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A conversation with Mark Forster

Last week I had the privilege of talking with Mark Forster, a time management author and time/life coach who is well known in the UK, where he lives. His site is www.markforster.net and his blog is here. In this post I'll share some of Mark's insights that came up. Note that the discussion covered a lot of ground, so there's no particular order here. Thanks to Mark for sharing his time; I hope you enjoy it!

His Background

Mark started his professional life as a British army officer, which he did for 22 years, them moved on to the Church of England as a Stewardship adviser (essentially doing fund raising for parishes) for "quite a long time." He started coaching in 1997, and worked part-time until 2001 when his first book (Help Yourself Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play) came out. He then moved into full-time coaching, and published two more books - How to Make Your Dreams Come True and his very popular self-management book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management.

Regarding his coaching, he calls himself "The Time Freedom Coach," and his niche is time management and personal organization, but also does general life coaching. He points out that "time management and personal organization have ramifications for the whole of one's life," which I think we'd all agree with. We're not just managing our time, but our choices in life, so self-management really can't be extracted from everything else. (That's why I'm so excited about coaching - the process of mastering GTD has significantly changed all of my life, and for the better!)

At this time in his life he plans on stopping coaching (he'll finish up with his existing coaching relationships by the end of the year) and concentrating entirely on writing, possibly continuing to do some seminars (he enjoys them).

On time management

To learn Mark's ideas, he recommends his latest book (Do It Tomorrow), though his other book on the subject (Help Yourself Get Everything Done is good too, but different. NB: For people ordering in the US, you might try ordering via one of the Amazon Marketplace Sellers, who might get it to you sooner (my copy is 3-4 weeks out, I'm told).

Though the focus of the interview wasn't on his book, we did talk a bit about time management. He says we should think about lists last. Instead we have to first envision, imagine, and generally think out things before we get to the lists. In other words, we must be clear what our work is. Many people have trouble being productive because a) they've taken on too much, and b) they're not enthusiastic about it. He says that when we're doing something we love (i.e., when we're in tune with it) "we hardly need time management at all." He encourages clients to first go through what they're doing and asking why they're doing it. He says this is especially important when starting a new career, in which you should keep your eye on the bottom line, and ask "What is it you do that actually earns the money?" The real answer might be surprising, and take you in a different direction.

For more on his work, you might enjoy the following: Fooling the reactive mind: Mark Forster’s time management system and DonationCoder's week four+five assignment, which has a summary of the system (search for "3. A Short Course on Mark Forster's Ideas").

To whet your appetite, here's a quote from a participant of the donationcoder challenge:
I think this Forster system has great potential to become a next craze in that it is several orders of magnitude simpler than GTD. DIT is simpler in that there is no need to keep record of importance, energy levels, contexts, etc. It also delimits when your job is done (which is important if you want to have a life).
I'll be writing about the book once it arrives.

The creative process, especially books

His first book (Help Yourself Get Everything Done) came out of a time management seminar he'd been running. He claims by nature he is "the most disorganized person in the entire world," which means his work isn't abstract (he says some "gurus" are by nature very organized) - he's developed his system to keep him from reverting (given half a chance there's always something he "has" to pay attention to). This is a theme I've heard elsewhere - David Allen's story comes to mind.

Mark tried all the usual techniques, but had difficulty keeping them up, so he developed his own ideas. He says the problem with standard advice (to-do lists, prioritizing, etc.) is that they don't work, or so many people wouldn't still be attending! (I think this could be said of GTD as well - in any workshop you'll find a large contingent of people repeating the course - not that that's a bad thing, but interesting...)

He found that the seminar in which he presented these new techniques was "incredibly successful," and (you gotta love this) one of the attendees suggested a book, and connected him to her publisher friend. It turns out the publisher was starting a time management series, liked Mark's book, and it got done. (What I love about this story is that he put his work out into the world, it came back amplified, and it flowed - demonstrating some of my favorite themes: networking, following the energy, and being open to surprise by listening.)

However, when I asked him how to get published, he says hasn't the faintest idea. He says it's simply timing and synchronicity, but of course there's a lot of work behind that. See for example How To Make Your Own Luck, and this idea from Rules of the Red Rubber Ball:
Expect the unexpected.
Roll with the punches knowing coincidence can happen. Embrace it. It may strengthen your faith in who you are and what your passion in life is.

Having your own consultancy, networking, and purpose

We talked a bit about being a self-employed consultant, and Mark shared that, in his work up until now, the publicity and marketing are what makes business. He gave this example: You can't do more coaching unless you have more clients, so we have to go out and get them. But what activities accomplish this? Not getting more training or joining a local coaching chapter. Yes standards are important, but they're not actually what make the money. Same with networking (professional parties, dues, etc.) These often become goal in their own rights, but they don't get new clients. The networking is there to make contact for their business. He says "When you go to a networking venue you have to really focus on what you're trying to achieve there. For example, You Want To Come Away With X number of contacts who you can ring up the next day. Otherwise, it's just a waste of time." He notes that this is not a time management problem (i.e., simply crossing networking off the list). To me it's a case of "doing the right work," not "doing the work right" (quote due to Peter Drucker).

