My Latest Book

Product Details

Also available on,, and other Amazons and bookshops worldwide! 

To Think About . . .
Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself. Tom Wilson
My Other Books

Product Details

Product Details

Product Details

The Pathway to Awesomeness

Click to order other recommended books.

Find Us on Facebook Badge

Search This Site
Latest Comments

Discussion Forum > Forget about the trees for a minute...

I'd like to invite you nice folks to "forget about the trees for a minute, and look at the forest".
We can so easily get lost in all the details of a particular method. Can I ask you to ask yourself this question (and give a brief, simple answer...):
***What are we really trying to accomplish with a particular system? Are we just trying to get everything done? Maybe we're trying to get a conceptual "handle" on all that we have going in our lives... Maybe we're trying to get non-scheduled items to not fall between the cracks. etc.. etc...

I'm looking to poll the community and see if we have a clear idea of what we're trying to accomplish.
April 12, 2014 at 1:36 | Unregistered CommenterMark Thomas
1. Doing what is important (rather than everything what can be done) and seeing results/impact in my work/other activities.

2. Successful dealing with many interests/projects/ideas + information overload and possibility overload (combined with multi-talented/scanner personality type): Where to set limits? What is enough? When does number of tasks start to be overwhelming/ineffective/bumping into each other...

3. Feeling sense of more-or-less balance (not in strict meaning, of course nobody can still do everything in the "right" proportions, I just want to feel that I am not strongly neglecting any major area in my life)
April 12, 2014 at 9:19 | Unregistered CommenterDaneb
Mark Thomas:

<< What are we really trying to accomplish with a particular system? >>

This is actually the question, or a variant of it, which I ask myself before I try to develop a new system.

My latest answer is:

The perfect TM system has to:

1) Have a single list on which everything can be put;

2) Get urgent stuff done quickly;

3) Get recurrent things done as often as needed;

4) Put the squeeze on the more difficult things.

You'll note that the above description does not include anything about making sure that the most important things get done. The system is there to get what we put on the list done. It's up to us to decide what should be on the list. That's not something we should be delegating to a system.
April 12, 2014 at 9:30 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
-Use a simplistic method to increase productivity* in order to accomplish goals and live a balanced life while eliminating unimportant tasks comfortably and systematically.

*Productivity here means Output of meaningful work/Input of resources.
April 14, 2014 at 14:20 | Unregistered CommenterGMBW
I'm trying to "get everything done and still have time to play," where everything means everything that I am committed to doing.
April 14, 2014 at 17:07 | Unregistered CommenterAustin
Inspired by Mark's question, I had a look back over my various systems (those I could remember anyway!) with a view to identifying the ones that had proved most effective.

In particular I was looking for the one which I felt had got me best moving on fresh and original work, rather than just keeping up-to-date with existing work.

There was a very clear winner, which was a combination of Colley's rule and the Resistance Principle:

1. Make out a list.
2. Do the first task on the list.
3. Take the task you have just done as your benchmark, and do the first task after that which you are resisting more than you resisted the benchmark.
4. Repeat until you reach the end of the list.
5. Start again from the beginning of the list.

It's important that there should be a definite rise in resistance at each stage in progressing through the list. Don't select tasks which feel much the same as their benchmarks or you will just end up doing a series of tasks that are in your comfort zone.

I didn't take this very far at the time, probably because I got distracted by some other bright ideas - an occupational hazard - but possibly also because I got scared at just how fresh and original my work was becoming. It definitely started to take me out of my comfort zone.
April 14, 2014 at 17:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
For me it is simply to capture everything I need to do. I use my mind to decide when I want to do the things in my system. Additionally I am currently just using an old "system" of mine which is simply to use one notebook for everything including to dos and notes so I also use it to capture information I need to remember. My issue is clutter and being able to find what I need.

April 14, 2014 at 18:18 | Registered CommenterGerry
1. Being somewhat organized. You know, just like a grown up. Not missing an important date, doing the taxes soon enough etc, that kind of stuff.

2. Using this basic need as an excuse to have a "system" and therefore the need to use nice "productivity tools" that I like.

3. Maintaining a "system" of which I think is an elegant one. Enjoying this (perceived) elegance the same way I enjoy the designs of other things in my life. IIn this moment the tea cup on my desk, the keyboard I am typing this on the display of my alarm clock etc etc pp

4. The lists are an awesome help at self-reflection, they act as a kind of mirror for my brain, to a certain extend.

5. Being confident enough to tackle the big things in my life (which are not so big after all, just surviving as an adult?)
April 15, 2014 at 21:22 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
What am I trying to accomplish with a task-system?

