Mark Forster’s Autofocus System to “Get Everything Done”

Mark Forster’s Autofocus System to “Get Everything Done”

A reader pointed out Mark Forster’s Autofocus System to me recently, and I think it’s worth passing along. Autofocus is a methodology for handling the stuff you want to do by using a simple ruled notebook to maintain the list, and then trusting a set of rules for processing them into doneness. I know we’ve all heard that before, but there’s a deeper insight and elegance in his approach that I really like. In particular, I like this insight of Mark’s (from the what can I expect from the system section):

Focus on what is important. It’s very difficult to focus on what is important with one’s rational mind alone, because what your conscious mind thinks is important may not be what your subconscious mind thinks is important. What I’ve found is that looking back on what I’ve done I can see that the focus produced by the system feels “right” – right for me in my current circumstances.

In other words, it’s the balance between your rational and subconscious that’s addressed in the processing. You use your rational mind to add things to the end of your list in your notebook. You process a single page at a time, scanning line-by-line thoughtfully and picking what jumps out at you. You work on for as long as you like. If you don’t finish it, you add it back to the end of the list. Stuff that ends up hanging around and doesn’t jump out at you (what I might call the “meh” response) after the line-by-line gets purged and not re-entered…which I love. You could go re-enter it, but Mark suggests that you give it some time.

Anyway, the system tickles me enough that I’m going to try it this week. I’ve been feeling the need to build myself a brain box to get my head focused for January 2010, but perhaps it’s my mental operating system that needs an upgrade instead. I’ll probably end up doing both :-)

So check it out… there are multiple translations, downloadable booklets, and forums as well!


  1. TesTeq 13 years ago

    You wrote: “Autofocus is a methodology for handling the stuff you want to do”. And that’s exactly the difference between Autofocus and GTD. If you use GTD you process the stuff to convert it into actionable Projects and Next Actions. There’s no such step in Autofocus so it can only be used as a methodology to maintain GTD’s @context lists.

  2. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    TesTeq: I’m not quite following your logic, but I think you’re saying that as Autofocus lacks the next-action/project filtering process, so therefore it is only useful for managing @context lists. I don’t see how you are drawing this conclusion.

    The important difference for me, from the 5-minute reading I did of Autofocus and my own reading of GTD, is that Autofocus has a much simpler mechanism to meet the demands of the subconscious brain in the process, whereas GTD processes do not integrate those desires into its own process. GTD, instead, uses an understanding of our subconscious as the primary motivator (the whole “relax” aspect), but relies on harnessing the rational side of our brain to do everything else. The promise of GTD is if you do all the steps, you will ultimately have a great picture of where you are and will be getting things done, and it offers a set of methodologies that frame this. If you are able to stay the course and harness your brain to perform the methodologies, you’ll get things done. However, I find it very tiring and ill-suited to MY brain, which has a very active subconscious say in things. Sure, I’d get things done, but I feel like a slave to a machine of my own making. This is why I don’t use GTD.

    Autofocus, on the other hand, acknowledges that there’s stuff we want to do, but we’re not going to feel like doing it all. What is important to trust in, however, is that when things ARE getting done, that’s still good. There’s a mechanism for getting rid of items that we put down perhaps optimistically, and an associated cost. It harnesses the INTENTION we have to do things, but uses our subconscious desires and energy levels to select which tasks to do WITHOUT having to quantify them. That’s the part that I regard as being really insightful.

    If I were to make mechanical analogies, GTD is sort of like a 4-stroke combustion engine, whereas Autofocus is a 2-stroke cycle. GTD more cleanly burns through tasks, but is more complex. Autofocus blurs the lines and burns tasks at the expense of not all of them getting done, but it still generates quite a bit of power with a simpler set of rules.

  3. Avrum 13 years ago

    Watch AF in action (see PDF)

  4. Alan 13 years ago

    I think your reply is spot-on David.  Autofocus, with the addition of a tickler and project files can and does completely replace GTD.  Me, I failed using GTD, but I’m achieving all the GTD goals with AutoFocus.  GTD segments work into separate steps of Processing, Organizing, Planning, Review. 

