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Discussion Forum > The ultimate question re: Mark’s “Secrets of...”

At the end of Mark’s “Secrets of Productivity”, he states:

“If you use it [Time Management System discussed in Ch 9] consistently you should find that your focus will narrow onto what is essential at the moment”

I really like the spirit of that line. I wonder what question - if asked whenever one has discretionary time - would capture the spirit of the above sentence. A few I’ve thought of:

* The most meaningful I could do right now is...
* I am willing to commit to...
* I really want to...
* What one thing would make my day more meaningful...

Can you think of any that would stimulate your conscious and subconscious thinking?

Mark - thanks for writing this book!
September 20, 2018 at 19:35 | Registered Commenteravrum
Interesting thought. From a logical point of view, Mark's statement is a conditional - if A then B, in the sense that B follows naturally from doing A. So, to me, the only logical question I would ask, if I want "B," is: "Am I doing A?"

So... "Am I using the time management system outlined in ch. 9 consistently?"

I would be asking that one all the time.

September 21, 2018 at 1:25 | Unregistered CommenterPaul MacNeil
Hi Paul.

Right - but I'm not using the system as laid out in the book. I should have been clearer about that.

I mentioned the "spirit of that line" re: "your focus will narrow onto what is essential at the moment”
to try and find a good question to get to that place i.e. What is most essential right here, right now (given your energy, plans, place, time available, etc).
September 21, 2018 at 3:35 | Registered Commenteravrum
Ok, so assuming whatever system you are using it has identified what task you should be doing next. The next bit is to actually do the task rather than defer it. So for me when any thoughts of "not now" creep in then the question would be to myself: -
If it needs to be done at some point, then why not do it now?

I'm hoping this will kick start some sort of conscious and subconscious thinking to make it happen. Personally, I'm trying to get to a state of mind where I can do any task put in front 100% of the time (assuming it is the right task to do at that particular time). In my view this is quite a challenge. How many of us can say they get into that state of "doing" all the time? I wish I could. Getting there, but it is hard. Or is it just me?
September 21, 2018 at 9:29 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
MrBacklog - excellent question.

I’m trying to actualize Mark’s coaching around intuition and “standing out”. My late supervisor** was fond of saying: “If your clients leave a session with one good question to ponder between sessions, it was worth the money they paid for therapy.”

** Dr. David Freeman:
September 21, 2018 at 13:41 | Registered Commenteravrum
Yes, I think as long as stand out/intuition selects something you want to do and at the right time then happy days (and the task gets done).

I know I feel so much better when that is working well. As soon as I seem to pick a task up and then put it down again for no good reason I feel all out of sorts and a bit of a failure.

I did find reviewing and picking things out of a long list led to overwhelm. My head can't seem to cope with knowing it has loads of things it should be doing. I found a more blinkered approach of just having a few things to select from at any one time helped me focus and seems to clear my mind.
I need just a few tasks to come in as if they are on a conveyor belt, rather than have a mountain of tasks in front of me wondering which ones to do.
September 21, 2018 at 15:23 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
<I did find reviewing and picking things out of a long list led to overwhelm.>

I had the exact same experience with all of the long-list systems. My current workflow is a VERY streamlined version of what Mark suggests in his new book. If I stay committed to the process for at least two weeks, I'll post it publicly.
September 21, 2018 at 16:10 | Registered Commenteravrum
Avrum: yes please - that would be interesting.
I would like to compare it to mine.
September 21, 2018 at 17:42 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog

It sounds like you are using a no-list system. I am personally a long-lister, so I'm not sure that my idea applies to your situation. However, when I encounter a sense of overwhelm or confusion from having to sift through too many entries, I fall back on:

"If I could only get ONE of these things started today, which would it be?"

I feel that this question is reliable for zooming in on the most critical work, but the benefits go a bit further. Once I'm satisfied with my choice, I find that I'm also much more comfortable with the fact that I'm NOT working on any of the other list entries.

Of course, I rarely ever only work on one item per day. The question holds up to repeated applications.

September 21, 2018 at 20:03 | Unregistered CommenterVoluntas
If I can chime in with the "official" answer:

For simple scanning and similar systems using a Long List you do the first task that stands out as ready to be done. No question is necessary, and indeed questions should be avoided. You just trust the system. If you do this properly you will avoid feelings of overwhelm.

For FP and related systems, the question I prefer is "What do I want to do before...?" Again, trust the system - and don't attempt to define what you mean by "want".

For No List systems, write down the first tasks that come into your head. This allows your intuition full play.

