Don’t Look At Your Lists! - Next Action Associates

When we all started with GTD® we had to build our GTD system from scratch. This meant that you, like everyone, had to spend a lot of time with Capturing all your stuff, then Clarifying and Organising this into your tool of choice.

These first three steps can therefore often feel like the most important part of the 5 Steps of Mastering Workflow model, and the parts that you should focus on and improve at to be a better GTDer; moving from white belt to black belt at each individual step over time, to use David Allen’s martial arts metaphor from the book.

Then, at some point, for all of us who have benefitted from GTD, and therefore stuck with it, we have used our lists to get things done; that’s the point right?! This involves the fourth and fifth steps, reflecting on our commitments at the right horizon and choosing what we should do, given all our options, supported by the three models in Engage: Limiting Criteria, Three-fold Nature of Work and the Horizons of Focus.

“In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt

People new to GTD often express overwhelm at ‘all the lists’ we suggest they keep and wonder when they will ever look at them all. The answer to this is surprisingly “never”!

To be clear: all your lists should be available to help you at any point in time, as needed, although you should never be looking at all of them at the same time. This is the benefit of not having everything on one very, very, very long list: you look at the parts you need to look at now and you don’t look at the lists that you don’t need to look at now.

“You can do anything, but not everything” -David Allen

Some of you may be thinking, “ah, he’s forgotten about the Weekly Review®”, but I haven’t. Even in a Weekly Review, we don’t suggest looking at everything. All you Next Actions and Projects, yes, but not all your other Horizons of Focus and not all your reference lists or checklists.

Indeed, the final step of the “Get Current” part of the Weekly Review is “review any relevant checklists”; the key element here for this blog posts argument is ‘relevant’. We are not saying look at all your checklists, just any that would support you in the coming week or so. If you are going on a business trip soon, perhaps a ‘business travel checklist’, etc. There is no need for you to look at a checklist of ‘books to read’ or ‘things to watch on Netflix’, if you are not looking for new books or mini-series to start.

We do recommend that you externalise and later reflect on your Purpose and Principles, your long-term Visions, your 1-2 year Goals, and your Areas of Focus and Accountability – just not every week, and probably not at the same time as your Weekly Review. How often this will help you will depend on the role you have, where you are in your life and what you need to gain perspective on.

Many of you are also likely to be looking at your Project lists too regularly. If someone chose to have their digital calendar set up to present the week or month view only, and, as a result, they often missed important calls or meetings, something would clearly be wrong.

The equivalent to a calendar ‘week or month view’ in GTD lists terms is the Project list. It is important to be able to ‘go up there’ to get perspective from time-to-time, just as it is important to zoom out on your calendar occasionally, but, as with the calendar, during our normal day-to-day work time, we want to be focusing on the ‘what’s next’- and this is represented on your next action lists, for the context you’re in.

The Limiting Criteria model in the Engage phase, shows us that at any point in time we are limited first by the context we’re in and by the time and resources available to us. Organising your Next Actions onto context specific lists produces the immediate benefit that when you are in a certain context, you can easily find something you can do. There is the added implicit, important benefit though, of allowing you to disregard all the other lists for all the other contexts that you are not in: don’t look at those lists then!

“Don’t just do something. Stand there!” – Rochelle Myer

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