    The AutoFocus philosophy is “little and often”, which means the AF list can include tasks (next actions), projects, and goals. When you get to an item, you decide whether to do it, and what to do about it.

    PS. Be sure to read AF version 4 rules.  Your blog quote seems to describe version 1.  The original rules work well, but most people think v4 is best.

  5. David Drake 13 years ago

    I have been using Autofocus since version 1.  I am now using AF4 and feel it is a fantastic system.  There are many good things about GTD, but AF is so much more simple, and I have found that I spend more time doing things versus maintaining my time management system.  I cannot believe how productive I have been with AF4. And isn’t that what it is all about?  I cannot say enough good things about Autofocus.  People, you MUST try this and tell all of your friends about it!

    Best wishes,

  6. Zane 13 years ago

    I agree with David, AF4 is a great system and very simple. I’ve been using it for months and have never felt more on top of the many things I’m working on.

  7. Avrum 13 years ago

    I used AF4, but have since returned to choosing 3-5 daily MITs. However I’ve adopted the following from Mark:

    1) Little and often
    2) Intuition for choosing daily tasks
    3) Removing stale tasks after a specified time

  8. slothbear 13 years ago

    I’ve been using AutoFocus for the past year—since it came out.  If you want a really structured “know what I’m doing today” system, then skip it.  But if you like variety, intuition, and synchronicity, try it!

    To me, the magic part of the system is the “dismissal” step.  You really really wanted to read all the works of Shakespeare.  But you haven’t done *anything* towards that goal by the time the autofocus system brings it up for dismissal.  bye bye … or Do Something!

  9. Avrum Nadigel 13 years ago

    Ah hell, I’ve reconfig The Hit List to be used with AF4. I want to play in the same sandbox as Seah.

  10. Titch 13 years ago

    I too have been using AutoFocus since Day1 and have worked through its various iterations. I agree with David D and Zane that for me it has provided a fantastic base which has enabled me to keep on top of multiple tasks and areas of responsibility both personally and professionally.
    I now use AF4 as my catch all to do’s in a notebook and combine it with 43 folders approach to manage time sensitive, future and recurring tasks. If I have something which qualifies as a project or have a period of time where I have some real must do’s or limited discretionary time, I use some David Seah’s brilliant tools to manage those specific items and time frames but AF4 underpins it all. I have never been happier that I have control over what i have to do by being in a position to make informed choices as I have a true handle on what really are the demands on me & my time.
    Oh, and I’ve been learning to say No (nicely) to stop myself getting overloaded, and work out solutions to manage expectations, this I can do beacuse I know and can demonstrate what I have already on my plate.

  11. Avrum Nadigel 13 years ago

    David – curious how your AF4 journey is going? Thanks to your post, I’m back on the bandwagon.

  12. David Drake 13 years ago

    Hi Avrum,

    Things are going quite well with AF4.  I have found that if I stick with the rules as Mark had orginally described, the workflow goes much better.  I still have aspects of GTD in my system in terms of processing input, maintaining a list of projects, and a waiting for list….but my main work list is processed by AF4 rules.  I use to have several contexts when doing GTD, but now I only have two—work and home.  I have a separate notebook for the two places.

    I hope this helps…


  13. David Drake 13 years ago

    Hi David,

    So how has it gone with Autofocus 4?  Have you had a chance last week to give it a try?


  14. David Drake 13 years ago

    Sorry, Avrum.  I just realized that your question on how things were going with AF4 was directed to Dave Seah, not me.  Duh!

    Sorry…but AF4 IS going quite well for me!

    Best wishes,

  15. Federico Figueredo 13 years ago

    Thank you very much for the heads up on this. It sounds quite interesting and I will try to give it a go for a couple of weeks to see if I can find some use out of it.

