GTD for beginners, part 2

This week’s post is a tad later in the day than planned, as I’m back at the day-job this week and – more crucially – forgot to put “Write next GTD blog post” in Things (the ToDo app I use on my phone and various Macs). A good example of why you should write things down the moment they occur to you!

Desk piled with paperSo, last week I talked about setting up your buckets: places to save everything that needs dealing with, whether it’s a bill to be paid (your in-tray) or a blog post that needs writing (your notebook or ToDo app). If you’ve been following along, you’ll probably have a long list of stuff in your bucket and may be feeling a little overwhelmed by it all! Don’t panic – today I’m going to cover organising your tasks.

Note: I’m deliberately not following the “getting started” method described in the original GTD book, as that requires you to spend a whole day (or weekend) setting up your system, which I think can be a bit overwhelming! Instead I’m taking a “baby steps” approach, introducing concepts as and when you need them.

Next Actions

A key concept in GTD is that of Next Actions. By focusing only on what you can/must do next, you avoid the panicky flailing around that often accompanies a long ToDo list.

If you look at your current list, some items are probably single actions, e.g. “return library books” or “iron dress shirt for party” whilst others are really entire projects, like “write a novel” or “repaint living room” – things that are going to take a lot longer than an hour or two! These latter projects need to be broken down into their individual steps, e.g.

  • Pick up paint swatch leaflets from DIY store
  • Choose paint colours
  • Buy paint and brushes
  • Wash walls

etc, etc.

If you’re using a GTD-capable app like Things or OmniFocus, it’ll have a Projects mode built in; if you want to keep things simple with a basic checklist approach, look for an app that allows you to organise lists into folders or subtrees, e.g. CarbonFin Outliner (these are all iOS/Mac apps, btw – I’m afraid I’m not up-to-date on Windows software).

If you’re working on paper, you’ll need a second notebook or, even better, a looseleaf binder (in addition to your “bucket” notebook) – use a page per project and list your tasks in the order they need doing. This is one area where software makes life so much simpler, since you can reorder tasks at will.

You can also group related tasks into what Things calls “Areas of Responsibility” – for example I have a categorise for Writing, Personal and Household tasks. You can treat these like open-ended projects, to keep your ToDo lists short and easy to manage. That way you’re not distracted by household chores when you want to review your blog post topics, and vice versa.

Now you should have a list of Next Actions that will include all the single actions plus the first action on each project list, which is hopefully a bit more manageable! You also can potentially trim this list down further by putting off tasks that can’t or won’t be started until a future date, using either the “scheduled date” in your software, or writing a date next to the item.

But what if you still have a long, long list of things to do soon? Never fear – Contexts will help you see the wood for the trees.


stopwatch and foldersAnother key concept in GTD is Contexts. These are places and situations that determine whether you can do a task or not. For example, when you’re in town you can return those library books but not iron your dress shirt! So you could classify tasks by location such as “Home”, “Town”, “Office” and so on. Or you might need some quiet time in the office to make a phone call, or you might prefer to make all your calls in one session – in either case, a context named “Phone” would help you zero in on this opportunity. Or you might want to organise tasks by the approximate time and/or energy they require (e.g. 5 minutes, an hour), so that you can quickly pick out a short simple task when you have a few minutes on your hands.

Some software programs like OmniFocus have contexts built-in, but in others there may be an alternative way of implementing them; Things, for example, uses tags, which has the advantage that you can tag a task with multiple contexts (that phone call to the cable company, which is likely to leave you on hold for ages, isn’t going to fit into 5 minutes!). Contexts are a bit trickier on paper, but you could use written tags (perhaps in different coloured pens?) or organise non-project tasks in different lists by context.

One general context that I find very useful is “Waiting” – if you can’t move a project forward because, say, you’re waiting to receive an email confirmation, it helps to mark it as such so that it’s off your mental radar. Conversely the “Waiting” context can be used as a quick way to look up all the items you need to chase other people up on.


With all your tasks organised into projects and contexts, you’ll have fast access to your Next Actions and should now easily be able to pick out what you can/should be doing!

Next time: with the day-to-day task management under control, it’s time to look at the Big Picture…