This is a DRAFT guest post by Mark Forster, based on the version of Final Version from Mark Forster’s newsletter archives to eventually be published on the Beeminder blog. This intro blurb to be replaced with something more interesting, and of course point to our previous posts tagged “Mark Forster”. We could also include pointers to follow-ups from Mark mentioned in the “Yet to Come” section: how to run projects, using the Little and Often principle, FV in action, how to use FV to best effect, etc.
Here are the long-awaited instructions for the Final Version (FV) time management system. I don’t know if it’s the best time management system ever devised. What I do know is that it is the best time management system that I have ever used myself. It’s shown itself to be resilient, responsive and very quick.
FV is based on my earlier time management systems, particularly the extensive range of AutoFocus and SuperFocus systems developed over the last three years. These were unique in that they were constantly developing with the assistance of a large band of commenters on my website. Anyone who has tried one or more of these systems will recognize the strong family resemblance that they have with FV. The most striking resemblance is that they are all based on one long list (either paper or electronic) which can be used to capture just about every possible action that springs into one’s mind. There is a minimum of special markings or annotations.
Such a list depends on an effective algorithm to process it. There are three main requirements which have to be kept in balance. These are urgency, importance and psychological readiness. Traditional time management systems have tended to concentrate on the first two of these. The neglect of psychological readiness is probably the reason that most people don’t find time management systems particularly effective or congenial.
The most distinctive feature of FV is the way that its algorithm is primarily based on psychological readiness — this then opens the way to keeping urgency and importance in the best achievable balance.
The FV algorithm is loosely based on two powerful decision making methods — structured procrastination and Colley’s rule — though neither need be understood to use the finished algorithm.
The FV algorithm uses the question “What do I want to do before I do x?” to preselect a chain of tasks from the list. What exactly is meant by “want” in this context is deliberately left undefined. There may be a whole variety of reasons why you might want to do one thing before another thing and all of them are valid.
The chain always starts with the first unactioned task on the list. Mark this task with a dot to show that it’s now been preselected. Don’t take any action on the task at this stage.
This task then becomes the benchmark from which the next task is selected. For example, if the first task on the list is “Write Report”, the question becomes “What do I want to do before I write the report?” You move through the list in order until you come to a task which you want to do (not “must do”) before writing the report. This task is now selected by marking it with a dot and it becomes the benchmark for the next task. If the first task you come to which you want to do before writing the report is “Check Email”, then that becomes the benchmark. The question therefore changes to “What do I want to do before I check email?”
As you continue through the list you might come to “Tidy Desk” and decide you want to do that before checking email. Select this in the same way by marking it with a dot, and change the question to “What do I want to do before tidying my desk?” The answer to this is probably “nothing”, so you have now finished your preselection.
The preselected tasks in the example are:
Write report Check email Tidy desk
Do these in reverse order, i.e. Tidy desk, Check email, Write report. Note that as in all my systems, you don’t have to finish the task — only do some work on it. Of course if you do finish the task that’s great, but if you don’t then all you have to do is re-enter the task at the end of the list.
Once you have taken action on all the preselected tasks, preselect another chain of tasks starting again from the first unactioned task on the list.
That’s it! You’re now ready to go. Everything else is further examples and explanation.
In this example for ease of understanding no new tasks are added while working on the list. This of course is unlikely in real life.
Your initial list of tasks:
Email In-Tray Voicemail Project X Report Tidy Desk Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob Back Up
Put a dot in front of the first task:
• Email In-Tray Voicemail Project X Report Tidy Desk Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob Back Up
Now ask yourself “What do I want to do before I do Email?”
You work down the list and come to Voicemail. You decide you want to do Voicemail before doing Email. Put a dot in front of it as well:
• Email In-Tray • Voicemail Project X Report Tidy Desk Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob Back Up
Now ask yourself “What do I want to do before I do Voicemail?” You decide you want to tidy your desk.
• Email In-Tray • Voicemail Project X Report • Tidy Desk Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob Back Up
There are no tasks you want to do before tidying your desk, so now take action on the dotted tasks in reverse order:
Tidy Desk Voicemail Email
Your list will now look like this (I’ve removed the tasks that have been actioned but if you are using paper they will still be on the page but crossed out):
In-Tray Project X Report Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob Back Up
Now start again with the first unactioned task on the list, In-Tray, and repeat the same procedure. The only task you want to do before In-Tray is Back Up. As this is the last task on the list there are only two dotted tasks:
• In-Tray Project X Report Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob • Back Up
Do the two dotted tasks in reverse order:
Back Up In-Tray
So the list now looks like this:
Project X Report Call Dissatisfied Customer Make Dental Appointment File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob
So far the tasks have been relatively trivial, but the Project X Report is something that you have been putting off doing for a long time. So repeat the procedure:
• Project X Report Call Dissatisfied Customer • Make Dental Appointment • File Invoices Discuss Project Y with Bob
You now file your invoices, make a dental appointment and make a start on the Project X Report.