The great thing to remember is that whether you write all your work down in one list, or write a selection, or just write a few tasks, the total amount of work you have remains the same. You can choose whether to write it all down or just a small bit of it, but it's all still there and it all needs doing.
September 21, 2018 at 20:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<For No List systems, write down the first tasks that come into your head. This allows your intuition full play>

Mark - what would you do if the first task is always pleasure-seeking, low-hanging fruit type of tasks?
September 21, 2018 at 21:11 | Registered Commenteravrum

<< what would you do if the first task is always pleasure-seeking, low-hanging fruit type of tasks? >>

I'd say "Go for it!"
September 22, 2018 at 0:20 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I suppose I do simple scanning but with a modification due to large number of tasks which can be 400+ at any time.
I found I could not scan that many and I just lost track.
So simple solution was when tasks first arrive I review and split tasks into 3 lists - do now, do a bit later, and a lot later. It is a bit more complex but that is more or less it.
Interested how any one else handles really long lists.
Nb I'm not overloaded, I just have an enormous number of quick tasks and can function perfectly well with a biggish backlog.
September 23, 2018 at 7:31 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Mr Backlog:

<< I found I could not scan that many and I just lost track. >>

I can understand that happening with FVP, but I'm not clear what the advantage of three lists is with Simple Scanning. Simple Scanning more or less automatically sorts your tasks into Do It Now, Do a Bit Later and Do a Lot Later. The tasks arrive unsorted but the Do It Later tasks will gravitate to the earlier pages of the list.

I don't know how you decide which of your three lists you are going to be working on at any one time, but Simple Scanning has the advantage that you don't consciously have to make that decision.

I suspect you also have to spend some time re-prioritizing tasks. Again that doesn't need to happen with Simple Scanning.
September 23, 2018 at 15:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
avrum: << what would you do if the first task is always pleasure-seeking, low-hanging fruit type of tasks? >>

Mark: << I'd say "Go for it!" >>

Yes! One of the common reasons for struggling is low (or disregulated) dopamine. Dopamine is the reward chemical, also anticipation of a reward, aka motivation. If it's low, it's very difficult to do anything. Yet we're often told to "eat the frog first." Do the most difficult task when our motivation and confidence is at its lowest. Doing something pleasurable will raise your dopamine so you can do something more difficult.

That's not to say that hours getting a new high score on a game, or on FaceBook, are good choices, or a book that keeps you turning pages all day. Ideally, choose something productive, especially if you stop when your dopamine is high enough to make it eating the frog easier, and you have enough energy (and time) left to eat it.

There are times, though, when clearing your social media backlog (often learning that nothing urgent was waiting) is the most useful thing you can do in the moment.

Other things to raise dopamine and other helpful neurotransmitters, and lower the unhelpful ones (eg cortisol): 1) Slow-burn foods. Protein, fat, complex carbs. I also like a hit (bolus) of simple sugar to get things started. 2) Exercise: Again, enough to raise the helpful neurotransmitters without using all your energy. 3) Social connection: What works for you in the moment. Coffee room. Check email. Social media. Metta bhavana meditation. 4) Gratitude. Our brain is unfair, and pays more attention to bad things (s.t.tigers) than good (carrot). Gratitude helps give good things an equal chance. 5) Anything you can succeed at, no matter how small: Success raises dopamine. Also, laughter at the silliness of doing something so tiny often breaks inertia.

(And...remember the bit about not spending hours? My daughter just gave me the agreed-upon 2-minute warning.)
September 23, 2018 at 18:28 | Registered CommenterCricket
<<I'm not clear what the advantage of three lists is with Simple Scanning>>

I think the main advantage is the need to only ever scan a task once. I'm using my intuition at that early stage to drop it into the relevant time dependent list. I can then forget about it knowing it will be done within the timescale I originally decided.
I just work through the lists keeping an eye out on the older task to make sure they don't get too old past the timescale set for each list. I know the urgent tasks as all in one place which is comforting knowing they won't be missed.

The only problem I found with the long list was when I lost control of what needed doing at the right time purely due to the long length. I then started to do everything that came in just because I knew if went in the long list it would get lost or not done for ages.
I wonder if a long list works fine if not too long. I don't know. I just found splitting it works really well for me.
September 24, 2018 at 10:06 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Mr. B: That is my impression. Yes the things you want to act on soon do clump at the end and you get a few strikes at them as they mill about but that isn't quite enough. The most pressing item needs more "oftens" than you can get before you swing around and have to spend a lot of time going through the vast amount of "not ready yet" items. This is why I have often favored a system that does pull out the ready items and focus on them only for a period until you're ready to branch out.

I think 3 lists is more than required to handle this. Also, because I am currently keeping my list very short, 2 lists is not needed either for me.

