The “Do Whatever You Want” Approach to Getting Things Done

Time management is a great way to lose time. Instead of actually getting work done, we just dive into dozens of books, blogs, and talks on the topic, all created to make their respective authors richer and keep ourselves entertained. Over the years, I surely obtained a Master in Theoretical Productivity that way, dissecting the topic with an idler’s interest and dedication, yet without ever feeling a bigger need to put most of it into practice. My personal approach of simply combining idleness and action really was all I needed: Instead of worrying about complex organization of tasks, just enter Do Mode, avoid perfectionism, limit action time, and eventually enjoy idleness.

The Problem: Complexity

Eventually, though, I ran into trouble. In my search for tempo giusto I wanted to increase my creative output and handle several projects at once, but it didn’t really work: Not only would I get distracted too easily, I’d also lose the panoramic view of all the tasks I had on my mind. It was during my recent experiment with nightowlism that I decided to definitely tackle this problem.

As you might know, the broader GTD approach to life is to write everything down, collect it with all other input in an inbox, and process this inbox regularly. It also includes a weekly review habit, in order to keep the bigger picture in mind.
So far, so good, but this is where it gets nerdy and overly complex: The GTD user is supposed to organize his tasks into contexts, projects, and whatnot, before he actually gets to do anything. This strikes me as a horrible use of my time that could better be spent watching the clouds.

The problem in a nutcase: Idleness and Action had become too simple for managing all my ideas and projects, but GTD was way too complex in itself to provide a solution in the short term. Having studied so many different techniques over the years, I knew where to look for ideas on how to create a time management system that would be friendly anarchist compatible.

The Solution: Autofocus

My idea was this: I wanted to work with a system that assured I would remember all the stuff that comes up to my mind and review it regularly. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t work on fluff tasks, so the system should make it easy to filter unimportant tasks out. At the same time, I wanted to maintain the power of entering Do Mode without even giving Mr Resistance a chance to invite me over for coffee while being on my way to getting my work done.

As it turns out, the Autofocus system developed my Mark Foster seems to solve all of these issues. I won’t go into too much detail here, as the concept is well-described on his site, but here are the basics:

  1. Write Everything Down. Autofocus doesn’t force you to think about the usefulness of things as they come up to your mind. You just write them down and get them out of your head, keeping distraction to a minimum. Generally, you will use a lined notebook for that, keeping 25-35 entries on each page. Alternatively, you could also use a digital list, p.e. in Remember The Milk or a simple text file. It’s just not as nice to work with, if you’re an analogue person like myself.
  2. Work from your Inbox. This is a total no-go for every GTD nerd, but it’s a great fit for an idler: You don’t need to compartmentalize or even tag the things you put on the list, but just work with them right where you jot them down. No contexts, no projects, and all tasks are treated as equals – the perfect form of democratic productivity. (Note: If you generally work in two different places, i.e. home and office, you might want to use two notebooks instead of one.)
  3. Open and closed lists. While you just keep adding tasks to your one and only list, you mentally distinguish between an open and and several closed lists: Each page of your notebook becomes a closed list once it’s filled, and the next page with free space becomes the new open list. This helps you to track progress and keep motivation, as you keep checking off tasks on your closed lists.
  4. Review as you Go. You process tasks like this: You review the first page by scanning all the items on it. Then, you start reading the list again, slower this time, until you find a task you’d like to work on. Once you finish that task or feel you’ve done enough, you cross it off the list – and, if necessary, add it again at the end of your open list, i.e. the page in the notebook that still has space to write on. You then keep on working on the same closed list, until there’s no more task you’d like to do, and move on to the next page.
  5. Leave Things Undone. The chief attraction of Autofocus is this: Once you review a page for the first time and don’t find any task you’d like to work on, you just discard its tasks entirely. You cross them off with a highlighter and do not put them at the end of your open list again. The reason for this is that these are obviously the tasks you are resisting most, so you’re probably better off not doing them at all. By marking them with a highlighter, though, you can still come back at them at a later moment – maybe once you finish filling the notebook, maybe once a week in a review -, and see if you want to activate some of them again. If you do so, try phrasing them more actionable, in order to really work on them the next time.
  6. Accept Urgency. Many people say that Autofocus looks nice, but it doesn’t allow you to get the “urgent tasks” done you’re confronted with each day. This is really a non-issue: Urgent tasks are either, well, urgent – or they are not. As Foster writes, there’s no need to put urgent tasks on any list whatsoever, because you’ve just gotta do them right now. If that’s not the case, put them on your open list and keep moving: You should make it a goal to go through the your whole Autofocus list at least once a day, so you know that you will get to that task later on.

Why Autofocus Works

  • It’s very anarchist-friendly: You work on whatever you want!
  • It necessarily includes establishing a review habit. As I work mainly for my own pleasure, I often used to write ideas down and forget about them. Autofocus should help to fix this.
  • It avoids getting overwhelmed with a large backlog of projects: You have to kill tasks you don’t work on!
  • It allows you to keep an eye both on your long-term projects and the urgent stuff that comes up from time to time.
  • It motivates you to work “little and often” on many tasks. It’s thus a great fit for people who like micro productivity and who want to advance their creative projects consistently.
  • It includes a Done List: You cross things off all the time. (Worked 15 minutes on your tax return? Check it off and put it at the end of the list.) Maybe this strikes you as childish, but seriously, could there be a better motivator to keep moving?!

