The new to-do list, and breaking the rules

OK, enough writer’s angst. Today, back to the to-do list! Specifically, Mark Forster’s take on it, called Autofocus.

I’ve referred to Autofocus a few times not because it’s the be-all and end-all of time management tools (no such thing—you gotta do what works for you), but because it’s so different from what’s out there. It acknowledges resistance to tasks—something a lot of other systems gloss over—and works with that resistance in a practical, matter-of-fact, friendly way. I think it’s especially useful for creative, rebellious sorts who don’t like to be regimented but still want to see progress on important tasks both large and small.

The last time I blogged about Autofocus (AF for short), Mark had just come out with a revised version that addressed some problems with the previous version. Now he’s got an even newer version, AF4, that addresses problems with earlier revisions. I know how this sounds!, and lest all these revisions raise doubts about how well the system works, give Mark credit for testing and adapting it—incorporating user experience and not treating AF as set in stone.

Besides the instructions for AF4, there’s now a really helpful illustration of the process: a PDF based on Mark’s own real-time list. (You can get to it from the AF discussion thread by clicking the link in paragraph 2.) Created by a fan of AF, the PDF is worth downloading—it’s a large file—as it gives you a way to look over Mark’s shoulder and see the system in action. Don’t worry about the high page count of the PDF—just keep advancing the pages and you’ll get a quick, straightforward experience of watching Mark work his way down the list.

This is key: Autofocus wasn’t revealed to Mark from on high. Same with any other time management system or guru. Mark’s got his rules, and it makes sense to follow the rules as you’re learning the method. If you’re someone who keeps trying and giving up on complicated time management systems, remember that a system works great for the person who designed it, a person who is wired differently from you. So do what you need to do, to get it to work for you. Cobble together pieces of systems that you like, and don’t worry about the pieces that don’t work.

I myself started using previous versions of AF with gusto, only to abandon them when life got too busy and hectic. This is a danger that people report about pretty much any time management system, and it’s one reason I’m skeptical of true believers in any approach.

So I made my own adjustment this week. I got back from vacation a few days ago, to a typical post-vacation pile of tasks with semi-urgent deadlines. It didn’t make sense for me to work Autofocus the usual way, cycling once through current tasks, then zooming through my backlog a few times before returning to the current list. (Don’t attempt or evaluate AF based just on my summary! Read Forster’s instructions and skim the comments to get an idea of the benefits of AF as well as the details.) Instead, I did a brain dump of everything that needed to get done the first few days I was back, and cycled through that stand-alone list until sanity returned. Now I’m ready to go back to Mark’s rules. With renewed enthusiasm.

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