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Thoughts on the Long List - The Panic List

Simple Scanning and other systems are extremely thorough and effective methods of processing a long list, but they do tend to fall down when there is an emergency or other unforeseen (or even foreseen) time pressure. 

In this sort of situation it’s all too easy to get into a state of panic. Personally the time this is most likely to happen to me is when packing for a trip. I hate packing and will put it off until the last possible moment, which unfortunately often turns out to be the last impossible moment. A state of panic usually manifests itself in one of three ways: 

  1. Complete paralysis
  2. Rushing about like a headless chicken
  3. Doing anything other than what you are supposed to be doing

What is required is to re-establish a sense of purpose and at the same time to get yourself moving in the right direction. The tool to use here is the Panic List.

Here’s how it works:

1) Abandon your main list for the time being

2) Take a separate sheet of paper and start to list all the things you have to do before the deadline. Make each action as small as possible.

3) After you’ve written three or four items, scan up from the bottom of the list and select one thing to get working on now

4) Keep adding to the list as things occur to you

5) Each time you finish an item scan again from the bottom of the list to select the next item

6) Keep at it until there are no more things you have to do

This is an extremely effective way of actioning a lot of stuff in a limited period of time. It will work in any situation in which you have a finite amount of things to do and a limited amount of time in which to do them.

Typical situations where this could be used: 

  • Packing for a trip
  • Preparing for a meeting
  • When something urgent comes up unexpectedly
  • Meeting a deadline when you are behind with your work 

Don’t be tempted though to try to use it outside this type of situation. Without the limiting factors you will quickly end up with a very long list which is not being processed efficiently.


The Random Hour

I said in yesterday’s post that I was left with The Next Hour of Your Life as the best method for getting everything done. Today I’ve been trying to improve it by using it with a randomizer.

The details of what I’m doing are:

  • I’m using a 22 line notebook, specifically a Moleskine Cahier.
  • I’ve set the Randomizer on 11 (i.e. half the page)
  • No sliding - I just count the active tasks
  • The list is a rolling list of approximately one hour’s work.

Although today’s been very fragmented, the system has been pretty successful so far. Tomorrow should be a bit more stable, which will give a better opportunity for it to show its paces.



I had great hopes yesterday that speeding up Autofocus would result in being able to do everything - or at the least more of everything. Unfortunately it had exactly the opposite effect. It speeded up the rate at which the list grew and increased the sense of oppression that comes from having a list that is growing faster than you can deal with it. Not good!

Which leaves me with The Next Hour of Your Life as the method which so far gets nearest to enabling one to do everything. I’m going to concentrate on that for a bit to see exactly where it leads. It’s going to be particularly interesting as I’m about to go through quite a rough period of moving out of my house on a so far unknown date to a so far unknown location for a so far unknown period to allow the repairs to be done to the damage caused by flooding. That’s quite a test for a time management system.


So Can I Do Everything Yet?

Can I do everything yet? (That is everything I actually want to do)

Not quite but I’m getting there!

I enjoyed the Random Method, and it certainly produced a high volume of work from me. But in the end I found it is too much of a scatter-gun approach. I need something more targeted - though ideally producing no greater an amount of procrastination.

So, a method that’s closely focused but with minimum procrastination… where would I find that?

Well, I found one that fitted the bill among the many systems we’ve discussed recently. If you’re a regular reader, see if you can identify it.

A few clues:

  • It’s one of the no-list systems
  • It is much more targeted than the Random System
  • It is very time sensitive
  • It was the only way I succeeded in overcoming a particularly bad bout of resistance (to everything) this week.
  • So it actually produces less procrastination than the random method.
  • It provides a sense of direction.
  • It’s very flexible
  • You can quickly react to changes of circumstance or location

The Random Method with Day List

I found that the idea of a day list didn’t work with the Random Method. The reason was quite simply that I found myself feeling pressurized to get all the tasks done by the end of the day. Since one of the great advantages of the Random Method is how little pressure one feels, I thought that was throwing away one of the best features.

However I think I have discovered a simple amendment to the rules that solves all the Random Method problems and allows you to have as long a list as you like!

