Unlock Your Productivity Potential: Mastering Autofocus, the River-like To-Do List System
The Issue with Traditional To-Do Lists
In one of the emails Oliver Burkeman, author of Time Management for Mortals, sent out to his subscribers, he discussed how we typically view our to-do lists as buckets that need to be emptied every day.
Burkeman points out that the issue with the to-do list is that it never completely empties. As we check off some tasks, new ones are added in. It’s like the Magic Beer Floating Faucet Fountain that used to be sold at Spencer’s in 1990, along with black lights and bags of reindeer poop.
Because we treat our to-do list as a bucket that needs to be emptied before it overflows, we become stressed by the fact that it always remains full. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we continue to hold onto the expectation that one day, if we work hard enough or find the right organizational system, we will finally catch up.
The River Analogy: A Better Approach
There is a better alternative to living in this tense and unsatisfying state of productivity limbo where we constantly feel like failures.
Burkeman argues that in order to reduce the stress associated with our to-do lists, we need to change the analogy we use to perceive it, from a bucket to a river.
When we go backpacking and stop at a river to fill up our hydration pack, we never think, “I need to capture ALL of this water that’s flowing by me.” That would be 1) impossible, and 2) silly.
Instead, we take what we need and continue on with our hike, without giving a second thought to all the water left behind.
We should approach life’s tasks and chores in the same manner.
The Autofocus Method & Its Benefits
Burkeman’s analogy of viewing the to-do list as a river reminded me of a productivity method I used years ago with great success that approached tackling life’s tasks from a similar perspective.
Developed by writer and productivity expert Mark Forster, it is called the Autofocus method.
Unlike most to-do list systems, Autofocus eliminates categories, due dates, and priorities. You simply create one extensive list of tasks (your river) and then work on whatever task naturally captures your focus when you review the list. This approach to productivity offers several benefits:
- It acknowledges that your to-do list is a river. The Autofocus method recognizes your to-do list as a rushing stream that constantly brings in new tasks that need to be done. You can’t do them all. The river will never be “done.” Instead of feeling overwhelmed by this continuous flow of tasks, you simply dip your hand into the current and tackle the task that feels right to do in that moment. Rather than excessively worrying about the other tasks, you go with the flow.
- It combines reason and emotion in decision-making. Forster argues that the Autofocus method combines both the rational and intuitive aspects of your mind. You do what you think and feel needs to be done at that particular time. The emotional aspect is important. If you don’t feel like doing something or don’t have the desire to do it, chances are you won’t do it.
- It encourages consistent, incremental progress. Autofocus promotes a “little and often” approach to large tasks. With this method, you work on something for as long as you want, and if you don’t finish it, you cross it off and add it back to the bottom of the list. You can work on it again when you feel it’s the right time.
- It restores trust in yourself. It may seem like such a simple “system” couldn’t possibly be effective. That’s because most productivity systems operate on the assumption that you can’t trust yourself; they believe that you are inherently lazy and won’t accomplish anything without strict schedules and deadlines. But what if you think of yourself that way because you’ve only ever tried to tackle tasks based on external schedules and deadlines? Maybe you’re not lazy at all, maybe that’s just not an effective approach, and you might actually be more productive if you focus on doing what you feel like doing each day. Perhaps you’ll discover that you have plenty of motivation to complete tasks once you regularly prompt yourself to consider what you’re up for doing and allow yourself to choose what you want to work on.
How to Use the Autofocus Method
Forster has made some modifications to his system over time, but I prefer the simple version I used in the past. There isn’t much to it beyond what we’ve already discussed: create one comprehensive to-do list, review the list, and work on the task that stands out to you.
However, there are a few additional elements and strategies that help keep the system on track. Here are Forster’s instructions and more details about how to implement it:
- In a notebook, create a single, long list of everything you need or want to do. Write one item per line.
- Quickly read through all the items on the first page without taking action on any of them. This is simply to familiarize yourself with the stream of tasks before you.
- Go through the first page again, this time at a slower pace, examining each item in order until one stands out to you. Forster considers this to be the heart of the system. When you look at an item, you know it stands out when you feel that now is the time to do it. Forster describes this feeling as difficult to explain but easy to recognize.
- Work on that item for as long as you feel like doing so.
- Cross off the item from the list and re-enter it at the end of the list if you haven’t completed it yet. This is the part of Autofocus that encourages a “little and often” approach. For instance, if you have a task to clean the garage, you add it to your list, do it when you feel it’s the right time, clean for as long as you want, and then put it back at the bottom of the list if it’s not finished. You can work on it again when the time is right.
- Review the first page again in the same manner. Do not move on to the second page until you have completed a pass of the first page without any item standing out.
- Proceed to the next page and repeat the process. Whenever you have time, review your list to see if there are any tasks that you feel compelled to complete. Regularly looking at the list is crucial for success with Autofocus because tasks that need attention don’t typically come to mind automatically; you have to prompt yourself to consider what you can accomplish.
- Once you have finished with the final page, start again with the first active page. Repeat the process.
- If you reach a page and none of the items stand out during your slow pass, dismiss all the outstanding items on that page without re-entering them. (Unless it’s the last page where you continue to add new items.)
- Use a highlighter to mark dismissed items. This is how you filter items from your river of tasks. Dismissing an item doesn’t mean it has to be permanently discarded. It may not be the task you need to focus on right now, but it might become relevant in a few months or next year. Feel free to revisit dismissed items occasionally to see if you feel they should be added back to your active list.
- When all the items on a page in your notebook are crossed off or highlighted, put an X in the top corner to indicate that there are no incomplete tasks on that page anymore. The X designates an inactive page that no longer requires your attention. As new tasks arise, add them to the end of the list.
What I appreciate about this method is that it treats your to-do list as the river it is and encourages you to combine reason with intuition to do what’s right for you at the moment. As a result, your to-do list feels less overwhelming and can even be enjoyable to tackle.
Since Autofocus doesn’t rely on dates, it’s important to combine it with a calendar system to account for time-sensitive tasks such as appointments and deadlines for submitting forms.
For more details about Autofocus, visit Mark’s website. I also highly recommend reading his books on productivity. They offer valuable insights on combining reason and intuition to accomplish essential tasks in harmony with life’s continuous flow.