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Discussion Forum > Four D System

Yesterday, based on Mark's prodding us to try to simplify AF1, I "invented" a new system as a joke. But then as I thought about it, it seemed like it might actually work (at least for me). Since it is indeed much simpler than AF1 or any of the other AF, DWM, or SF systems, I'm calling it AutoFocus Zero (AF0), but I will rename it if there are objections (especially from Mark). The Zero in the name is also in the spirit of Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero approach (for email), where the ultimate goal is to process everything on the list. I've been using AF0 now for only one day, and I like it a lot. Here are the instructions (adapted from Mark's AF1 instructions).

___________________

AutoFocus Zero [AF0]

INTRODUCTION
The system consists of one long open list of everything that you have or want to do, written in a ruled notebook. As you think of new items, add them to the end of the list. You work through the list one page at a time in the following manner:

STEPS
1. Go through the page line by line, in order. Work on each item for as long as you feel like doing so. Rewrite it at the end of the list if you haven’t finished it.

2. If you cannot or do not want to do any work on an item, just delete it, or copy it to the end of the list as written, or rewrite it at the end so that it may be easier to start next time it comes around.

3. Cross the item off the list, and continue Step 1 or 2 until the whole page is processed.

4. Move onto the next page and repeat the process (Steps 1-3).

5. The common-sense rule applies: If something needs doing immediately, just do it. It that case, you may scan forward to cross out the urgent item, or continue processing and cross it out when you get to it.

GUIDELINES
At the start of each day, it is a good idea to put the date in the right margin, on the first task entered that day. If you don't get close to that dated line by the end of the day, your list is in danger of growing too large! If the list grows to too many pages for your comfort level, be more ruthless by deleting items without rewriting. Important tasks that cannot start for a few days can be transferred first into a calendar or tickler system, for re-entry at a later date, before deleting them from the list. When it's time for a new notebook, resist the temptation to copy many pages of tasks into it. Try to finish processing the old notebook within one day or so.

Unlike more complicated systems, there is no looping at all in this process. You move linearly through the list. Page size doesn't matter. The system is adaptable to electronic form, or even a stack of index cards. One advantage to a handwritten notebook is that, as you proceed to each new item, it takes some effort to rewrite it at the end. So if you cannot simply delete the task, you may decide that it's better to take some action rather than merely copying it forward mindlessly.
___________________

What do you all think?
January 7, 2012 at 0:15 | Registered Commenterubi
ubi:

I've tried this system in the past and unfortunately it doesn't work very well. The problem is the length of time it takes to get to repeating tasks. Tasks repeat at varying intervals, yet this system basically means that you can't repeat a task until you have done something to every other task on the list. If for instance you want to check email several times a day, you can't because you have to do something to each of the 100 other tasks first.

Ok, you can use the common sense rule, but that's intended to be an exception - not something that needs to be used every few tasks.

When I first read your description I missed the bit about "Working on each item" and thought you meant just rotate a single pass through the list actioning only those tasks that stand out. This is also something I have tried in the past, and it works a lot better, though the lack of concentrating on one page at a time means that there is a tendency for only easy tasks to get done.
January 7, 2012 at 1:20 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

I guess you've tried just about everything! I did think about the potential problem with wanting to finish a task by the little-and-often approach, meaning several times per day. But your example problem – "If for instance you want to check email several times a day, you can't because you have to do something to each of the 100 other tasks first" – is not an issue for me, since I've implemented your checklists idea! Anything that is routine can be put on a checklist, and triggered by time-of-day rather than rewriting it on the AF list. I check email frequently out of habit anyway, but now I have three "Inb0" checklist items that need to be ticked as well, meaning clearing the Inbox to Zero soon after I arrive at the office, again after lunch, and lastly before I go home.