I’ll describe it tomorrow if it’s still working for me.


A Thought About Procrastination

Over the last months I’ve been doing a whole load of experimentation with no-list methods. More recently I’ve been re-visiting the idea of randomness in time management. And I’ve realised that the two methods have something in common.

The common factor is that they both have a reputation for reducing procrastination.

I started wondering about why this was and I realised that both methods do not involve rejecting tasks.

What do I mean by that?

In most list-based time management systems, whether mine or other people’s, the process of selecting the next task for action involves scanning the list and selecting the task from it. But you’re not just selecting a task; you are also rejecting every task that you scanned before selecting that task. If you have a long to-do list some tasks may end up being rejected scores or even hundreds of times.

My theory is that every time you reject doing a task you increase the amount you are resisting doing that task.

By contrast the selection process in both no-list systems and random systems does not involve rejecting any tasks.

In most no-list systems you make a short list (usually 1-5 items) of what you are going to do and then do them in order. You don’t at any stage scan over any of the tasks and reject them.

In a random system you are simply told what to do by the randomizer. You don’t have to reject anything. The randomizer selects the next task from the list for you.

So the converse of my theory is that the less often you reject a task the less you build up resistance to doing it.

So what sort of system can we design round this? We need a system in which we know what to do next without having to reject any tasks during a selection process.

Here are four ways of achieving this:

  1. By having a boss who tells you what to do all the time
  2. By doing everything on your list in the order you wrote it down
  3. By not having a list but instead just writing down a few tasks at a time and doing them
  4. By having a randomizer select tasks from a list for you

Can you think of other ways of achieving this?


The Next Hour of Your Life

When we think about managing our time we tend to think in terms of what we are going to do in a day or a week or a month.

But in fact one of the most useful units of time for time management purposes is the hour. If you focus on what you are going to achieve during the next hour you will have a much closer focus.

Hence one of the simplest of all task management systems is to write down what you intend to do over the next hour, and then to do it. There’s no need to time this exactly to the minute. We’re talking about a period of time in the region of an hour.

Over the last few days I’ve been experimenting with some ways of doing this and it’s been working really well for me. The rules I’ve standardised on have been:

  1. Start the day by writing a list of what you intend to do over the next hour
  2. Do the tasks in order
  3. Top up the list at intervals as you go along so it always contains about one hour’s work (there’s no need to be too exact about this).
  4. There’s no specific provision for re-entering unfinished or recurring tasks. You can just add them as and when you want to, remembering to keep within the limit of an hour’s work.
  5. Non-discretionary work such as appointments and meetings do not count towards the hour, e.g. if you’re going to a two-hour meeting you can put tasks on your list for when it finishes.
  6. Finish the day by completing every task remaining.
  7. Basically aim to do the tasks in the order you’ve written them down, but if you have a good reason to adjust the order or add or remove tasks out of sequence feel free to do so.

Contrary to my normal preference, this is best done electronically. I’m currently using putting each day’s list on a note in Evernote with tick boxes. Evernote has the advantage that I can access the list on the web, on my desktop and on my SmartPhone, whichever is most convenient at the time.

You can really get a lot of work done with this. Here is my actual list for today (Friday) - not a copy, it’s the actual list I am using. (I’ve disguised some items for reasons of privacy). As I write this the list is still incomplete, but it will update automatically as I work on it so you will be seeing the complete version. “Prepare Box Hill” includes a three hours absence in the afternoon doing hill running and walking. By the way “Box Hill” is the name of some local hilly country, not some new-fangled form of exercise! This is the country I grew up in.

If I’d been presented with a list 49 items long at the beginning of the day I wouldn’t have had a hope of finishing it. But writing a few tasks at a time and doing a few tasks at a time gradually adds up to what you see.


The Importance of Correct Form

I made a remark in Tuesday’s post about the importance of correct form when using No-List FVP:

I want to stress how important it is to maintain correct form. On the few occasions when I found myself drifting aimlessly, it was because I had not followed the very simple rules exactly.

It thought I’d expand on that thought today.