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  1. It’s similar to how I’m managing my task bankruptcy policy to deal with huge backlogs. I prepare a to-do list for tomorrow. Closed list, of course. I may add the odd thing (something I forgot and is very important, usually). If I don’t finish it, add the remainders to tomorrow if they will be done. No carrying over for two days, unless it is a long-winded task. And everything from the to-do should be done. I only write down things I know I will do… and force me to do them ;)

    And I just carry a 14 page mini booklet folded from an A4 paper and my trusty fountain pen to write them down, cross them over or carry them to the next day. Nothing more fancy. I use my iPod Touch to keep track of calendar items (which get added whenever are needed to the closed to-do).

    Last week this worked terrific, this week I am having trouble with it, mostly because a slow weekend plus a slow Monday and a horrible Tuesday. And today, seminar, department meeting & lecture. Plus sinusitis (I think, strong headache since Monday and feeling slightly feverish). But now, only 4 items left in my to-do, and I will miss only two: folding clothes and practising guitar (too late for this :/).



    1. Hey Ruben, I love the concept of “task bankruptcy”… brilliant! And funny you just wrote about it yesterday, as it’s indeed similar to that aspect of Autofocus. Great stuff!
      The difference is of course that you have to be conscious about what to put on your to do list, while you can list anything you like with AF – it should get structured during the usage.
      Hope you get well soon!

  2. I’ve found myself spending more time on managing my time and discovered the danger of open lists, especially with projects. GTD provides many good concepts, such as the idea of next actions and of having a streamlined flow, but it takes time and attention to maintain the system. One of my challenges is maintaining oversight over my projects (multi-task activities). When I work solely from a list of tasks, I lose sight of where I am with my projects. As a teacher, I also have to keep track of the learning arcs for the classes I teach and respond to the learning needs and opportunities that come up. I like the idea of closed lists. It might motivate me to prioritize what I do with my limited time and energy.

    1. Hi Greg, thanks for stopping by! I am really just getting started with Autofocus, but the system should allow you to track both projects and single tasks effortlessly. Concerning projects, you would probably just list the next step on your way to completion or, if there are several parts of the project you could work on at the same time, list them all. While processing the list you will the prioritize ad hoc.
      I agree with Ruben, give closed lists a try, it might turn out to be beneficial, as it keeps you on track and gives you direct feedback on your progress.

      1. Ruben & Fabian, Thanks for your suggestions and feedback. I slept on the ideas you presented and took a look at my planners and project tracking docs today. I noticed that several projects that took longer than expected or never completed tended to be open in the sense that new things kept emerging and appearing on the tasks lists. Perfectionism played a part and the idea of pursuing new leads and opportunities also contributed, but in some cases that led to projects growing out of their original scopes and goals and becoming too unwieldy and large to complete. The moral seems to be that, in some cases, pursuing opportunities without control or a big picture view leads to dead-ends and frustration. So, the idea of closure, of closed lists, offers a way to get things done and shipped so that I can work on the next step. Good leads to better, but perfect often leads nowhere.

        1. Oh, I feel you Greg! Perfectionism is still a big issue for me, though I’m getting better at accepting I will never reach it! ;)
          From what I read here, it looks like you could benefit – apart from closed lists – from setting fixed deadlines. Any way to do this? While it can be diificult for personal projects, committing publicly or in front of your family and friends to get something done by a certain date could certainly help.

          1. Fabian, I took a few days to go through my physical and computer folders and realized that I start new things with enthusiasm, but my completion rate leaves much to be desired. I streamlined my system to focus on closed lists and deadlines. I list all tasks on a single sheet of paper. I printed out a monthly calendar on a letter size sheet of paper and assign a few tasks (up to 5 or 6 to each day). I’m forced to keep a closed list this way. I highlight tasks associated with projects so that I can keep track of deadlines. Also, I plan to keep a tight rein on the number of active projects. I’ll finish one before I can start another one. I’ll see how this system works. I appreciate the insights you’ve given me on simplifying my productivity and time management system so that I spend more time on tasks rather than on maintaining the syst

  3. Very cool concept. I always wonder why I’m so anti-productivity. Well, no…it’s not that…it’s something else. I read books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Getting Things Done and I think they’re great, but I never actually fully implement them. There’s some sort of inner resistance I have. The one thing I do like for sure is that it is very, very helpful to write stuff down and just get it out of your head. This system seems a bit more simplistic and it’s what I’ve generally found I’ve reverted back to. That is, keep a notebook, list everything in that notebook and don’t treat tasks differently (e.g. projects, every day items, etc.). Kind of a, have it all in one place sort of system. I think this is a good place to start…from there people can adjust as needed.

    1. Thanks Nate! Whatever system you use really depends on how many tasks you have to handle. Getting used to carrying a notebook (or an iPod, a PDA, whatever) and writing everything down is the first step, but I personally urgently needed to do more reviews, so I hope that AF will help here. As Ruben, future tasks will probably just go into the calendar, or into Remember the Milk.

  4. This really is anarchy, instead of trying to fit into a GTD system you made the GTD fit you. Autofocus has some very powerful elements that caught my attention like: “One other result of the “little and often” approach is that ideas and insights naturally spring up as a result of one’s mind engaging with the task over a period of time. “
    Autofocus could be what I need, a less mass GTD so I can change direction quickly while still embracing constraints.

    Thanks for the focus Fabian.
    Viva the friendly-anarchist GTD Revolution.

    1. Thanks Jonathan, there is a pattern emerging, isn’t it?… There’s just no easy cure that helps us all, but we have to find our own way of approaching things. This is the friendly anarchism I’m talking about.
      I’m glad you like the “little and often” element of Mark Foster’s AF, let me know how it works for you!

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