    While GTD does make use of your intuition (and quite heavily I believe) this system does feel more relaxed. I was often stressed to make sure that the GTD backend was really working 100% or everything would blow up. That includes maintaining precise lists, checking calendar/tickler and reviewing project planning sheets (of which I have a gazillion of.)

    Let’s see if Mr. Forster can give me a hand.

  16. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    I probably *am* using AF1. I just went to look up AF4, and see it gets rid of page-based chunks and implements a backlog/active list. That’s pretty cool too.

    I’ve been using the AF system with the moleskine notebook, and primarily it’s been a good tool for maintaining my focus and not letting it wander too far. The chunking was very helpful, along with the idea that I could just purge stuff. I’ll try the backlog-based method.

    One silly thing that bothers me is that I don’t like using highlighters on ink…it makes the highlighter end get dirty and smudgy! I’ve just been crossing things out with a straight line, and “purging” things by using wavy crossouts. This way I can look back and see what got nuked, in case I wanted to revisit it.

  17. Avrum Nadigel 13 years ago

    David –

    Because I’m using AF on a computer (The Hit List), I avoid all of the pen/paper issues that many complain of.

  18. Federico Figueredo 13 years ago

    Before each item draw a circle. You can use a dot inside the circle for items that you’re working on, or paint it with the marker (don’t touch the ink!) for items that you’ve dismissed.

    Note: This is less efficient than highlighting the whole item if you’re doing a full page scan, but I believe more than just crossing stuff out. Our eyes are able to pick up the color mark on peripheral vision.

  19. David Drake 13 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    What do you think?  Are you like me and feel that you have been more productive than ever with Autofocus 4?  I find it amazing that a system so simple works so well.

    I am looking forward to your assessment of Mark Forster’s Autofocus 4!

    Best wishes,

  20. Bruce Jackson 13 years ago

    Hi David,

    Thanks for bringing AF4 to my attention – it really is a brilliant system and has helped get me out of a rut I’ve been in for several months.

    As I’m a Windows Mobile user (yes there are still a few of us) I decided to use AF4 to help me create a program to USE it – enter Auto List which I’ll release for free on my website in the next few days

  21. David Drake 13 years ago

    Check out the posting on Mark Forster’s website.  He is coming up with yet another, new time management system!


  22. David Drake 13 years ago

    Hi David,

    Any thoughts about Mark’s new DWM system?  Have you tried it?  It is intriguing to say the least. 


  23. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    David Drake: I just went to go see what it was about. Haven’t tried it! I scanned the descriptive post and got the impression that it’s a foresight management system. I’ve been coming increasingly to the idea that any system works if practiced regularly, so long as it maintains SOME way of managing foresight even indirectly, so it comes down to what the minimum set of mechanics one needs to address the day-to-day and foresight elements efficiently, and whether the feedback you get is enough to keep you motivated for an extended period of time.

  24. David Drake 13 years ago

    Hi David,

    Very good points!  After trying out his new system at least four times now—digital and paper—I am going back to Autofocus 4 as it works better for me.  As for hard due date tasks and projects, I track these as entries as tasks in Outlook 2007.  A good combination for me!

    Your thoughts on Autofocus 4—and how about the classic—‘Do it Tomorrow”?  There is still some great things with Mark’s classic system.

  25. David Drake 13 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    You stated in another post that you liked Autofocus 1 better than Autofocus 4.  I am intrigued by this and would love to hear why you have this preference.  Would you be willing to share your thoughts on AF1 versus AF4?


  26. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Hey David,

    I like AutoFocus 1 primarily because it’s based on pages, whereas AutoFocus 4 has the refinement with the lines marking the difference between backlog and active list to keep one list.

    When I’m writing in a small notebook, the page oriented aspect fits better, and I like scanning a page entirely and then deciding to nuke it and never returning to it. I also like being able to put active tasks more in the future by skipping ahead a few pages.

    AF4 is a nice refinement as well, but I just like the page orientation and sublists that I can forget about. There is otherwise no other reason. AF4 is a nice system too.