In my experience the bits of correct form which it’s particularly important to pay attention to are these:

1) Aim to finish every task on the list by the time you stop for the day. It helps to put “Stop work” or “Go to bed” as the first item on the list. This will help to focus your attention on the time still available.

2) Select between two or three major tasks to go after the “Stop work” marker. Make sure these tasks are in the opposite order to the order you want to do them. If you miss this out you are liable to have trouble keeping your focus throughout the day. Working up to these major tasks provides a framework for the day.

3) When selecting the next task to work on, rigidly adhere to the procedure of repeatedly asking “Is there anything I want to do before this?” until you get the answer “No”.  You can use a differently phrased question if you like, but make sure you use it in the same way. Especially avoid doing any task without going through this procedure or you will find yourself drifting aimlessly from one trivial action to another. The tighter you keep to the procedure the more focused your work will be.

Whenever you find your focus slipping ask yourself “Am I following correct form?”


More About No-List FVP

I thought I’d write a bit more about the effects of No-List FVP after my post yesterday.

What are the annoyances and difficulties that this system solves?

Like any no-list system it keeps fresh and up-to-date, dealing with what you are actually working on rather than things that you thought in the past that you might work on.

Unlike systems which tie you to a rigid order of doing things, you have considerable flexibility about the order of tasks.

It responds quickly to emergencies because the next task you do is always the last one on the list.

It does not tie you down to rigid re-entry of unfinished tasks. But at the same time you can see clearly what you have been working on, so you can judge the best time to re-enter.

It provides you with a light structure for the day which gives you focus and direction

My fairly short experience so far with it is that I completed each day feeling totally satisfied with what I had achieved. I felt that I had used all the available time to its maximum value.That’s quite a rare occurrence with other systems - whether mine or other people’s!

I have been using the system for everything, including recreation, family, work - every aspect of my life.

Finally I just want to stress how important it is to maintain correct form. On the few occasions when I found myself drifting aimlessly, it was because I had not followed the very simple rules exactly. Of course you may not wish to use the system all day and every day, but it’s important to define for yourself in advance when you are going to be “on system” and “off system”. That way you’ll get maximum value from both states.


And the Winner Is...

Since I last wrote I’ve been testing out various types of No-List systems because none of the ones I tried proved entirely satisfactory. You can see a full list of them in the Discussion Forum.

The one which I feel has worked best so far is No-List FVP. That’s rather an ungainly title derived from its descent from other TM systems.

Ungainly title or not, the method is simplicity itself

  1. Write down a task you want to do.
  2. Ask yourself “Is there anything I want to do first?”
  3. Write that down on the next line.
  4. Repeat the process until you get “No” as the answer to the question.
  5. Do the end task on the list.
  6. Before you do the next task (i.e. the last active task remaining on the list), ask the question again and repeat as above until you get no answer to the question.
  7. Continue this process until there are no active tasks left on the list. Write down another task you want to do and start the whole process again.
  8. Repeat ad infinitum.


1) It’s perfectly ok for there to be a “No” answer to the question when you’ve written down the first task. In this case just do the first task and then write down another one. If this results in writing down tasks one by one and doing them immediately, that’s fine.

2) You can build up to a difficult task by entering it as the first task and then gradually working back to it. This is quite an effective technique for getting moving on something. When deciding what to write as your new first task, it’s a good thing (though not compulsory) to select relatively difficult and/or important tasks. The more trivial tasks will get done as “fillers”.

3) It’s good to end the working day with no tasks remaining on your list. So try and select the tasks you write down towards the end of the day with this in mind.

4) A good method is to start the list initially with the three or four major tasks/projects that you want to take action on during the day. You need to make sure that they are in the reverse order to that in which you want to do them.


The advantages which I’ve found with this system are:

  • You can sketch out the main achievements of the day in advance.
  • You can do tasks in the most efficient and effective order
  • You have a sense of where you are going with the day
  • You make the best use of the time available
  • Procrastination drops to virtually nil.

Which is your favourite no-list system?


How to Handle Re-entered Tasks in No-List Systems

Perhaps the thing I’ve found most difficult to get right in designing the best possible no list system is the question of how long to hang on to re-entered tasks.

My answers have at various times included the following:

  1. Have no re-entered tasks at all.
  2. Re-enter a task only if there is current work still outstanding on it.
  3. Re-enter a task if you expect it to be needed again the same day.
  4. Re-enter all tasks regardless of whether they are going to be used again.

I’ve chopped and changed systems to fit one or other of these, but none have proved entirely satisfactory. At one extreme, a lot of tasks are started but don’t get worked on to completion. At the other, there’s a long tail of re-entered tasks to plough through.

And what does one do about open-ended tasks like reading books? Reading a stated number of chapters or reading for a set time are too rigid for my liking.

How to handle these re-entered tasks is a really important question because, you will recall, my intention is not to do anything but to do everything!

I had a flash of light recently about this. If, I asked myself, a task can only get onto the list by being done, then perhaps it should only be able to get off the list by not being done.

So I’ve added the following rules to the May 9 System:

  1. Whenever a task on the list has been worked on it must be re-entered, whether or not it is going to be needed again.
  2. There is no compulsion to work on any re-entered task.
  3. When you come to a re-entered task and for any reason do not work on it, that task is deleted.

These rules involve a little bit more re-writing than before, but they seem to have solved the problem. The question of how long to keep a task on the list now boils down to the simple principle: “Work on a task and it’s on the list; don’t work on a task and it’s off the list”.  


The Blank Canvas - Day 3


Up at 7.30 a.m. and cleared my email and blog comments, read the blogs I follow and had breakfast. The email included a lengthy correspondence about a glitch in the computerised system for Gift Aid claims. I tested my end to see if the glitch was still there - it was - and reported accordingly. I didn’t have time to do anything more about it before going to the Gym for 9 a.m. to be introduced to the Phase 3 Circuit - very hard work.

On return at around 10.30 I tested again and the glitch had disappeared, so reported accordingly and uploaded the May standing orders. Downloaded the photos of yesterday’s golf function from my camera and started to process them. They should be finished by the time I’ve written this.

So let’s take a look at what I’ve got to get done now. A huge amount of washing up as my wife has been cooking for the arrival of our grandchildren this evening. Processing, selecting and publishing the golf pictures. Processing, selecting and publishing the 2,000 plus photos I took in Romania, restoring my office to pristine tidiness, and clearing my paper in-tray. Cutting the hedge. Finishing the BBC’s Richard III. Plus having lunch of course. (I wouldn’t normally write out a list like this - it’s just for demonstration purposes). Let’s see how long it takes to get that all done using the May 15th method. Starting stop-watch now.

3 hours 36 minutes later

What have I achieved so far?

Golf pictures - finished and published

Huge amount of washing up - finished

Paper In-Tray - finished

Richard III - finished

Lunch - finished

Romania pictures - in progress

Tidying - in progress

Cutting Hedge - not started

2 hours 30 minutes later

Tidying - finished

Romania pictures - first 1,000 selected and processed

Cutting Hedge - half done

That’s as far as I’m going for the day. The rest of it will be devoted to family.


The Blank Canvas - Day 2


10.30 a.m. It’s the same time of day that I started feeling that I’d done everything yesterday, and it’s just the same feeling now except that today I got up an hour later. So the improvements I noted yesterday have had quite an effect.

10.30 p.m. I felt I was losing focus during the afternoon, so switched to a “tighter” no-list method, the one I described in my post on May 9th. It was my original intention to stick to the same system throughout, but in fact it’s one of the advantages of no-list that one can change systems mid-stream without causing a problem.

I’ve got a few points about the order in which I’ve been doing things in the morning which I want to change tomorrow.


The Blank Canvas


Tomorrow is a blank canvas. I have no set plans for it. I have deliberately not made any lists of things I would like to achieve that day, this week, this month, indeed at all. I want to see what emerges from the consistent use of a no-list system. Will it be just the same old things? Or, as I hope, will it encourage me to live life to the fullest whatever that means in my case.


