Building a better to-do list

A recommendation!

I’ve talked about Mark Forster’s Autofocus system—an ingenious, paper-based way of tracking your to-do’s that works around procrastination by mixing up large and small tasks, considering them in relation to each other, and drawing on intuition (not in a touchy-feely way).  As the smaller things get crossed off, the bigger projects also move along, steadily, by degrees—what Forster calls the “little and often” approach.

When I mentioned Autofocus [urm, scroll to the asterisk at the end of the post], I said that much as I liked the system in principle, it wasn’t working for me. Time-sensitive tasks were falling through the cracks, and I’m not someone who typically lets that happen. So I abandoned the method after a week or two.

Huzzah! Forster has come out with a new version, AF2, which solves the problems I was having with it. I’m still soaring along on that new-thing high—ask me in a few weeks if it’s sustainable—but for the past few days I’ve been making better progress through undone tasks, and feeling a sense of accomplishment about them, rather than guilt over what’s still to be done.

A couple of caveats:

• The system is complicated to explain—I’ll let Forster do that—and takes some getting used to. Don’t worry about the lingo (“open” vs. “closed” lists and so on). It’s simple to use once you get the hang of it.

• The instructions for the new version, AF2, are aimed at people who were already using AF1 and understand the basics. If you’re brand-new to the system, you may find AF2 mystifying. Start by skimming the instructions for AF1 (there’s a video!), then dig into AF2, including the two-pages-max of related comments. If all this gives you a headache, wait until Forster comes out with the promised instructions designed for new users. (Waiting would be a good use of your time, says I.)

• Like so many productivity systems, Autofocus has spawned an obsessive fascination among users about how to work it. The discussion boards on Forster’s site, while full of helpful clarifications and examples and suggestions (including how to adapt AF to electronic devices), are addictive. Be aware of the temptation to spend hours reading through hundreds of posts, exploring the intricacies of the system, when you could actually be getting your work done. You have been warned.


  1. This really makes me want to try AF2 and give it another shot. I love the concept of doing all my lists on paper and of moving intuitively between tasks without getting caught up in folders and categories. I had tried AF1 a couple months ago when it came out, and found myself getting tripped up in what he has now identified as flaws. Maybe AF2 will resolve these issues I was having with the urgent stuff getting buried in pages of random stuff I didn’t really intend to do soon. And hopefully there’s some solution for “remember the milk.” Hope you’ll do a follow-up post & report back in a few weeks! I’ll give it a try.

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Kelly – Still trying to work out how AF2 coordinates with deadlines, but at least the urgent tasks aren’t getting lost anymore. I’m planning to stick with it for a while and see how it goes — I’ll be interested in how it works for you too.

  3. To do lists are essential! Great ideas here.

  4. linda says:

    even though i’m not a fan of people leaving links to their own blogs, i’ve got to do exactly that– i just blogged today about my own list system and i think it’s got merit…

    i honestly think i’ve got a more workable, frendlier, easier system than AF2. see what you think.

  5. Janet Bailey says:

    @Training Connection – Yes, I’m a big list-maker.

    @Linda – Thanks for the link to your own paper-and-pencil system—it definitely looks simple and workable. I’ve used something kind of similar when I’m under tight deadlines. What I like about AF2 is the way it helps ease *resistance* to doing tasks, something I haven’t really seen in other systems. But it takes some getting used to.

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