It's early days for me with this approach, and I cleared a backlog of several pages last night, so I'm down to only about 50 or so tasks on my list. This is manageable with the AF0 idea, although I do admit that I made more than exceptional use of the common-sense rule today. The new approach is pushing me to deal with a lot of small tasks that I had been skipping over previously. But I did finish a couple of big/difficult tasks today as well. Not ready to give up yet.
January 7, 2012 at 1:47 | Registered Commenterubi
Is this not just saying

- make a list of the things you need to do
- exercise the willpower and work needed to do them

For any of these systems that's what it comes down to. AF works well at its basic level because it's capturing everything as a list. GTD's inboxes equally work well. It's the hard work needed to do the things on the list on which we all fall. I think everyone here is an expert at the list making, but we're all equally lacking in the hard work and willpower. A new system might get us fired up and produce results, but that's not because it's better at making lists and presenting tasks, it's because we've temporarily gotten a buzz and some willpower from the change. Ultimately that change is a fun diversion from the work needed, and understanding *that* is the secret to getting stuff done. Until then we are doomed to keep fiddling with systems, introspectively pushing our peas endlessly around the plate without eating anything.

Just my 0.02 sterling.
January 7, 2012 at 16:18 | Registered CommenterChris L
Chris,

I have to say that by and large I agree with your sentiment. However, two things should be noted:

1. Some people (like me) genuinely are struggling to find an efficient way to manage vast amounts of work to do efficiently. I've been helped quite a bit by some recent advice and it's already making my work load more manageable.
2. Some folks just really like the scientific pursuit of efficiency. It's really not that different from people who love to work on cars, model airplanes, etc: the hunt and process of finding an efficient system is thrilling. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

If it's something that is not of interest to you, there's nothing wrong with that either. I personally don't read the vast amount of information, permutations, ideas, etc on here because it would drive me batty trying to experiment with them all or even a small percentage. At the end of the day I'm looking for a manageable way to get my work done. What helps me in that regard is gold, the rest is dross.

Take care,

brett
January 7, 2012 at 17:05 | Registered Commenterbrettypooh
My tuppence:
Is this not just saying [work hard] - yes

For any of these systems that's what it comes down to. - no
AF works well at its basic level - yes
because it's capturing everything as a list. - no
GTD's inboxes equally work well. - no
It's the hard work needed to do the things on the list on which we all fall. - yes

A new system might get us fired up and produce results - yes
but that's not because it's better at making lists and presenting tasks - sometimes
Ultimately that change is a fun diversion - yes
understanding *that* is the secret to getting stuff done. - no
introspectively pushing our peas endlessly - no

People are flawed, but Good systems do work better.
January 7, 2012 at 17:10 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I like Chris's distillation down to two steps: 1. Make a list of the things you need to do. 2. Exercise the willpower and work needed to do them. But the question is how to accomplish Step 2? All the systems we are trying consist of procedures to help with this. But in addition to the will to do hard work, we need a reality check from time to time about what we are actually willing and capable of accomplishing.
January 7, 2012 at 17:50 | Registered Commenterubi
I think the various methods of making lists and rules are just a way to try and make the lists reflect what we are ready to do. AF has dismissal to remove stuff that we're not ready to do. GTD has Someday/Maybe lists and inactive items for stuff we're not ready to do. So the nirvana is a list which always presents to us what we're ready and willing to do right now.

But here's the thing. If we're ready and willing to do something, and we want to get it done, then we already know it and will do it. AF has the standing out process to help us see those things. GTD has contexts and sub-lists to help us see those things. But it is our willpower and work that actually gets them done.

I fear that we often go around in circles looking for a system which will make us to do the stuff we don't want to do by somehow telling us what is good for us. There's no such system; it's the tail wagging the dog.

The best we can have are individual tweaks to those two points I made earlier which help us see the stuff we already want or have to do, based on the way we work, the jobs we have, the resources around us and so on. And then having the willpower to push through and get it done, piece by piece over time if needed.

I'm not talking prescriptively here. I am talking from the point of view of seeing my own endless tweaking of lists a) not getting stuff done and b) wasting a lot of time while c) allowing me to feel I'm making progress. I've spent the last half a year getting a load of unpleasant stuff done with basic lists of stuff, rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in. In some cases the last thing I want to do in the universe but doing it nevertheless. And now it's done, not sat in an overdue list or a dismissed page.

I'd like to say I've been using AF but in fact I haven't. I've just been making lists and notes so I don't forget things, and then doing them as best I can. I can see now that's all I need, and by implication it's all anyone needs once they accept that their sleeves are rolled up and they're going to get metaphorically dirty.

(I guess that makes it 4p!)
January 7, 2012 at 18:24 | Registered CommenterChris L
brett: "Some people (like me) genuinely are struggling to find an efficient way to manage vast amounts of work to do efficiently. I've been helped quite a bit by some recent advice and it's already making my work load more manageable."

What is work that needs to be done? It's a commitment by you to make a change to something. At work you provide that as a service in exchange for money. At home you keep things in check (the bills, the garden, the car, etc). Vast amounts of work represent some combination of needless complexity and sheer volume of commitments.

A system can help with the former by shining a spotlight into the work and paring it down to the resources you need (location, tools, etc), reducing redundancy and helping get an overview of it all. It can help with the latter by providing that overview which helps you see where your limits are.

It fails to help with the former when it adds disproportionally more to the complexity (rules, maintenance, equipment), and fails to help with the latter when you're over-commited. Only you can control your commitments. I think sometimes here we're looking for a magical system which can take a snapshot of our life, overlay it on top of the ideal us, and present only what is needed to fullfill it while gracefully handling the overspill. It's akin to "productivity anorexia", only seeing an image of ourselves instead of our reality.

I found in practice that peace comes in the form of getting that high-level overview of your commitments in the simplest way you're able, dealing with them and ensuring that incoming commitments are managed well. A simple list or simple project tool helps me with that. Getting stuck in and doing stuff even when it's not pleasant helps me with that. I still fall over from time to time, it's about habits and mental attitude to them. It takes time. I only speak from my own experience and am not trying to come across like a smart arse.

brett: "Some folks just really like the scientific pursuit of efficiency. It's really not that different from people who love to work on cars, model airplanes, etc: the hunt and process of finding an efficient system is thrilling. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that."

I agree, it's fun in it's own right and we discover tips and tricks to help us along the way. I like tinkering as much as anyone else. However for me this is play time. not work time. I have to draw a solid line between tinkering with systems and using a trusted system to help me manage my commitments, otherwise I fall into the trap of substiuting the tinkering for getting stuff done. I've fallen into that trap so many times; it leads to stress and a feeling of despair and pushes me into the vicious circle of then looking further for the perfect system to fix it all.
January 7, 2012 at 18:53 | Registered CommenterChris L
ubi:

<< I guess you've tried just about everything! >>

Yes, I have.

<< Anything that is routine can be put on a checklist, and triggered by time-of-day rather than rewriting it on the AF list. >>

I've tried that too.

<< It's early days for me with this approach, and I cleared a backlog of several pages last night, so I'm down to only about 50 or so tasks on my list. >>

One of the really annoying things about testing time management systems is that _every_ system starts out really well and clears a lot of work. The problem is finding ones that are still doing that in weeks', months' and years' time.

Anyway good luck with your testing. I hope it works out for you.
January 7, 2012 at 19:44 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Chris L:

I think the problem is that this forum has some twenty or thirty regular posters who just love experimenting. The trouble is that they aren't representative of the vast majority of people who visit this website, get something of value and continue to use it.

I get emails from people like that all the time. Perhaps I should publish them, but they are often too private to do so. But I am quite used to people telling me that I have changed their lives.

Josh Kaufman of "The Personal MBA" has been using Autofocus for years, so has Stever Robbins who comments on the blog each now and then. They are not people who would be happy just shuffling tasks round a piece of paper.

Just the other day, the Vicar's wife came up to me at a pre-Christmas party and said: "You know that time management system you showed me three years ago, I'm still using it. I made a few modifications of my own, but basically it works brilliantly". That would have been AF1.
January 7, 2012 at 20:48 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Chris L:

<< I think sometimes here we're looking for a magical system which can take a snapshot of our life, overlay it on top of the ideal us, and present only what is needed to fullfill it while gracefully handling the overspill. >>

That would be a fair description of what I'm looking for, yes. And I'm not far off achieving it.
January 7, 2012 at 20:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
ubi:

<< I'm calling it AutoFocus Zero (AF0), but I will rename it if there are objections (especially from Mark). >>

I would be grateful if you would rename it. As Autofocus is a system of which I have produced several variations, to have someone else producing variations as well can only cause confusion.
January 7, 2012 at 20:58 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Okay, I hereby rename the processing method described above as the "4D" system. As I thought about it more, there are only four ways to handle each to-do item if you want to proceed straight through in an ordered list. The first question to ask yourself is "Shall I simply Delete it?" If not, the next question is "Shall I Defer it (take it off-list into a reminder system for reentry at a later time)?" If not, the third question is "Shall I Delay it (by rewriting at the end)?" If not, you've answered the fourth question "Shall I Do it (i.e. take some action) now?" affirmatively. So the Four Ds (4D) are Delete-Defer-Delay-Do.