10.30 a.m. I got up at 7 a.m. and am already feeling that I’ve done just about everything that needs doing today. I’ve cleared all the backlogs left over from my holiday, done most of the tasks that are outstanding and am wondering what I’m going to do for the rest of the day. This is not the first time I’ve felt this way using a no list system, but I’ve never got this feeling with any other system. With other systems (or none) it always feels as if I’ve got a ton of work to get through and can never get to the end. So now I have got to the end - and am faced with getting through nearly a whole day of nothing. Actually that’s quite scary!

10.30 p.m. Of course in the event I did find plenty to do today - and a lot of it highly significant. At the end of the day I felt I had learned some useful lessons. The first was that today by 10.30 a.m. I had got through all of my usual routines. That part of the day was virtually on autopilot. I did actually note that some of the routines needed improvement. So perhaps tomorrow I shall get through them even quicker.

But for the rest of the day, I didn’t have the well-worn channels that routines provide.  Here there was another lesson - I had to think carefully about what to do. In no-list it becomes painfully obvious if I am wasting my time. The system encourages me to go for the significant things. The problem though was to identify what the significant things were that I should have been going for. I think I will be better at doing that tomorrow, especially as I have less time available and therefore will need to concentrate my efforts more.


How to Do Everything - II

In yesterday’s post I left you with a cliff-hanger:

The process of getting to the stage of being able to do everything consists of one thing and one thing only.

That one thing is… (to be continued)

… to get rid of all backlogs.

You don’t stand a chance of doing everything that you want to do if you have backlogs.

Any backlogs at all.

Remember I’m only talking about getting to the stage of being able to do everything. If you want to do everything then you must go through the stage of getting rid of all your backlogs.

Another way of looking at this is that you must stop pushing present work forward into the future. I don’t mean work which belongs in the future - that isn’t the problem. I’m talking about current work which you are not dealing with currently. It’s very similar to getting into debt.

This is not just a question of catching up with a backlog, it also means keeping it at “inbox zero” once you’ve caught up.

To put it in financial terms, once you’ve paid off debt and balanced the budget, then you have a sound financial basis on which to expand.

As I’ve said frequently recently the best way to get rid of backlogs and keep at “inbox zero” is to use a no-list system.


How to Do Everything - I

Following up from  my previous blog posts Doing Everything? and Doing Everything - Yes? these posts will be a tentative stab at answering the question of how to do everything. As I’ve said before, what I mean by doing everything is doing everything that you want to do

I think the first step is to abandon the idea that you can’t do everything. This is quite difficult to do because it has been so drummed into us by time management gurus and the like - including myself - that we can’t.

The second step is to be clear by what you mean by everything in your life. If you’re not clear about what you mean by everything, then you will spend your time starting things but never finishing them. Doing everything until it’s finished or producing requires a great deal of discipline and persistence. That doesn’t mean that you can never make any changes to your definition of everything, but that you should take a great deal of thought about it.

Getting to the stage that you can do everything you want to do takes time to build up. I don’t pretend to have reached that point yet, so I am expecting further insights as I progress.

The one thing I am sure of though is that the real challenge lies not in doing everything, but in the process of getting to the stage where you are able to do everything. The process is what it’s all about.

The process of getting to the stage of being able to do everything consists of one thing and one thing only.

That one thing is… (to be continued)


A Second Variation on My No-List System

The sharp-eyed may have noticed that in the two-page spread in my note book yesterday I was working on a variation of the no-list method.

So how did that variation turn out in the end?

It appears to be surprisingly successful and has at least two potential advantages over the previous two variations:

  1. It makes the repetition of re-entered tasks significantly less tedious.
  2. It provides a better (and much-needed) structure for the system

Here’s how it works.

Four rules:

  1. Tasks can only be put on the list by writing them down and taking action on them immediately.
  2. You can only take action on the last active task on the list.
  3. A task can only be re-entered if it has not been finished.
  4. You add a new task in the following circumstances only:
    •  There are no active tasks on the list OR
    • The last active task on the list is the one that has just been re-entered.