> If I can chime in with the "official" answer:

Very interesting, so the way to focus on the most impactful items in your view is to not even think about the question but to simply trust the system. The more you interact intuitively the more you will graduate to the things that matter. Do I understand your position right?


Very well written and helpful discourse on dopamine depletion and replenishment. Thank you!
September 24, 2018 at 14:21 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
MrBacklog: Your multiple lists sounds a bit like Linenberger's One Minute To Do List.

(The free ebook is definitely worth the price of giving him your email address and a few hours to read. The free book is the first half of Master Your Workday Now, which extends the system to include review cycles, a longer over-the-horizon list, and probably more things I forgot.)
September 24, 2018 at 19:50 | Registered CommenterCricket
Thanks Cricket, that is interesting - I had a quick read through the book and I like the urgency zones he mentions which is fundamentally what I'm doing.
Not sure about moving emails into a task list as that seems a bit pointless. In my view just easier to work within email itself and if you have Outlook then easy to set up folders with the urgency headings and drop emails into the appropriate folders and work from there.
I suppose it all boils down to "doing" tasks and how to manage them so they are done at the right time. I think all systems work well when the list is not too long, but as soon as it gets really long the system somehow needs to cope with the demands of new tasks coming in and also managing the older tasks that go into backlog.
Did you ever use the Linenberger system and what did you think of it?
September 25, 2018 at 10:17 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog

Above, you stated:

<<I'd say "Go for it!">>

I've been thinking about that, and wondered you were being a bit flippant. But this afternoon, I stumbled upon this thread:

You wrote:

<<You just choose. Write something down and do it. If it wasn't a sensible thing to choose that will become glaringly obvious when you read through what you've done that day. Result: hopefully you learn to choose better>>

So in fact, you're quite serious. In your experience, do you think intuition works best with a no-list or long list systems?
September 25, 2018 at 21:56 | Registered Commenteravrum
Yeah, email is very good at holding things. No need to move to a separate task list unless a) the next action isn't at the computer or b) it won't get enough attention unless it's on my list for the week. I label email by project (including "read later, if every") rather than urgency, except for really urgent (which get a star).

I think I stopped using it the same day I started, but I liked it enough to buy the book. Asking, "What problems does this system solve that my current system doesn't?" was a good exercise. My system had many problems that I hadn't identified as such! Things I want to deal with soon buried under things that should wait. Too many things on today's list (and this week's list). Not reviewing the next list up often enough (not trusting that I'll do it). Ask of each item, "How long before I should think about it again." Difference between reviewing the list and actually doing the things on it.
September 25, 2018 at 22:42 | Registered CommenterCricket
Dopamine: Motivation, Satisfaction, Focus, Memory. Sounds like things we procrastinators could use more of!

(Tonight's self-study theme was ADHD strategies.)
September 26, 2018 at 0:44 | Registered CommenterCricket
Yes, I have been trying to solve the problem with things getting buried.
Only solution that has been working for me is to think very carefully on the initial assessment of the task. It is way too easy to treat too many things as urgent.
So, my critical question on any task is how long can this really wait? I then drop the task in the appropriate time dependent folder always trying to push it back as far as I can. The idea being to keep the do now and do soon folders as small as possible.
Interesting how using the principle consistently over time actually keeps things under control so much better and a lot of tasks really can wait!
September 26, 2018 at 11:17 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Next level of thinking is "If the project is important, than this task is, but not if it isn't." If I intend to go back to school, then everything to do with registering is important. If I don't, then nothing to do with registering is important.

Actual next step: All the steps involved in deciding if I really want to. (No, I don't want to, but it's a clear example.) Deadline: Early enough to register (or not).
September 28, 2018 at 21:06 | Registered CommenterCricket
Hmm... "importance"... "push tasks back"... etc

A few things I've consistently taught are:

1) Aim to be totally on top of your work (zero-inbox)

2) If you can't keep totally on top of your work, then you've over-committed yourself

3) There's no such thing as important/unimportant. If you've committed yourself to something, then it's important, period.

4) Following from the above, urgency is the only valid way to prioritize.
October 3, 2018 at 14:01 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
A thought - I'm luckily going on holiday tomorrow but I still have about 170 tasks on my todo list.
I have sorted them and about 1/3 need to be done the week I'm back.
Another 1/3 can easily wait until end of Oct and the rest are fine to be done early Nov.
So, the question is - am I 100% up to date and on top of my work or not?
Is it fine to consistently have a large backlog and not really worry about being over-committed as long as you can keep up with the things that actually need to be done by a certain date?
i.e. prioritise by when things need to be done by.
Who cares - I'm off anyway....
October 5, 2018 at 15:26 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog