“Getting Things Done”: Projects, Next Actions, and Contexts

Last time we started to talk about “clarifying”, figuring out what some piece of “stuff” means to you.  We talked about Trash, Reference, and the Someday/Maybe list.  Now we’re going to talk about what happens when something is actionable.

This “episode” of the series is big. It contains one of the most clever tricks of the whole system.  Get ready.


All right, let’s delve into the GTD approach for projects.  Since you cannot do a project, you have to break it down into actions.  A treatise on project planning is a bit beyond the scope of this series, but from a GTD perspective, you have two artifacts that must live outside your brain for projects:

  1. The project list, which is just a straightforward list of projects you’re currently working through.
  2. A collection of project plans, which are the detailed breakdown into actions of the things on the project list.

If you were setting up a purely paper implementation of GTD, the Project List should be just that: a page (or pages) on which you list projects by short name or description. “Renovate the kitchen.” “Clean the garage.” “Automate our server build process.” “Solve climate change.”  Project Plans, on the other hand, would be a folder in which you keep each plan in more detail, broken into actions.

Then in order to do a project, you look at what actions are currently possible, and copy them to your Next Actions list.  When you complete those actions and thus make the next actions in the project possible, you repeat the process, crossing off the completed actions and copying those actions to the Next Actions list.  When you’ve completed all the steps in a project, you can then cross the project’s entry itself off the Project list.

Next Actions Lists … plural

So far, from following the workflow, you now know there’s two ways things can get onto your Next Actions list: if they come in as “stuff” but are single actions that you can do, or if they come in as the next available actions in a project.

But it’s time for one of the big awesome wins of the GTD system.  Remember when we talked about some basic principles of the system and we noted that you can’t always take every action you could imagine, and it’s not helpful to have to think through all possible actions and just filter them down to the ones you can currently do every time you want to do one?

You should not have one Next Actions list, but many.  You should have one for each different situation, or context (to use David Allen’s term), in which you might have things to do.  A popular notation for contexts among GTD users is an at-sign (@), because we say we can do one thing “at” the kitchen, another “at” the garage, another “at” a meeting with our boss, and so forth.  So a typical starter set of contexts might be:

  • @office for things you can only do at your office.  (If you have something you think of as the “home office” versus the “work office”, you’ll want to distinguish.)
  • @spouse for topics you need to bring up with your spouse.
  • @boss for, you guessed it, things to bring up with your boss.
  • @workgroup for meetings with the group of people you work with.
  • @phone for phone calls you need to make.
  • @email for pieces of email you need to send.
  • @shopping for purchases you need to make and the sources of them.

Then each of these contexts governs a specific Next Actions list.  But note that each context might have actions belonging to more than one project, and each project will have actions belonging in different contexts.

  • The @office list might contain actions from a project called “Hang up new art in my spaces” and one called “Water all my plants.”
  • The @spouse list might contain that budget conversation from “Renovate the Kitchen” but also a conversation action that forms part of “Plan Anniversary Vacation.”
  • The @phone list will include a call to your work group’s business administrator asking how much money you’re allowed to spend on “Team Building Lunch”, but also a call to a flooring company to ask their payment plans for our old friend “Renovate the Kitchen.”

And so on.

So when you go through your project plans, you add each next action to the list appropriate for that single action’s context.

Then whenever you find yourself going “Now what should I work on?” you simply look at the list (or lists) relevant to your context!

  • “I have my laptop, I’m in a noisy room, I have wi-fi, and my wife’s not here.” Sounds like you can do @email tasks, but not @phone (too noisy) or @spouse (unless the two of you can chat online or handle things via text at this moment).
  • “I’m in my office at work.”  You can probably do @email, @phone, and @office, but probably not @spouse.  If your boss isn’t too busy, you could try to get a hold of her and check off some items from the @boss list, or you could just save that for your next regularly scheduled meeting with her.

See how it all works?  You have already organized your next actions into contexts.  When you’re ready to get something done, you simply look at any applicable context list for a thing to do — oh hey, I’m in my office, I have only 10 minutes before that next meeting, but I can probably get a quick answer from the flooring company about payment plans — and do it.

If I had to pick out one single piece of the GTD methodology that really makes things easier, other than getting religious and comfortable with a good capture system, it’s this sorting of actions into contexts.  It really helps you focus and just pick from the tasks you can do at a given time, instead of constantly having to re-evaluate some monster list and going “Crap, can’t do that … or that … or that …”

Your organizational system has thus kept track of all those decisions — which you made when you put the action on a list — for you.  You just ask it “Now that I’m here (wherever ‘here’ is at this instant), what can I do?” and the answers are right there.

In the next post I’ll talk a bit about the Waiting For list, which will lead us into the Review process.  The review process is essential to success in GTD, so stay tuned.