You decide that you want to do some work on writing a report; so you write down:

Write Report

Once you have worked on it for a period you decide to take a break from it and work on something else for a bit. So you cross it out and re-enter it. You also enter the task you intend to do in its place.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post

You work on the Blog Post for a bit and then cross that out and re-enter it:

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post

In accordance with the rules you need to add another task to the list.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie

You watch about half the movie and decide you need to take a break from it. So you cross the task out and re-enter it.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Watch Movie

In accordance with the rules above, you now need to add another task. This time you select a simple task you can do in one go. You enter it, work on it and cross it out without re-entry.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

What do you do now? In accordance with the rules the last active task is “Watch Movie”. So you watch the rest of it and cross it out.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

The last active task is now Blog Post. You work on it but don’t finish it, so re-enter it.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

Blog Post

And you need to enter another task since Blog Post has just been re-entered.

Write Report
Write Report
Blog Post
Blog Post
Watch Movie
Check Calendar

Blog Post
Tidy Office

That’s as far as I’ll take the example. Note a couple of things about how the method works:

Re-entered tasks are only worked on one at a time. You don’t get a string of re-entered tasks all having to be worked on one after the other - which can be an annoyance with other variations. Nevertheless re-entered tasks get dealt with very effectively and new tasks are frequently added.

Since I’ve only just invented this variation, I obviously don’t have more than a tiny bit of experience with it, but I’m hoping it will get the tricky balance between new tasks and re-entered tasks just about right.



Following the example of some book publishers, I’ve decided to start writing in my large Moleskine unlined notebook sideways on. The result is that I get a writing surface which is as wide as an A4 sheet and slightly shorter. As a writing surface it’s beautiful - which is more than can be said for my handwriting!

(I always have trouble with the size descriptions of Moleskine notebooks. They come in three sizes, Pocket, Large and Extra Large - which any normal person would call Small, Standard and Large respectively.)


Doing Everything - Yes?

Here are a couple of quotes from the Forum today (Thursday):
First, one from Wooba:
Since using no-list methods, I have often had days when I feel like I have done everything, and that there is nothing else I need to do. That is a great feeling in some ways, but scary too. Sometimes the idea appears that I will never have anything else to do. Which is odd, because before no-list I was always scared of having so much to do. So when everything is done in a day, I can truly relax and kick back, guilt-free. It is a totally different way of being.
and one from myself (slightly edited):

I think it’s a matter of gradual accretion. I find no-list results in a fairly standard list of things I’ve worked on each day - the well-trodden pathways of the mind. And as I get more and more on top of these subjects I find that I’ve got more capacity. That leads me to work on a few more things and some of those will “stick”.
Most of the time this method of working copes quite happily with emergencies and the like because they usually fall within the existing things I’m working on. Sometimes of course that pattern will get disrupted and sometimes that disruption will result in new stuff being added to the regular work I’m doing.

Both of us are finding that with no-list we come to a point where we seem to have done everything. That is the point where we need to push forward and extend our activity into further worthwhile projects - which can of course include having more leisure.

Speaking personally I’m finding that the best no-list method for achieving this state is the one I described last Tuesday under the heading  A Variation on My Current No-List System. But as I’ve said before, there’s not that much to chose between no-list systems and you can swap systems with little or no adverse effect.


Doing Everything?

There’s a well-known saying, which I’ve quoted myself on many occasions, which runs “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything”.

Recently I’ve been wondering whether it’s true. Not the bit about being able to do anything but the bit about not being able to do everything.

Obviously no one person can literally do everything, but no one wants to do everything in that sense. What people want to be able to do is everything that they want to do.

Looking at the popularity of books with titles like “1000 [Things to Do] Before You Die”, it seems that a lot of people would very much like to be able to do a whole lot more than they are doing at the moment. And they want to do things which would be meaningful to them.

Perhaps we don’t need “Someday/Maybe” lists but “Now/Definitely” lists.

The reason I’ve been wondering about it is my experience with no-list methods. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with work as one tends to be with a “catch-all” list, I’ve recently caught myself thinking “I could do everything!” I’ve also noticed that my reaction speed to things that I want to do but which involve quite a challenge is much faster than it used to be.

More on this tomorrow.