Mark, please change the title of this thread, if possible, to reflect the new name, so as not to cause confusion. I'll revise and post new instructions in a new thread, if anyone is interested.
January 7, 2012 at 23:18 | Registered Commenterubi
Mark,

"I think the problem is that this forum has some twenty or thirty regular posters who just love experimenting. The trouble is that they aren't representative of the vast majority of people who visit this website, get something of value and continue to use it."

If you really feel that this is a problem, perhaps you could share some statistics on satisfied users, without breaking any confidences?

From my point of view, I think I'll plug on with AF1(0 Dismissal) until I have mastered the discipline to stick to my list.
January 9, 2012 at 9:51 | Registered CommenterWill
Will:

<< If you really feel that this is a problem >>

I don't see it as a problem except for those, like Chris L, who get the impression from the thirty or so regular posters here that _everyone_ spends their time fiddling with systems and getting nothing done. The regular posters here are a self-selected group who by the very fact that they post regularly here are people who like experimenting with systems.

<< perhaps you could share some statistics on satisfied users >>

I've not made any systematic study of satisfied users, so my evidence would be purely anecdotal. But to give you an idea of how small the regular posters on the Forum are compared to the total users of this site:

Number of individual visitors to this site over last 30 days: 19,240.

Number logging in to Forum over last 30 days: 65

Number of individual visitors to this site today so far: 1,498

Number logging in to Forum today so far: 2

I haven't included myself in the log-ins, and bear in mind that just because someone logs in doesn't mean that they make a post.
January 9, 2012 at 12:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

"...a self-selected group who by the very fact that they post regularly here are people who like experimenting with systems..."

You mean some people DON'T like experimenting with systems? Breathes there a man with soul so dead?

Oh, those must be ones with the discipline to actually use the systems: the ones who go around accomplishing stuff.
January 9, 2012 at 15:10 | Registered CommenterWill
<<Oh, those must be ones with the discipline to actually use the systems: the ones who go around accomplishing stuff. >>

I don't know... there are many blogs that mention Autofocus. And if you follow the entries, the author posts new updates every time Mark posts a new system. Often with a claim that THIS system is finally helping them get things done.
January 9, 2012 at 15:39 | Registered Commenteravrum
Will:

<< You mean some people DON'T like experimenting with systems? >>

There are only 30 or 40 people in the whole wide world who I know for sure DO like it. And you don't need any discipline to use any of the Autofocus systems.
January 9, 2012 at 18:28 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
avrum:

<< there are many blogs that mention Autofocus. And if you follow the entries, the author posts new updates every time Mark posts a new system. Often with a claim that THIS system is finally helping them get things done. >>

Examples?
January 9, 2012 at 18:30 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark wrote:
<<Number of individual visitors to this site over last 30 days: 19,240.>>

<<Number logging in to Forum over last 30 days: 65>>

Many of the non-regulars/non-contributors who visit this site would hardly see a reference to SuperFocus in recent discussions, even though that's what they would be hit with when they opened the main page; this might be confusing.

Whilst recent step-by-step recommendations by some here are extremely useful since they summarise a lot of the discussions and tweaks some of us find so interesting, the basic rules to AF are already established. (This may be clear to some of us...)

MF mentioned one time that we all have to have separate systems to operate; like invoicing, inventory, etc. I likewise think many of our own ideas, and recommendations, lately on this forum can be tried out 'off-system'. For example:

Routine/Checklists
Today's HotList
Today's Active List
Daily Notes / Phone Notes
Tomorrow
Monday
Dated (Closed)
NEW
Future/Tickler
Higher Elevations
Free-Form and Index
All-in-One-Place
Scheduled/Time Blocks
Separate Someday/Maybe (or back-logs)
Grouped Tasks
Current Project List (Jupiter)
Project Planning/Notes Pages
Mind Maps
Journals
Contact-Driven Tasks
Other Contextual Tasks
Three Rocks/One Rock

Even if these off-system experiments cause some redundancy and extra maintenance, they can be just temporary, and we can figure out if they are worth reporting pretty quickly.

