The Autofocus Productivity Method: Stop Maintaining To-Do Lists And Start Getting Stuff Done

Looking for a personal productivity system that doesn't suffer the rigidity and unwieldiness that have thwarted your best efforts to adopt other systems? Autofocus offers simplified task management and emphasises getting stuff done instead of getting stuff filed, organised and tagged.

Almost two years ago we highlighted Mark Forster's Autofocus personal organisation system. Since then he's tweaked his system considerably, and now he's joining us to share his reworked Autofocus productivity system. Give it a look to see if it might be a good fit for you.

Photo by Nayu Kim.

What's Autofocus and What's New?

Ed. note: The interview above offers a great hands on look and some insights into the Autofocus system. If you'd prefer to go straight to seeing how Autofocus works in practice, jump down to Autofocus in Application: Step by Step.

When I introduced the first version of Autofocus nearly two years ago, it was an attempt on my part to revolutionise the way in which unscheduled time was managed.

First and foremost it was a reaction against the dominant advice in time management circles to prioritise by importance. I did not believe this to be a good principle — in fact it can lead people badly astray. So I ensured that Autofocus cast aside all attempts to prioritise. Instead it was organise in such a way that every task put on the list either got done in timely fashion or got weeded out in the process of working the system.

Secondly I was keen on the idea of using one all-purpose master list in which every task — indeed almost every passing thought — could be captured and processed. I wanted a processing system which would ensure that the right tasks were done at the right time without needing an intellectual consideration of what "right" consisted of. My idea was that this would emerge intuitively, and that one would discovered what "right" was by working the list.

Thirdly, I wanted something which had the minimum of overhead. In other words the minimum of time should be spent on the system itself, and the maximum on doing the tasks.

The essence of the first version of Autofocus consisted of two things: a sequence of closed lists (a list to which nothing can be added) and a process for weeding out tasks that weren't going anywhere. Each page of the list was treated as a separate closed list, and this continually presented a small sub-set of the tasks from the full list on which to focus at any one time. Gradually the noose was tightened as each list grew smaller and smaller so that the more difficult tasks got done. When the user was no longer willing to work on a particular page at all, then any remaining tasks on that page were dismissed. Photo by Jeremy Mikkola.

Autofocus didn't quite work in the way I intended it to, but it did have one unexpected result. I and many others found that working the list resulted in an almost meditative state in which resistance and procrastination seemed to melt away and the task of the moment became for that moment the focus of one's universe. I have never found any other system which approaches this effect — not even subsequent versions of Autofocus.

The main problem with Autofocus was that it didn't really achieve the automatic focusing its title implied. Although it was possible to achieve a vast amount of work while using it, my hopes that focus would emerge intuitively were only partially realised. I therefore started looking at ways in which it could be improved.

The basic Autofocus platform, the single master list, was something I wanted to keep if possible. I liked being able to write ideas straight into the list, and I liked being able to use the list to take notes at meetings as tasks. So this concept of the Master List remained unchanged throughout a series of mutations of the system, to which a very enthusiastic bunch of members of my discussion forum contributed. Their feedback and ideas were invaluable.

One things that became clear through the experiments with Autofocus is that on this Master List there are four types of tasks:

New - tasks entering the system for the first time. Recurring - tasks which are done regularly (this may be several times a day, once a day, or less). Unfinished - tasks on which more work is needed. Old - tasks which are not new and which have not yet been worked on.

This is a valuable way to classify tasks because it enables us to identify quickly where we are getting stuck and why.

An excessive number of recurring tasks will tend to take up a lot of time and bog the system down. If these tasks are grouped together it is easy to audit them and reduce their number.

An excessive number of unfinished tasks may indicate that too much high level work has been taken on. Again, grouping them together makes it easy to audit them and look at ways of reducing them.

An excessive number of old tasks may indicate that there are many which are going nowhere. Grouping them allows us to use a dismissal process to weed out these out.