1) Make sure I don't forget something important.
2) Stay on top of routines that are good for me (exercising, reading, praying, playing piano), easy to skip when life gets busy.
3) Ideally—and this is the most important one for me—get my work done by the deadlines without stress and without cutting into my family and personal time.

My major problem is that my work has regular deadlines that require creativity. And I am often most creative under the stress of the looming deadline. But I hate living like this. I find ways to waste time or busy myself with other work to avoid working on what is most important.

I also have a broken brain that likes to do lists in order according to a formula. I sometimes trust a system too much, until I have another episode of a lost weekend or sleepless night finishing my work by the deadline. Then I blow up the system and come here looking for another.

What's worked best for me so far is FV. I think I quit it the first time because I didn't have the right understanding of how to think about the first task.
April 16, 2014 at 0:53 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher E.
Hi Mark T, you've raised a great point and it's interesting to read the responses. Adding mine to the mix, here's what I want to accomplish:

- I do want to have it assist me in getting a broad feel for what's on my plate

- I want to be able to note down anything I think of on the spur of the moment that I might not remember later on. But I don't want to capture every single thing I need to do.

- I want to remember who I'm waiting on for something.

- I want the system itself to be so thin as to be invisible and I don't want to have to follow any rules to be able to use it.

- I want to be able to split any notes up by topic where it makes sense, eg if I have a load of things I want to remember or am waiting for relating to a particular topic then I want them grouped together.

- I want to use the same system in the same way for work and home stuff.

- I want it to contain a calendar so I can see when I'm free and note down appointments, things happening on certain dates and so on.

- I want it to be trivially simple to use, no need to install software, no reliance on a particular kind of platform like ios, windows, os x, no need for a web site.

- I want it to be electronic not paper based.

- I want to be able to use it just as easily when I'm out and about as when I'm sat in front of a computer.

- I want it to be trivial to keep clean and current.

The solution I use is a single text file which I store in dropbox.
April 16, 2014 at 14:12 | Unregistered CommenterChris
I just like systems.

I want to live debt free. Not all debts are financial. Sometimes our systems start to define us rather than enable us, and then it's like being in debt to the system, it just presents to me a set of unfulfilled obligations. "The borrower is slave to the lender". How awful when our own creations become our masters.

I've been pondering the main "system" of the monastics: their calendar and daily schedule. I'm realizing that how I set up and follow my personal calendar has a far greater impact on my life than how I handle my outstanding tasks. My discretionary time is a lot less than my scheduled time. E.g. at work it's about 60% or more pre-scheduled, at home it's a higher percentage than that.

This reminds me of Dave Ramsey's advice not to mess around too much with debt consolidation, chasing after a lower-rate credit card to which to transfer one's balance of credit card debt, etc. Let's say you currently have a debt with a 25% rate and you find a way to transfer it and now you have a 10% rate. Congratulations, you just solved a mere 15% of your problem. The real problem is the *balance*, not the interest rate. Better to focus on paying off the *balance* rather than think one has accomplished something by moving the debts around.

Getting older and seeing my kids grow up and leave the home makes me realize how finite our time is. It really is more important to have a "not do" list rather than a "to do" list - at least in one's attitude about what commitments one accepts. The to-do list (of commitments) should be very small and focused.

I'm learning from Scrum some very good ways to keep it small and focused: keep a backlog of all the stuff you need to do. Keep it somewhat prioritized by the VALUE these things deliver. The highest value things need a clear 1-2-3-4-5 priority, the lower value things need larger buckets and don't waste time getting too granular - they are low priority after all, which means many of them will never get done, so why waste time prioritizing.
April 18, 2014 at 7:18 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Oops, I tried to revise my post but the time expired. Here's a continuation.

So once you have your backlog, decide on your cadence. Weekly, daily, variable, whatever. A regular cadence is helpful because it offers some predictability - how much can I accomplish in a period. Then decide on a short list of high-value things to COMPLETE in that period. Pull these from the top part of your backlog.

This combines the open list for capture, with the closed list for execution. Execution is small, committed, and focused.

It's not a "system" but then maybe systems aren't all they claim to be. Was it Eisenhower who said "Plans are nothing; planning is everything?" Good systems are the "planning" - they help you engage with your work, so when it's time for execution and things are moving fast, you've already thought through many of the situations you encounter and are prepared to respond. Bad systems are the "plans" - they create an unworkable plan or process you feel obligated to follow but don't deliver the value, and actually make it harder to respond to changing circumstances.

A calendar with half the discretionary time filled with pomodoros representing my short-term committed focused work seems to be working pretty well. Enough "planning" to engage with my work. Enough structure to keep me from falling into chaos. Enough focus to get the most valuable work done. Low maintenance. I like the low maintenance. I really don't want to spend very much more time in my life optimizing the flow of the minutiae.