He says he sees life as a process of self-examination to see what values you want to follow, and what values you actually are following. For example, a man might say he values family, but works until midnight every night and weekend, and never actually sees them. In this case there's a cognitive dissonance: his actions don't match his values.

Another example is people who say they want to make lots of money. But it's what you do with the money is what counts. He asks people "What do you want to increase your income for?" Items that come up include vacations, security in old age, etc. Only then you can pursue those things directly. For example, "being free of debt" is different (and possibly easier) than "earn 1M pounds."

Freeing your mind, creativity, and chaos

Mark likes to use lists to get of all his work as quickly as possible during the day - what he calls "the administrative stuff that accompanies life" - so that it doesn't slow him down. Then he can do whatever he likes the rest of the day. This happens relatively rarely, but it's his ideal - not to fill the whole working day with work, but to deal with it then do what he wants. He says lists are great for the administrative stuff, but not for the creativity. Also, if you're spending all your time worrying about those things (report delayed, taxes, etc.) then your creativity isn't going anywhere - it's been bogged down in chaos and disorganization. That said, there's a degree of chaos that's creative, but "if it gets too great it will swamp you." He elaborated by saying the most creative things he has done have always come out of chaos.

Mistakes in becoming a consultant

He says he's made a number of mistakes, but then again "if I hadn't made the mistakes I probably wouldn't have discovered how to do it the right way". His biggest tip for transitioning from a fully-paid job to a independent effort? He says you can't set up a business if it's not adequately financed. If you have to worry where the money for the mortgage or the next meal is going to come from on a regular basis, you're not going to be making the decisions that are going to put you where you want to be 3-4 years down the road, which is the horizon you should be aiming at. To get adequate financing, you need enough money to feed yourself for 1-3 years. And you must be prepared to loose it (no guarantees)! Otherwise, if you're not willing to borrow or spend it, have to work part-time, which, of course, "stretches the old time management quite a bit." (Yes! In my case, GTD has enabled me to do much more than possible in the past, which seems to be required.)

And most importantly: Keep your eye on ball. He kept getting distracted ("it's very easy - there are so many things you can do"). It's crucial to keep pushing on in the right direction. Naturally this implies you know the direction, which can be unclear.

Selling time management consulting

I asked Mark about the difficulty of selling time management, to which he said "don't really have to sell it - everyone knows they need it." However, he also states you can't appeal to everyone - all you need is enough people to keep you in the
style you're accustomed to - maybe only one person in a million. So he encourages us to sell to a specific person. (Tip: Visualize and describe your ideal client in great detail - give him a name, pretend he's a real person, and imagine where they live, what they do, who their friends are, what clubs do they belong to, whether they're single, etc.) His point is that we're just aiming for one person - and this will draw in others who are similar. In other words, you don't need it to be bought by everyone - it's better to sell a specialized service to specialized people ("it's not like washing powder").

Satisfaction doing coaching

I asked Mark what motivates his coaching. He said he gets tremendous satisfaction when someone "gets" it (something I've experienced - see The thrill of witnessing an "Aha!"), but notes that we can't depend on it. Techniques are one thing (they can transform clients' lives), but the skill of coaching comes in when it's a struggle for them; we must analyze what's happening, how to make right, etc. We must also look at why it didn't work, which is often where further ideas come from (in general).

Creating seminars

We talked about creating workshops, and he agreed that they are quite difficult to do. In his case, Mark started with the seminar, then wrote the book (same process for both books). His three hour ones are not interactive (not enough time), and it's tough to keep the content short enough to fit. You will always run out of time, so it's about being selective. He likes the blog format better because you always have more to say than time available. His rules for content: First, have three main points, and make sure they come across. Second, Tell 'Em What You're Gonna Tell 'Em....

One challenge with time management presentations in particular: Attendees might have many different kinds of jobs (customer service, management, etc,) so we have to be aware of what their jobs are to make it relevant. For example, how managing directors and secretaries look at work is very different - the latter have basically been told what to do, whereas the former have a practically infinite choice. (I'm not in total agreement on this - there's a lot of overlap with "work" - that's what's universal about Allen's approach.)

Favorite inputs

I asked Mark what his most valuable inputs are. He mentioned two blogs - Seth Godin and Steve Pavlina (whom he often disagrees with), and a bunch of books (found here and here), including:
GTD comparison

We didn't talk much about GTD - I'll write about Mark's method once I get his book. However, he did say he likes the ideas in GTD the best, after his own. His worries? First, he thinks the method is very complicated. And second, at the end of the day, you still have more to do than possible ("you can't get through the lot"), which Mark thinks hasn't quite settled the problem? His perspective on what's important: the choice needs to be made at the right time, and must take into account where the work comes from - the commitments we've made (or have been made for us). Therefore, in order to cut our work down, we can't just cut items off the list. Instead, we have to reduce our commitments - an arduous process.

One tip: When making a commitment, we must be clear with ourselves about what we're not committing to. He gives the example of marriage (where we commit to not sleeping with someone else). In other words, we make a choice which then leads to consequences. However, at work we forget that and try to do everything else as well. He says "We forget that our commitments define the boundaries of what our work is, as well the work itself. Having too many commitments is always the way to ensure than none of them get done properly."

Final question

I asked Mark the interview meta question: "What haven't I asked you that you have a good answer to?" His first thought was about managing ourselves: "The question is not what priority something is, it's whether we should be doing it at all."

He also said "Spending time on systems is never, ever wasted." For example, when setting up a new business, the usual limitation is how many clients you can get. However, after some success, the limitation becomes how many clients you can handle. The latter is a function of how good your systems are. In his book DIT, he has you pay attention to all your systems, which depends on the nature of your work. Examples include filing, invoices, payments, customer inquiries, etc. If these are not working well before they're needed, you will have a huge problem coping with the demand, since most people are hardly able to keep up with what they have already.

Finally, he says "Always leave time to think." Thinking "appears to be the most expendable item. We must have time to strategize, or your business will go nowhere." The risk is doing a lot of work, but not being rewarded for it.

Other Mark Forster interviews

Here are a few podcasts of interviews with Mark:

Reader Comments (17)

Fantastic write up, Matt. I really enjoyed talking to you!

November 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMark Forster

Matt, I enjoyed this post alot. Lots of great info. Thanks for sharing! ... Josh

November 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Hinds


Your interview is so good that I think we will have another good book to read. I like the elegance you compare methods. I learnt a bit more about DIT through your comments.

"The question is not what priority something is, it's whether we should be doing it at all."

Thanks a lot!

November 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSilvia

Mark, Josh, and Silvia: Thanks very much!

November 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This is a deeply insightful post. A gift, really. As a creative type who is always interested in solutions for personal growth and achievement, I will be re-reading this post, and this blog, carefully. I have gone ahead and added your blog to my blogroll at successbooks.blogspot.com and I look forward to exploring this fine blog in the future.

November 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks, Manny. I do like your [ blog | http://successbooks.blogspot.com ].

November 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Mark Forster's methods are outstanding if you are a "blocked" procrastinator like me - he literally saved me from being fired. I still go back to his "you can do ten minutes of anything" method when I'm most stressed. He's refreshingly "non-suit" as well, there's no slick hard sell, just revelations that when you understand them seem like common sense. I also found a link to flylady on his site, which has helped me rethink my domestic routines as well - not bad for a "bloke"!

November 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSarah, England

moving lists last is so on the money. what i'm discovering these days is the lists are powerful resources to my commitments and outcomes - that's what i hear skimming the interview!

November 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChinarut

I have been using Mark Forster's methods from Do It Tomorrow for just over a year and found them life changing. While I have no wish to attack GTD, because it is clearly wildly popular, to anyone who has pursued DIT, GTD seems bewilderingly complicated, to no discernable advantage.

November 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

spelling: search for "this this" and "made made"

November 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Excellent post, Matt!

I'm happy to see you keep pursuing the best way to do something, and not just go the GTD route. This way I learn so much more from you :)

Indeed, I think what Mark mentions is the thing most absent from GTD, the higher up values stage.

GTD is great for sorting things on the ground, but doesn't do much to address the higher ups like mission. I've got so many lists that the real question wasn't how I could do them all, but whether I wanted to at all.

And this 'thinking' thing that Mark mentions we don't take enough time to do often seems to be the ticket to helping me get sorted out :)

November 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

sara, chinarut, david, alvin: Thanks very much for your comments. I'm quite looking forward to learning more about Mark's methods.

November 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks for catching those, anonymous! I've corrected them.

November 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


As always an interesting take on things.

I've read all of Mark's books and have applied his ideas.

Sarah said it best when she said the methods help "blocked" procrastinators. Clearly I don't fall into this category but I have a close friend who does...ahem...

Following Mark's suggestions lead to having a more structured working day I think. He has some good ideas about how to just get into the stuff you have to do.

The reason I don't use his systems very often is that my work, as a lawyer, is very "bitty" and I have to change tacks frequently throughout the day. If it weren't for interruptions for example I'd have half my work but handling the interruptions is partly what I get paid to do.

One of the strengths of the GTD system for me is its adapability and the fact that it's so simple to keep running without a lot of effort.

December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMagicfuture5

Great comments, Magicfuture5. I esp. appreciated your thoughts re: DIT and GTD. Thanks for reading!

December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Hi there,

I really enjoyed reading this (although of course it's many moons ago now!). I'm an avid fan of both DIT and GTD. I oscillate between the two systems in the unhealthiest of ways. As someone who's opinion I trust, I'd really appreciate your opinion on DIT. DId you eventually manage to get hold of a copy? What did you think? Have you played with it?

Many thanks!
December 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Gooch
Simon, I continue to use David Allen's ideas daily, but I never did get into Mark's approach. Many like it, though. Wish I could help more!
January 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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