In your final pass through the list you Discuss Project Y with Bob and Call Dissatisfied Customer.
So the tasks on the original list have been done in the following order. The tasks in italics are the ones at the beginning of each scanning process.
Tidy Desk Voicemail Email Back Up In-Tray File Invoices Make Dental Appointment Project X Report Discuss Project Y with Bob Call Dissatisfied Customer
Notice what has happened here. The root tasks (the ones in italics) have been done in strict list order, regardless of importance, urgency or any other factor. Some of them are relatively easy (e.g. Email) and some are relatively difficult (e.g. Project X Report) or you are reluctant to do them (e.g. Call Dissatisfied Customer).
Each of the root tasks is preceded by a short ladder of tasks which are in the order in which you want to do them. The number and difficulty of the tasks in the ladder tend to reflect the difficulty of the root tasks.
The best way to sink any time management system is to overload it right at the beginning. FV is pretty resilient, but at this stage you aren’t. So build up the list gradually. My advice is to start off with the tasks and projects that are of immediate concern to you right now, and then add more as they come up in the natural course of things.
Tasks can be added at any level, e.g. Project X, Plan Restructuring, Call Pete, Tidy Desk.
If the first task on the list can’t be done now for some valid reason (e.g. wrong time of day, precondition not met, bad weather), then cross it out and re-enter it at the end of the list. Use the next task as your starting benchmark.
If at any stage you find that a task on the list is no longer relevant, then delete it.
If you find that your preselected list is no longer relevant (e.g. if you have had a long break away from the list), then scrap the preselection and reselect from the beginning. A shorter way to do this is to reselect only from the last preselected task which you haven’t done yet.
If one or more very urgent things come up, write them at the end of the list and mark them with a dot so that they are done next. If something already on the list becomes very urgent, then move it to the end of the list and mark it with a dot in the same way.
Remember that the aim of any time management system is to help you to get your work done, not get in the way of doing your work. So don’t be afraid to adjust priorities if you need to. However try to keep this to a minimum — stick to the rules whenever possible as they will ensure you deal with your work in a systematic way.
At the beginning of this article I said there were three factors which every time management system needs to address: urgency, importance and psychological readiness. Let’s see how FV deals with each of these.
Urgency. Because of the nature of the preselection process, urgent tasks tend to get selected — generally speaking the human brain wants to do things that it knows are urgent. If things come up that are particularly urgent they can be added to the preselected list at any time.
Importance. Generally speaking the human brain is a bit less keen on doing important stuff than it is on doing urgent stuff. This is particularly the case when the important stuff is difficult. However the FV preselection process ensures that tasks towards the beginning of the list are given as much attention as tasks towards the end of the list.
Psychological Readiness. This is where FV really enters new dimensions. By using a preselection process, the brain is softened up towards the selected tasks. But this isn’t all. The selection process is based on what you want to do. This colours the whole preselected list so that even the first task, which you may not have wanted to do at all, gets affected. In addition, doing the list in reverse order, with the least wanted task last, uses structured procrastination to get the tasks done.
There’s a surprising amount of cleverness in that simple protocol. Like the exploiting of structured procrastination, and GTD-style review.
Productivity porn promulgator Mark Forster has a system that some of you will like. He calls it Final Version, I guess because it’s the culmination of his previous systems (and past LifeHacker darlings) AutoFocus and SuperFocus. Here’s my summary: [insert what’s now the Quick Start section] It’s inspired by Structured Procrastination and Colley’s Rule and tries to counterbalance urgency, importance, and psychological readiness.
For comparison: bulletjournal.com
Nice simple implementation as a web app: blanclist.com
Discussion on Akratics Anonymous (precursor to the Beeminder forum)
TODO: follow up in this forum thread: http://forum.beeminder.com/t/380
1 is like an anytime algorithm for picking the most important task, 2 is leveraging your own dumb pscychology to keep you productive despite being all adhd, 3 is the anti-staleness measure, and 4 lets you capture everything that crosses your mind and mitigates the adhd
More on #4: I love the “distraction dumping” aspect of this system, where anything that pops into my head I can just add it to the list and trust that I’ll see it later. So I’m less tempted to let myself be distracted from the task in the current chain. By the time it pops up in a future chain I may decide it wasn’t important and I can just cross it off. But the key is that with so many unimportant tasks getting dumped in, I need to make sure important ones don’t die in that sea. Which Forster’s system accomplishes beautifully.