est. reading time: 6 mins
Starting with “No”
In the process of implementing GTD® one of the first things people start to appreciate is the context list. The way all tasks can be captured when they come up and have every next action clarified and organised, but instead of facing an enormous list, you can confidently ignore those items that are not in the context that is currently available. Confidently ignore, meaning that you know you won’t miss anything because the reminder is where it should be, and it does not need to be visible outside of that context.
“You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing.” David Allen
I like to choose my next action from a carefully curated shortlist, maybe because, as in every aspect of my life, it is simpler to say no to things, before defining what I actually want. Looking at the menu at the restaurant: being a very picky eater, I quickly see what I definitely won’t have, and then choose from the few items left. Searching for accommodation for a holiday: I set my filters and then open all the first page results on separate tabs, then start closing those I don’t like. I even chose the names of my children based on the list of thousands of legally available first names and crossed off all that I did not want, then chose from the very much shortened list.
Can or not
The beauty of GTD is that apart from the basic rules, the system is rather flexible to suit anyone’s needs. I changed my context list titles and borders a few times as my life dictated. When I needed to clearly separate work from private life, I made sure my lists allowed me to hide the work stuff out of hours. When I worked from home, my “at home” and “computer” lists merged into one. When I had a major project, like renovating our house, it became a context list on its own merit. As a stay-at-home mom, all my next actions only really needed one filter: can I do it with kids running around me or not? In any period in life, I wanted to be able to confidently ignore a big part of my next actions, to allow me to focus on the few available ones.
Want or not
These context lists helped me separate the tasks based on the question: Can I do it here and now or not? I still had a glance at the full picture in my reviews, but the context lists helped me focus only on the available next actions. These available next actions can still be too many, so I ask an additional question: Do I want to do it here and now or not?
When answering this, I started to use the “add to my day” feature (in MS ToDo app) in my daily reviews. Based on the lookout for the day, I mark some of the next actions that I really want to do on that day. On more adventurous days, this list is a bit longer and includes not only the actions I want but what I could do – still removing the bunch “that is just not going to happen today”. The best part of this feature is that at the end of the day, if any of them was not completed, there is no bright red overdue tag, it just loses the “my day” tag.
One of the many benefits of using GTD is that after a while I noticed that the deadlines became less deadly. I never really procrastinated, but deadlines always made me worry. Even when I was not engaged with a task, I thought about it many times, even worried if I put the date of the deadline in the calendar correctly. I know many people who are most productive at the last minute before a deadline, but I was never one of them. Deadlines approaching made my stress level rise to the point when I could not think clearly. I still have recurring nightmares about forgetting to hand in a project on time at university.
Gradually, as I had my regular mind sweeps, kept my next action lists up to date and did my daily and Weekly Reviews ®, I noticed that the due date was just a piece of information. It was no longer a dreaded moment, there was no flashing red light to make me panic way in advance and/or rush to finish something. The focus and control I gained by implementing GTD allowed me to get things done way before they were due.
Then I fell on the other side of the horse and instead of stressing about a deadline, I started to be annoyed by things I knew I had to do but could not do yet.
To reduce the frustration of ignoring these on my next action lists, hiding them in the project materials or reviewing them on my someday/maybe list, I created a context list titled “Cannot do right now”. This list holds all my clearly defined next actions, that are not yet possible to do due to dependencies. These dependencies could be:
- certain events (packing for a holiday that is not until next month or cleaning up after maintenance work is done),
- information to be available (month-end review, meeting summary report) or
- a “waiting for” (share my blog on LinkedIn when it is published on this website).
In other words: I created yet another list that I can confidently ignore. Most of these items end up on the “active” context lists when the dependency is resolved. In some cases, they end up on the someday/maybe list when the dependency moves too far in the future.
As you can see, all my next actions are filtered by available context for the can or cannot do and by my daily selection of want or could do – with deadlines hardly affecting them, as I get things done before they are due. There is one type of deadline though that I allow to get into my system.
Should or not
When a major event is ahead, its dates become the divider of all next actions with the question: Should I do it before, during or after?
Such a major event would be changing jobs: What should I get done in my handover? How should I use my free time between jobs? What should I leave until the new job?
Another example would be moving homes. What should I get done before we leave? What should I not do until we get to the new home? What should I pay attention to while moving? Of course, general project planning is a part of all this, but my filter of before/during/after applies to everything, even those next actions that are not relevant to the project.
The current major event for many of us is the summer holiday approaching. What should I get out of the way before I go on holiday? (Or if you have kids, what should you get done before they are at home all day?) What should we do while we have all this quality time together/away? What should I not bother with until the end of summer when everyone returns to their everyday routine?
While these questions may raise more next actions than you thought about initially, answering them with simple yes or no can make your lists even more manageable so you can make the most of this summer.