It looks to me like AF can just be left alone, basically (for now, anyway). You can start the day with where you left off, the first page of Yesterday or mark old pages seven days back and start from there (Alan).

Then, apart from the basic AF, do your own off-system experiments until your heart's content. It is irrelevant that many of these proposals might be hard to adhere to over the long term; they are just experiments.

But, I like to +constantly+ keep in mind what Chris L said, "However for me this is play time. not work time."

Down to basics, I think we have learned that pre-sorting and too many entry points (and other complicated scenarios) only diminish the positive effects of the one-page-at-a-time idea - which is what brings AF and other MF systems +above+ everything else out there.

All these experiments and attempts to 'cover all the bases' (and our meticulous presentation of the results on this forum) will surely only aid Mark in coming up with more of a balanced approach in his new system - without complicating things too much - which is a good thing.
January 9, 2012 at 18:40 | Registered CommenterBKK
BKK wrote:

<< But, I like to +constantly+ keep in mind what Chris L said, "However for me this is play time. not work time." >>

Hm, for me, as much as I enjoy experimenting, I do see it as work time. An important part of my work is improving work processes -- both my own, and those of the organizations to which I belong. I have almost always found that investing in process improvement pays back very high returns -- very often on the scale of orders of magnitude. And that's true despite the many FAILED experiments and dead-end ideas (my own, not Mark's). :-)

For me personally, I think I could make a pretty good case that the many hours I've spent on this forum over the last 3-4 years have more than been paid back in productivity gains -- understanding my work better, understanding my priorities better, and accomplishing it far more effectively.

For example, I've learned both general strategies and specific techniques for effective delegation. That alone has leveraged my effectiveness by several multiples, both in my work life and personal life. I've taken classes at work on the same topic, but to be honest I've found far more value in Mark's advice and the forum discussions here.

Which reminds me, I'm overdue to hit that Donate button in the upper-left corner!

I do admit I'm probably one of those odd ones who would experiment with this stuff just for fun, if I had the time. But I really DON'T have the time. I keep coming back here, and keep experimenting, chiefly because it pays real dividends.
January 10, 2012 at 0:36 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
To be honest, I'm less certain than Seraphim that my experimentation has netted an advantage, but I am certain it is now coming together. My estimation goes like this, using introspective effectiveness measures:

Before here I couldnt cope with work, and was maybe 2 points effective.
Then I found AF4, and I got 6 points but I wasn't properly focused. That lasted 4 months.
I tried DWM and scored 4. So I experimented and meanwhile averaged 3.
After 6 months I succeeded and was chugging at 8, and much more focused.
Then SuperFocus and such came, and the confusion and experimenting brought me down to 5 for much of a year.
After that, I went my own way and achieved 9 for several months, but not consistently.
The latest though is doing really good and I believe I may soon reach 12.

So if I had stuck with AF4, I perhaps could have improved to a consistent 8 after two years and would have been ahead. But I'm quickly going to catch up now, and the long term (20 years) will easily prove its worth.
January 10, 2012 at 1:41 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Points? Kinda reminds me of a reverse pain scale or something.

http://www.tipna.org/info/documents/ComparativePainScale.htm

A "seven" would be "My self-organization is such a disaster that it completely dominates my senses, causing me to think unclearly about half the time. At this point I am effectively disabled and frequently cannot live alone. Comparable to an average migraine headache."

Sounds about like where I was just after I gave up GTD and just before I found DIT.

Reverse the scale and this would be "3 points" in Alan's measurement scale, perhaps? :-)
January 10, 2012 at 7:36 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I would mark that a 1. Also, this is an open ended scale of effectiveness. There's no such thing as 100%, as even if you are always doing what needs doing, there are ways to do those things more efficiently, and ways to structure your life to be radically more effective.

Consider Steve Jobs as Apple's exec. Consider Tim Ferris' 4 hour workweek and 4 hour body. (at least the concept; I doubt Tim personally achieved everything he wrote about.)
January 10, 2012 at 12:17 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu