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Discussion Forum > AF2ND: Maximizing "Little and Often"

AF2NDP3 works very well for me, but I'm now experimenting with incorporating the "Top 3" idea to make AF2NDP4:

* Start with nuntym's AF2ND rules.

* Add or remove stars at will to prioritize tasks.

* When selecting a new tasks to work on, rewrite the oldest task at each priority level (unstarred then single-starred, double-starred, etc.), in the same way that AF2ND rewrites the oldest task.

* After rewriting the old tasks, scan backwards from the end of the list for a task that "stands out" to work on (as in AF2).

* Optional: For more focus on task completion, maintain a "Top 3" priority level as the highest priority level, always making sure there are exactly 3 tasks at this level. (When there are urgent top-priority "drop everything" or "must do today" tasks, temporarily use an even higher priority level than this.)

* Example priority levels: unstarred for low-priority "whenever" or "someday/maybe" tasks, single stars for medium-priority "nice to do" tasks, double stars for high-priority "should do" tasks, triple stars for "Top 3" tasks and quadruple stars for urgent top-priority "drop everything" or "must do today" tasks (when necessary).

Note that if you don't use the optional "Top 3" rule, AF2NDP4 is identical to AF2NDP3.
February 27, 2013 at 15:27 | Registered CommenterDeven
Recommended priority levels:

* Unstarred: low-priority "whenever" or "someday/maybe" tasks
* Single star: medium-priority "nice to do" tasks AND high-priority "should do" tasks
* Double stars: "Top 3" tasks (exactly 3 of these at all times)
* Triple stars (when necessary): urgent top-priority "drop everything" or "must do today" tasks

I tried using the example priority levels in my previous post, and decided it's not worth the additional rewriting that comes with distinguishing the medium priorities from the high priorities in AF2NDP4, and I concluded that the "Top 3" priority level really makes it unnecessary anyhow. Every time I finished a "Top 3" task, I was scanning the high-priority tasks to find the best choice to promote to a new "Top 3" task, and I realized that I could almost as easily scan the medium priorities at the same time, knowing that I will still choose a higher priority from the list of all priorities.
February 28, 2013 at 14:15 | Registered CommenterDeven
Deven

Have I got this right - every time you work on a task you then rewrite 3 or possibly 4 tasks at the end of the list? If that's the case then it does seem a lot of overhead. I could see it putting me off actually doing anything. Doesn't it really slow your day down?
February 28, 2013 at 15:36 | Registered CommenterCaibre65
Caibre65, you've got it right, I'm rewriting 3-4 tasks each time I select a new one. I think I have a higher tolerance for this rewriting than average, but I really don't mind rewriting 3 tasks at a time. Rewriting 4 feels like a burden, and rewriting 5 felt ridiculous, which is why I merged my medium priorities with my high priorities and gave them all one star instead.

I understand why it seems like a lot of overhead, and if you're only looking at the task-selection process, it is. But consider that this overhead takes the place of periodic reviews, dismissal processes, etc. Most importantly, to me, is that it keeps me from losing track of what's important while giving me flexibility in working the list.

I just started using AF2NDP4 with the recommended priority levels yesterday, but it really feels balanced and I'm enjoying it. Most of the systems I've tried have been difficult for me to stick with because I start to feel resistance to the system itself. I've never felt ANY resistance to AF2NDP2, AF2NDP3 or AF2NDP4. (These are the only systems that I've found myself consistently using at home, where it's so easy to not bother using a list at all...) I believe each of these systems is suitable for long-term use, but I believe that AF2NDP3 and AF2NDP4 do a better job of managing multiple priorities than AF2NDP2 does. I'm hoping that AF2NDP4 with the "Top 3" option will manage priorities well AND help drive tasks to completion more effectively. So far so good, but as always, time will tell.

Basically, here's how AF2NDP4 with the recommended priority levels and "Top 3" option works for me: I have many unstarred tasks which are either low priority or "someday/maybe" items, but I have no need to maintain a separate "someday/maybe" list. (When I tried this with GTD, the "someday/maybe" items were forgotten forever -- out of sight, out of mind!) I have a good number of priority tasks with single stars. These are a mix of medium and high priorities. I then have the "Top 3" tasks with double stars. These are generally my top priorities. Sometimes I have tasks with triple stars -- these are the "drop everything" and "must do today" tasks that need to be finished ASAP. Since these require additional rewriting and they're very urgent, I'm generally more motivated to try to finish them so I can clear them off the list.

The interesting thing about the "Top 3" option in AF2NDP4 is that I'm finding that it seems to be just the right amount of focus on top-priority tasks. Since there are always exactly 3 of these tasks, they cycle frequently and are thus hard to forget, but not constantly. (The triple-star tasks DO cycle constantly until they're gone!) Although this does mean that some high priorities are in the single-star list and getting less attention, the fact is that there's only so many ways you can split your attention, and having the "Top 3" cycling frequently seems to work better than having 6-8 high priority tasks cycling more slowly, which doesn't motivate completion the same way.

When I do finish a "Top 3" task, I need to replace it by promoting another task to that level. Unless I already know what needs to be done next, I can do a quick scan of the priority tasks to find the best choice, and this "mini-review" helps keep all the other priorities fresh in my mind. I'll still tend to select a high-priority task as the next "Top 3" task, so it seems that mixing the medium and high priorities together isn't detrimental after all, using this system. (Occasionally I'm choosing a low or medium priority task for the "Top 3" if I just want it completed soon, and this also works well.)
February 28, 2013 at 16:27 | Registered CommenterDeven
I was asked for a complete description of AF2NDP4 without reference to acronyms or other posts, so here it is:

1. Keep a single master list of all tasks.
2. Write all new tasks at the end of the list.
3. Add or remove stars at will to prioritize tasks.
4. Before selecting a task to work on, find the oldest unstarred tasks, delete any that are now irrelevant, then rewrite the oldest relevant task at the end of the list.
5. Repeat step 4 for each priority level in use (single-starred, double-starred, etc.).
6. Scan backwards from the end of the list for the first task that "stands out" (as in Autofocus), and work on that task for as long as you feel like it.
7. If the task is finished, delete it. Otherwise, rewrite it at the end of the list.
8. Return to step 4.

Top 3 option: For more focus on task completion, maintain a "Top 3" priority level as the normal highest priority level, always making sure there are exactly 3 tasks at this level. (When there are urgent top-priority "drop everything" or "must do today" tasks, temporarily use an even higher priority level than this.)

Recommended priority levels:

* Unstarred: low-priority "whenever" or "someday/maybe" tasks
* Single star: medium-priority "nice to do" tasks AND high-priority "should do" tasks
* Double stars: "Top 3" tasks (exactly 3 of these at all times)
* Triple stars (when necessary): urgent top-priority "drop everything" or "must do today" tasks
March 7, 2013 at 18:07 | Registered CommenterDeven
This post introduces AF2NDP5, but let me get into some background first.

One experiment that I hadn't gotten around to posting about was adapting AF2NDP4 to using index cards (one per task). The stack of cards can be a little unwieldy (especially in my pocket for home tasks), but it works very well because reordering index cards is much easier than rewriting tasks.

On the other hand, I'm not satisfied with the "Top 3" option that I added to make AF2NDP4, so I'm scratching that and trying a different approach to tweaking AF2NDP3.

I gave some thought to UTMS:

http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2013/6/13/the-ultimate-time-management-system.html

I haven't tried it, but UTMS doesn't appeal to me, because it seems to focus too much on clearing the Old List and not enough on current priorities. As usual, this won't work well with a large list, especially if that list contains "someday/maybe" tasks that may NEVER be done. I don't want to be required to weed my task list to keep a system functional; I want the system to weed irrelevant tasks naturally (as AF2ND does) and handle even unrealistically large task lists with aplomb. Since I have a tendency to routinely overcommit myself, I always have too much on my list. I want a system that can work with me, rather than against me.

I also considered the "improved" version, UTMSI:

http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2013/7/2/the-ultimate-time-management-system-improved.html

Unfortunately, UTMSI reintroduces the same sort of compulsion as SuperFocus 3's rules for Column 2, where every task started becomes an obligation to constantly continue working on. This may work for some people, but it's anathema to me. The C2 rules in SF3 generated massive resistance for me, and I know that won't work for me personally, especially knowing that many of my old tasks will never be finished.

But it all got me to thinking. I did want a tweak to AF2NDP3 to encourage task completion, but I wasn't happy with the "Top 3" rule in practice. (It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good enough either, and it was a little awkward in practice.) I don't want a system like UTMS with such a focus on old tasks, and especially not UTMSI with constant obligations. Maybe other people would be pleased with them, but it's not what I want in a system.

The eureka moment was when I asked myself why I would want to use a system that forces me to work on a task that could be completed whenever, when I might have more important things to be working on. I realized that most of my list consists of "whenever" tasks that may be important, but not urgent or tied to a hard deadline, which gave me an idea.

This tweak would probably work on FV or any Autofocus variant, but I'm using AF2NDP3 (not AF2NDP4) as the basis for AF2NDP5. Basically, the tweak is to maintain TWO lists, a Focus list and a Whenever list. Each list is processed as an AF2NDP3 list, with the following additional rules for managing the lists:

* Urgent tasks and tasks with a hard deadline should be kept in the Focus list.
* Other tasks should generally be kept in the Whenever list, no matter how important. This includes most new tasks.
* A very few (~3 or less) of the other tasks MAY be kept in the Focus list in order to specifically focus on completing those tasks. (This rule takes the place of the "Top 3" option in AF2NDP4.)
* Tasks may be moved between the two lists at will, rewriting the task at the end of the list, but the rules above should be followed.
* After taking action on any task, it should generally be rewritten in the same list, but it may be moved to the other list instead.
* Start each new day on the Whenever list. (This is to ensure that this list cannot be neglected entirely.)
* After EACH task selected for action from the Whenever list, switch to the Focus list. (Unless the Focus list is empty, of course.)
* Continue to process the Focus list, taking action on tasks until nothing "stands out", then switch back to the Whenever list.
* However, at least one task MUST be selected for action before switching lists in either direction, if any tasks in the list are actionable. (Moving a task from the Whenever list to the Focus list does qualify as selecting the task for action, but a task selected in this way MUST have action taken on it before being moved back to the Whenever list. Dotting the task as a reminder is a good idea, if action will not be taken immediately.)
* For either list, if no task "stands out" on the FIRST pass through the list, search the list for the actionable task with the MOST resistance and select that task for action. (This is to help break the "motivational surface tension" associated with the task and hopefully reduce procrastination.)
* If necessary, minimal action on a task may be to figure out the "next action" for the task, along with a time estimate. (This is to help with procrastination from not knowing what to do next.)

Summary of AF2NDP5 rules:

1. Keep two lists of tasks: a Whenever list containing most tasks and a Focus list containing urgent tasks, tasks with hard deadlines and very few (3 or less) other tasks to focus on completion of those tasks.
2. Write all new tasks at the end of the appropriate list, usually the Whenever list.
3. Add or remove stars at will to prioritize tasks.
4. Every day, start processing with the Whenever list.
5. Before selecting a task to work on in a given list, find the oldest unstarred tasks in that list, delete any that are now irrelevant, move any to the other list if desired, then rewrite the oldest relevant task at the end of the list.
6. Repeat step 5 for each priority level in use (single-starred, double-starred, etc.).
7. Scan backwards from the end of the list for the first task that "stands out" (as in Autofocus), and work on that task for as long as you feel like it.
8. If the scan did not find a task that "stands out" AND action has already been taken on a task in this list since last switching lists, switch to the other list and return to step 5.
9. Otherwise, if the scan did not find a task that "stands out", search the list for the actionable task with the MOST resistance and work on that task for as long as you feel like it. (At a minimum, "get out the folder" or determine the "next action" with a time estimate.)
10. If the task is finished, delete it. Otherwise, rewrite it at the end of the list.
11. If processing the Whenever list, switch to the Focus list.
12. Return to step 5.
July 26, 2013 at 18:31 | Registered CommenterDeven
Note: Unlike AF2NDP4, there are no specific recommended priority levels for AF2NDP5; use whatever priority levels are convenient or necessary -- or just use all unstarred tasks and don't prioritize at all, if you don't feel the need.
July 26, 2013 at 19:03 | Registered CommenterDeven
I think it's interesting that you've chosen to split things between a "focus" list and a "whenever" list. I've been thinking along the same lines lately.

However, in the spirit of Mark Forster's "current initiative" idea and Peter Drucker's "do first things first and second things not at all" maxim, I've been trying to think through what is the SINGLE most important objective I have right now -- task or project or initiative or whatever you want to call it -- the single thing that really needs my extended focus right now. And that becomes my single item for Focus.

Everything else still needs to be dealt with -- like Mark says, the "unimportant" things have a way of asserting their importance when neglected! But it can be handled during random time, during tired time, during snippets between time. It can also be handled with GTD "contexts".
But "focus" time just doesn't happen at all, if I have it mixed up with everything else on a list, or if my time could go to either "focus" tasks or "whenever" tasks. I have to be more conscious about the "focus" tasks.

I've run into this same basic idea in many places in the last couple of weeks:

Stever Robbins talked about it in his podcast - from overload to clarity - http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/productivity/organization/schedule-overload-clarity

It is a main feature in Brian P Moran's book, The 12 Week Year - http://12weekyear.com/ and http://www.amazon.com/12-Week-Year-Others-ebook/dp/B00CU9P31K

Peter Drucker advocates this approach in The Effective Executive - summary at http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~prewett/writings/BookReviews/TheEffectiveExecutive.html
July 27, 2013 at 1:48 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
This alternation between "focus" and "whenever" also appears in Nicholas Taleb's book, Antifragile ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifragile:_Things_That_Gain_from_Disorder ). I was scouring that books to see if he tried to apply his antifragility ideas to time management, and in fact, he did (but not very thoroughly). He suggested taking an "apophatic" approach - he quotes Steve Jobs as follows:

"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things."

Taleb elaborates by saying that charlatans always give advice about WHAT TO DO. "Ten steps to achieve all your goals" and stuff like that. Whereas experts are more focused on what NOT to do. When driving a car, learn the few things you must know to avoid 99% of accidental collisions. When playing chess, make sure you don't lose pieces and eventually you will win. When investing, it's imperative to control risk, not so much to chase opportunity. Etc.

In light of these comments, I found it interesting that so many TM systems are based on "universal capture" -- from GTD to AF1 and most of Mark's systems. You end up with a complete list of ALL the things you could POSSIBLY do that has any relevance at all to your needs and desires. Maybe you will apply rules to prune this down or focus it or make it more timely or whatever. But still, the approach is "capture everything". I think Taleb's approach would be more to "discard everything" and only do what you are really compelled to do, either by the necessities of life, or by your deepest personal drives and aspirations.

A standout among Mark's systems is SMEMA - it's the opposite of "universal capture", and seems to line up with Taleb's philosophy a lot more than other systems that involve universal capture. I gave up using it because I felt a need for more structure, but it did always give a feel of being more "natural" than all these systems we invent for ourselves, and it always did produce a lot of results that seemed to really matter.
July 27, 2013 at 2:11 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Seraphim: Trust me, SMEMA comboed with DIT is excellent. It gives SMEMA needed structure while still retaining SMEMA's power.
July 27, 2013 at 3:18 | Unregistered CommenterHail2U!
Seraphim,

The idea behind allowing "a very few" other tasks into the Focus list was so you could put a "current initiative" or "Top 3" in there to focus on completion of those, but even that is optional. It should work find with only urgent tasks and hard deadlines in the Focus list. (Or an empty Focus list, if there are none!)

If you can answer "yes" to the question "Can this slide if necessary?", then the task belongs in the Whenever list, unless it's one of the "very few" that you want to focus on. The idea behind the Focus list is to use it for the things that must be done ASAP.

I very much believe in "universal capture", it's a very helpful thing. However, it inherently means you'll capture much that will never be done, because we'll always think of more things than we have time to actually do. Mark's systems often have some form of "dismissal" which always felt pretty arbitrary to me. I'd rather delete tasks consciously, when I realize that I no longer care about doing them, or acknowledge that they'll never happen even if I want them to. That's why I liked nuntym's "no dismissal" approach with AF2ND. With that approach, I decide what gets removed from my list, not the rules of a system.

Rather than aggressively deleting things from my list and possibly getting rid of a task I should have kept, I'd rather have a system that can handle any number of non-priority tasks without getting bogged down, and just let my intuition guide me on when to delete them. AF2NDP2 through AF2NDP5 have all worked well, and all of them can handle the "vast wasteland" just fine because of the prioritization feature.

I've only been using AF2NDP5 for a few days now, but I'm very happy with it. I do prefer using it with index cards so I can shuffle cards rather than rewriting, but either is fine.
July 28, 2013 at 21:56 | Registered CommenterDeven
Minor change: I think I'd like to rename the "Whenever" list to the "Main" list, which betters captures the intent of the list. It's not meant to be a "Someday/Maybe" list, but the primary list where most tasks go, including important ones. (That's what the prioritization is for, after all.)
July 29, 2013 at 18:58 | Registered CommenterDeven
"Dr. Mel" is giving AF2NDP5 a try for Week 26 (sans crazy acronyms!) -- interested to see how it works out for her!

http://www.psychowith6.com/can-make-it-happen-in-10-minutes-help-you-get-more-done/
August 5, 2013 at 21:18 | Registered CommenterDeven