Since identifying these advantages of grouping tasks, I have been working on the problem of how to maintain a single master list and at the same time grouping the tasks under these categories. I wanted something which would be visually simple and would have the minimum overhead. My solution would have to consist of a method of identifying which of these four categories a particular task belongs to, and then working systematically on each category according to a predetermined cycle. Photo by Alex E. Proimos.

The cycle I chose was the obvious one: we start by dealing with new tasks, move on to recurring tasks, then spend some concentrated time on the unfinished tasks, before finally working on clearing old tasks. Then the cycle is repeated.

I reckoned that this could be done by putting the tasks onto three pages of a notebook. All new tasks would go onto Page 1. Once they had been worked on then they would either be crossed out altogether or re-entered onto one of the other two pages. Page 2 would be for recurring tasks, and Page 3 for unfinished tasks.

What about old tasks? Well, that was easy: I could use one of the alternative Autofocus methods which we had developed. This comprised a closed list (one to which nothing could be added) and an open list (which was open to new tasks being added). The closed list comprised the "old tasks", and the open list the "new tasks".

Autofocus in Application: Step by Step

How does this look in application? Grab a notebook to start building your lists as we work through the steps in Autofocus. Photo by Hidde de Vries.

It's best to use a lined notebook. The size of the page and the number of lines doesn't matter too much. (I'm assuming in these instructions that you will be using paper and pen, but it's easy to duplicate electronically.)

Start by heading three successive pages of your notebook "New", "Recurring" and "Unfinished" respectively.

Then write down about 10-20 tasks that you need to do, and draw a line under them. These are your initial "Old Tasks". As you think of other tasks or they arise in the course of your work, add them below the line. These are your "New Tasks".

Go through all the "Old Tasks" in order. Whenever a tasks feels ready to be done, work on it.

If you finish the task completely, cross it off the list. If it's a recurring task, re-enter it on the "Recurring" page. If you haven't finished the task, re-enter it on the "Unfinished" page.

At this stage you only work on the Old Tasks, ignoring the others. Continue circulating through the Old Tasks until no more of them feel ready to be done for the moment. Now start working on the New Tasks (which are the ones below the line, remember).

When you've done as much work as you want to do on New Tasks for the time being, deal with the "Recurring" page and then the "Unfinished" page in the same way — except that there is no line dividing these pages. Once you have done all the tasks you want to do on the Unfinished page, return to the Old Tasks. You must do at least one task (hopefully more), otherwise all remaining Old Tasks are dismissed. Please note that only Old Tasks are liable to be dismissed. New Tasks and the tasks in Columns 2 and 3 are not dismissed.

Once all the Old Tasks have been done or dismissed, a new line is drawn and the existing New Tasks are re-designated as Old Tasks.

Any time you fill a page with tasks, continue the same heading onto a new page. Then when you are working on a particular type of task circulate through all the pages with that heading.

How effective is this? After you've been working the system for one cycle all the tasks you entered at the beginning have either been crossed off the list or have automatically been classified as Recurring, Unfinished or Old. The focus is put on each of these in turn to ensure that every task gets either actioned or sifted out. My experience has been that the grouping of tasks in this way makes the progress of your work much clearer and more definite.

One important concept that came out of our discussions on my website was that of completing work. There is a tendency in life generally for a lot of stuff to get started and not very much finished. This is very wasteful both of energy and time. The page for Unfinished Tasks is a means for overcoming this by concentrating for a period on bringing these tasks to completion. As a minor example of this, I have been using this page to keep working on this article until it is finished.

One of the surprising discoveries from using this method is how small a proportion of new work there is in most of our lives. Most of our work is repetitious. Once the recurring tasks and the unfinished tasks are removed to their own pages, only a relatively small amount of new tasks appear in the main list. If this is the case, then it is much easier to see how we can prune the repetitious tasks so that we can truly keep fully on top of our work.

Mark Forster is a former life coach, now retired, specialising in time management and personal organisation. His two books "Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play" and "Do It Tomorrow" take an unconventional view of time management. For the last two years he has been working on a new time management system called Autofocus, which has been a collaborative project on his web site discussion forum.


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