pushing yourself to do mere mental activity. 
  • Good habits and routines
    To be successful at the “Just Do It” method requires training yourself in good habits and routines. The big danger with this method is that you will end up drifting. One of the most important habits to get into is to do things as soon as you can, preferably immediately. When you hear yourself saying “I’ll do that later”, take action to do it now!

No-List Types - II: Entry by Doing

Entry by Doing is a bit different from the Hammer as described in my post yesterday.

In the Hammer a short list of tasks is written (usually five or less) and then the tasks are done.

However in an Entry by Doing method a task can only be entered on the list by actually doing it there and then.

The simplest form of this is where you write the next task you are going to do and then doing it. You then write the next task you are going to do and do that. The effect of writing it down before you do it is to make you think about what you are going to do next rather than drift into it. It’s an aid to focus.

Once a task is on the list it can be re-entered if there is still work to be done. This can be used with a system like Autofocius or FVP to make an active list in which all the tasks are actually in the course of being done.


No-List Types - I: The Hammer

There are many different types of no-list methods. I won’t go quite so far as to say that they have an infinite variety, but there are all sorts of ways of approaching their design. Since there is no permanent list involved, switching from one method to another can be done without much of a problem.

Over the next few days I’m going to describe some of the main types of no-list method. I don’t claim that the list is exhausive, but I hope that it may spart some ideas in your own mind to experiment with.

First type of No-List method I’m going to describe is what I call a “Hammer”.

The main characteristic of a Hammer is that it concentrates on getting a task finished by constantly alternating with one or more other tasks until there is no more work to be done on the task - hammering it home in fact, hence the name.

The method I recommend in Secrets of Productive People is a Hammer. Five tasks are entered. Each is re-entered until it is finished and when the list is down to two tasks three more are entered.

I call this a 5/2 Hammer. The first figure refers to the number of tasks which are initially entered on the list and the second figure refers to the number of tasks at which the list is topped up to its original number.

Other Hammers include:

  • The 2/1 Hammer in which two tasks alternate. When one is finished it is immediately replaced by another so there are always two tasks on the list. This is pretty much a brute force method for getting difficult tasks done.
  • The 3/2 Hammer is rather more flexible than the 2/1 Hammer though nearly as effective.
  • The x/0 Hammer in which a list of x tasks is reduced down to none, and then another list is written. This suffers from the last remaining task having nothing to alternate with at the end - so it’s not really a genuine Hammer, but can still be very effective.

You can experiment with various different lengths until you find the one that suits you best.

Tomorrow I’m going to describe a completely different type of No-List method.


Point-Count Time Management

Here’s a little game you can play to encourage yourself to do the stuff that really matters.

Write a list of the things you hope to have done by the end of the day. Make sure to identify how you will know when you have done each task.

Then allocate points to each task according to a table of values. You can make up your own table, but here’s one for starters:

The Current Initiative: minus 25 points if you don’t work on it.

Major Projects: plus 20 points each

Lesser Projects: plus 10 points each

Routine Tasks: plus 5 points each

Tasks not on the list: 0 points.

How you define the difference between Major, Lesser and Routine projects/tasks is up to you, but it’s important to be consistent. The Current Initiative is one project selected in advance - note that you score minus points for not doing it, rather than plus points for doing it. This is because the idea behind the Current Initiative is that you do some work on it every day until it is completed (according to your definition of “completed”).

At the end of the day add up the points for the tasks you have done (according to your definition of “done”) and record the total for the day.

Each day try to beat your best total so far.


No Article Tomorrow (Sunday)

As I’ve been away most of the day today, there will be no main article tomorrow.


Seven Mistakes Small Business Owners Make

I’ve compiled this list from my experiences of coaching many clients who owned small businesses or ran their own one-person business. And to that I must add my own experiences with my own business. Many of these points are transferable to people in other situations.

Of course this list is not comprehensive. There are many other mistakes to be made, but these are the ones I came across most often.

  1. Lacking focus
    This is the number one mistake that small business owners make. It manifests itself in many ways. These include a lack of clarity about their goals, losing sight of the core business, not clearing the decks for action. and worst of all constantly chopping and changing what one is doing.
  2. Lacking perseverance
    Failing to appreciate how much time it takes time to build a new business before it’s profitable, and consequently running out of finance and/or the motivation to continue.
  3. Failing to strategize
    It’s very easy to get so immersed in the day-to-day work of the business that one doesn’t spend anything like enough time on making the decisions that are necessary to take the business forward.
  4. Poor delegation
    One of the reasons for failing to strategize is poor delegation. Work that only you as owner and manager can do must take priority over work that someone else could do. Even in a one-person business a lot of the routine work can be outsourced.
  5. Not being on top of the figures
    Knowing the day-to-day financial details of your business is essential. You cannot make decisions without the figures to back them up.
  6. Getting into a rut
    Once the business reaches a certain level there is a tendency to carry on doing the same old thing in the same old way. Unfortunately the world moves on so fast these days that what may have made sense a couple of years ago no longer does.
  7. Blaming the customers
    Everyone knows the saying The customer is always right, but it’s surprising how easy it is to forget it. It’s usually thought to apply to customer service, but in fact it applies to every aspect of your business. If people don’t like your product and don’t want to buy it, it’s not their fault - it’s yours. If they don’t respond to your advertising, it’s not their fault - it’s yours. If they criticise some aspect of your business, it’s not their fault - it’s yours.


Yesterday Evening

I have often noticed how much the things I pay attention to before going to bed at night affect what I do when I get up in the morning. In fact it could almost be said that what sort of day I am going to have today was decided yesterday evening - and I don’t just mean when one wakes up with a hang-over!