Sorry for the rambling disjointed thoughts.
April 18, 2014 at 7:41 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< I've been pondering the main "system" of the monastics: their calendar and daily schedule. I'm realizing that how I set up and follow my personal calendar has a far greater impact on my life than how I handle my outstanding tasks >>

I once worked out a way of dividing up the day according to the old monastic prayers. This was intended for people in full-time work who nevertheless wanted to say the full breviary. My conclusion was that it would probably produce a more focused day than just working the whole time and might actually add to productivity, not to mention any spiritual benefit.

1. Get up an hour early, and say Matins and Lauds
2. After breakfast and before starting work, say Prime
3. Halfway through the morning, say Terce.
4. During lunch break, say Sext
5. Halfway through the afternoon, say None
6. After work, say Vespers.
7. Before going to bed, say Compline.

This splits up the day into sections rather like a school timetable, but also ensures that you have a good start and finish to the day and have a period to focus before starting wsork and a break to wind down after work.

I realise the Orthodox prayers are a bit different from the Catholic ones, but I expect you get the idea!
April 18, 2014 at 15:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

Thanks for that. I've decided to try breaking up my day between set prayer times (not the Breviary as I'm Protestant, but a similar time arrangement) to try to kill two birds with one stone - improving my prayer habits and seeing if the time blocks help me be more productive.

Similarly, I've often reflected on how keeping a weekly sabbath on the Lord's Day helps me be more productive on the six working days. For the entirety of the time I've been using your systems, I've always excluded Sunday entirely from the systems - e.g., when using DIT on Saturday, tomorrow=Monday. I'm fond of this quotation by Bishop J.C. Ryle:

"The Sabbath is good for nations. It has an enormous effect both on the character and temporal prosperity of a people. I firmly believe that a people which regularly rests one day in seven will do more work and better work in a year than a people which never rest at all. Their hands will be stronger; their minds will be clearer; their power of attention, application, and steady perseverance will be far greater."
-J.C. Ryle, "The Sabbath: A Day to Keep"

I have found Ryle's sentiment to be true in my own experience. I wonder if the same kind of thing could be said from structuring one's days around set prayer times?

Thanks for the idea.
April 21, 2014 at 18:12 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Quite apart from the spiritual aspects of this, there is quite a well-established way of structuring one's day which is based on the school timetable (as it was when I was at school anyway!).

The theory is that the optimum working period is 40 minutes followed by a break of 10 minutes followed by another 40 minute period with a break of 30 minutes. This is then repeated through the day, allowing for longer breaks for meal times, etc. Most conferences and training courses follow a similar pattern.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this resembles the school timetable which in my day was typically:

Period 1 0900-0940
Period 2 0950-1030

Period 3 1100-1140
Period 4 1150-1230

Period 5 1400-1440
Period 6 1450-1530

Period 7 1600-1640
Period 8 1650-1730

Ideally each period would concentrate on one subject, with double periods where necessary. I don't think we every spent more than two periods a day on a single subject, except in the run-up to exams (in which case the period would be "revision" or "private study").

We worked Saturday mornings, but never on Sundays.
April 22, 2014 at 0:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark Forster:

"The theory is that the optimum working period is 40 minutes followed by a break of 10 minutes followed by another 40 minute period with a break of 30 minutes."

Much in common with these:

Pierre Khawand's "Results Curve": focus for 40 --> short break --> focus for 40...

Robin Sharma's 90 minute blocks of action: focus for two 45 minute periods --> 30 minute break...

The human body's 90 minute ultradian rhythms: 45 minutes of activity --> peak --> 45 minutes of activity --> rest...

Movies are often around 90 minutes: 1 hour is too short, 2 hours is often too long.

Article on 90 minute cycles:
April 22, 2014 at 6:13 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Michael B.

The school timetable has probably been much the same for centuries (perhaps millenia) so I think this is just something that humans naturally fall into when working as a body.

The characteristic of a day structured like this is that it seems long with definite feelings of achievement. While a typically fractured day at the office seems to pass in a flash with nothing really achieved at the end of the day (this of course may be more appearance rather than reality).

I have to say I don't particularly like structuring my day like this. We did the same in the Army, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I could do what I wanted to when I wanted to. Ever since then I've been allergic to conferences and anything which resembles this structure. Most of my systems encourage the fragmented approach - as you've probably noticed - which I greatly prefer!
April 22, 2014 at 10:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

"I have to say I don't particularly like structuring my day like this. "

If there ever was proof that productivity advice works from some and not for others, this would be it. I simply abhor this way of working. Yuch.
April 22, 2014 at 19:21 | Registered Commenteravrum