Thinking about New Year’s resolutions? If your personal task management system could use a little overall, read on. The free, easy to implement and easy to use AutoFocus 4 can help you stay organized in 2010.
What is AutoFocus?
Autofocus is a time management system developed by Mark Forster. It is based on the principle of having one unprioritized list of everything you have to do. Before you decide that this cannot possibly work, or that it is the same as any other to-do list, read through the How Does It Work section below. The very few rules of the system are simple, elegant, and work quite well.
Mark describes the benefits of the autofocus system as follows:
- Greatly increased volume of work completed
- Focus on the most important things
- Lack of stress
- Very fast processing of routine items
- Thorough processing of major tasks/projects through a “little and often” approach
What supplies do you need
This is a low-tech system1. All you need to do Autofocus well is a small ruled notebook, a pen, and a highlighter.
I’ve found campus slim B5 notebooks excellent, though these may be hard to come by outside of NYC (or Japan). This notebook from staples should work equally well.
You’ll want to keep your notebook with you to capture all items as they occur.
How much does it cost?
Mark has provided the system free of charge. If you like it, you could send him a note or post a message on the active Autofocus discussion forum. I’m sure he would appreciate it.
Why are there different Autofocus versions?
Each of the revisions of Autofocus have incorporated changes based on feedback from early adopters of the system. The consensus on the forum seems to be that AF4 is ready for public consumption and general use.
How does Autofocus differ from Getting Things Done?
Getting Things Done requires quite a bit of structural maintenance to be effective. The weekly review, which David Allen emphasizes as a key to GTD, is one of the most difficult things for GTD users to do consistently. GTD users often can fall into a pattern of spending more time on the system than actually doing tasks.
If you use GTD, or have in the past, Autofocus can work very well for you. All the key principles of GTD can be used with Autofocus (e.g. ticklers, one list, reviews, someday-maybe). Having said this, Autofocus is a unique system and is best started on its own. You can always add other pieces to it later after you’ve used it for a few weeks or a month.
This is how you start for the first time2
- Open your notebook to the first page.
- Add each task that’s in your mind right now. Place each task on its own line. Place tasks in whatever order they occur to you. One task = one line. It’s not necessary or recommended to add all the tasks from any other systems you may have here.
- When you’ve added all the things that are in your mind right now, draw a line underneath your last item. Everything above this line is called the Closed List.
- As new tasks come up, continue to add them one per line. All of these tasks below the line are called the Open List.
This is how you use the system
- Read through each item on the closed list in order. Work on any task which feels ready to be done. Cross out any task you have worked on too long and re-enter at the end of the Open List if you have more work to do on it.
- When you reach the line, start again at the top of the Closed List. Move through the closed list tasks in order until you’ve moved through all closed list tasks without any tasks standing out to you as ready to be done.
- Move now to the Open List. Move through the Open List in order working on any tasks that are ready to be done. Make only one pass through the Open List. At the end of that pass, move back to the start of the Closed List and continue from step 1.
When all the tasks in the closed list have been crossed out, draw a line under the open list. This now becomes the new closed list.
What to do if no items on the closed list stand out on the first pass
This usually happens after you’ve gone through your closed list many times. In this case, use your highlighter to highlight every task on the closed list which has not been crossed out. Proceed once through the open list. The next time you come to the closed list, look at each highlighted item. If none stand out for you to do on this next pass, consider each one individually. You can:
- Add it as is to the bottom of the open list (not recommended), or
- Rephrase or break into multiple tasks adding each to the open list, or
- Decide not to do the item and forget about it.
After reviewing each highlighted item, cross it out completely. When you have reviewed all of the highlighted items, make a new line at the end of your open list. This now becomes your closed list.
This is all you have to know to use Autofocus. Easy, right? Again, don’t let that put you off. This is a remarkable system for getting amazing quantities of work done. Best yet, it’s a fun system to use.
How do you handle projects?
Projects are best handled outside of Autofocus. Some people add the project name to their Autofocus lists. When they come to the project name, they move to their project system and work on it as long as it feels right to do. They then cross out the project name from the Autofocus list and add it again to the end if the project still needs work.
I keep a “Targets” notebook which includes my current personal and work goals and projects. For each project I have a page with all my open tasks. I add these tasks to my Autofocus log whenever I review my projects (weekly), or at any other time that is appropriate. This feels a little casual after using GTD for so long, but it works.
In my Autofocus log, I have a separate section for these items. If I need to discuss something with Joe, I add an entry to the agenda section like this:
(A Joe) What is the plan for project x. Is it on for January 1?
If Pat is supposed to get a file to me by a certain date, I add an entry to the agenda section like this:
(W Pat) December Hours Excel File (15-Jan)
This makes it easy to follow up and/or work efficiently with other people without harassing them or letting things drop.
Mark Forster has created a wonderfully powerful system in Autofocus. You’ll only see how good it is if you try it.
- Autofocus 4 can be done electronically. Check the Autofocus forum for on-line and other implementations. [↩]
- You can also read Mark’s preliminary instructions for Autofocus 4. [↩]
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