Here are some of the things you can do in the late evening to increase your chances of having a productive day tomorrow.

  • Look back over the list of what you did today. Is it the way you would have liked it to be? If not, what would have made it better?
  • Ask yourself what do I want to have done by this time tomorrow?
  • If you don’t have a fixed time for getting out of bed in the morning, decide what time you are going to get up
  • Think through any special circumstances (meetings, visits, etc) you have, especially early in the day.
  • Run through in your mind what you are going to do first thing.

How to Do Anything - Part V (and last)

So exactly how do you do anything?

You do it by applying sufficient regular focused attention. Let’s look at the parts of that.


You have to put the hours in. It takes time, and that means making time for it. It also means that time which should be allocated for it isn’t used for doing other stuff instead. It’s good practice at the beginning of each day to write a list of the most important things that you want to have done that day. Then check at the end of the day that you actually have done those things and take remedial action if you haven’t.


Decide what frequency is appropriate for the project and keep to it. Usually, but by no means always, daily is best. And usually, but not always, it’s best to do it early in the day.


Just generally messing around in an unfocused way achieves little. if you’re learning a skill you should be focusing on what needs practice . If you’re building something, focus on what needs doing next. As a general rule, get the skills right before you start applying them.


“Time management” isn’t really about managing time. It’s about managing your attention. Anything that you give your attention to will change and develop. But remember your attention is finite - allocate it carefully.


How to Do Anything - Part IV

I’m sure you have been in the position of looking at a to-do list and deciding which item on it to do next. For example you might start the day with a list of tasks something like this

Check email

Tidy desk

Take action on challenging but extremely worthwhile project

Sharpen pencils

Check Facebook

How do you go about deciding which task to do first? You may use a variety of techniques, but they usually boil down to finding an answer to the question “What do I want to do next?”

I’m not going to say that the fate of the world depends on your answer to that question, but the fate of your future most certainly does.

If you’re not careful at the end of the day your five task to-do list will look like this:

Check email

Tidy desk

Take action on challenging but extremely worthwhile project

Sharpen pencils

Check Facebook

Sharpen more pencils

Check more email

Tidy In Tray

Check Facebook again

Buy more pencils to sharpen

Subscribe to more email lists

Re-arrange papers

Subscribe to Instagram and check that as well as Facebook

Now is a good time to ask yourself Benjamin P. Hardy’s question “If you repeated today every day for the next year, realistically, where would you end up?”

You would have some very sharp pencils and absolutely no progress on the challenging but extremely worthwhile project.

What’s causing the problem? Well, basically it’s that when you ask yourself “What do I want to do next?” you’re asking the wrong question. When you ask a question like that, the answer will usually be “Whatever’s easiest” [see Note]. The result of that is that at the end of the day you will look at the list and say “The one thing I wanted to do today was to get moving on the project and I was just too busy to get round to it.”

So you didn’t do the one thing you wanted to do. That happened to me the other day with my book challenge

What is the right question to ask?

It’s “What do I want to have done?” or more specifically “What do I want to have done today?”

This focuses your attention on the end result of your day and how your actions, or lack of them, will effect it. Life is made up of an accumulation of days.



When you’ve got good habits established whatever’s easiest changes, because you have made it so that it’s easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.


And finally remember:

Short term question: What do I want to do?

Long term question: What do I want to have done?


How to Do Anything - Part III

I reminded you yesterday that the secret for advancing a project is to give it sufficient regular focused attention.

This all boils down to a matter of time. Most worthwhile things don’t happen quickly. You don’t become a great violinist overnight, or a great athlete, or even a good friend or a good employee. It takes time and persistent effort for things to come to fruition.

Even when something seems to happen in a flash, it’s usually due to good preparation over the years. As Seneca is reputed to have said (though he probably didn’t):

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Another saying, which this time I can attribute correctly because it’s mine, is:

Better to do a few things well than a lot of things badly.

In the latest edition of my newsletter, which went out yesterday, I give a simple exercise for focusing your mind before and after your working day. It helps you to concentrate on the relatively few things which are an absolute priority for you.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the better ordered you are in general the more projects you can take on. Most people make the mistake of taking too many projects on before they have brought order to what they are already doing.

Tomorrow: Short-term versus Long-Term Results


How to Do Anything - Part II

In my previous blog post I said that you can do anything provided that you are willing to pay the price - and that the price is all the other things you could have been doing instead.

To put it another way, the price is being willing to give the project enough time.

As I said in my book Secrets of Productive People the secret of advancing a project is to give it sufficient regular focused attention.

Time is the essence of providing this attention.

And now, an example of how not to do it!

On March 24th, I published an article called My Book Challenge Amended in which I said that I was giving up my idea of reading one book at a time. The reason I gave was that I wanted to read Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, but because it would take so long I was going to read it along with Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic and the third part of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.

What was the result of this decision? Well, I’ve just finished Rubicon, but I’ve read nothing at all of the other two books.

Now just see what has happened here. What I wanted to do was read a book (the Proust) which would take a considerable mental effort and a large investment of time. What I actually succeeded in doing was to read the easiest book on offer instead. I always went for this easy option rather than the two more demanding books.

The price of reading Rubicon was to have not read Proust. I would much prefered it to be the other way round. I’ve would have liked it to have been that the price of reading Proust was not to have read Rubicon.

Now if I’d decided to stick with my one book at a time rule I would have read quite a bit of the Proust, and none of Rubicon or Napoleon. But since it was the Proust I really wanted to read, that would not be a matter of too much concern.

This is how it works for us if we don’t identify clearly what it is that we want to go for, zero in on it and then devote our efforts to it as a priority.

Tomorrow: How to Do Anything - Part III