A Better Way to Manage “Next Actions” in Your Productivity System
Why I’ve done away with GTD “contexts” for next actions, and adopted a simple scheduling system instead
The genius of a productivity system like David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) consist of two key habits:
- get everything out of your head and onto a list
- think in terms of next actions
Both of these habits are beneficial. But they have their downsides — especially when you adopt them together. A major downside is that you end up with a giant list of next actions — one that overwhelms you as you glance at it. To combat this, GTD practitioners use contexts to break down that giant list of next actions based on when and where they can be done.
Contexts are the restrictions on where, when, and with what you can physically do each next action. For example, GTD enthusiasts suggest keeping a list of next actions under the heading “@errands” — meaning they’re things you can only do while you’re out. There are many other variants, like “@phone” or “@online” — all depending on where you can and can’t do each action.
But in my experience, there are 2 problems with next actions and contexts:
- For the most part, technology and the nature of work has nearly eliminated the lines between contexts. We can do basically anything pretty much anywhere, with the tools we have on us.
- Context-based lists have done a great job telling us what we could and couldn’t be doing at any moment, but a poor job of telling us what we should be doing. And thus an even poorer job of motivating us.
As a result, I’ve begun to handle my list of next actions a little differently. Rather than sorting tasks into contexts based on locations, tools, or people, I sort them into an informal, but highly effective set of 4 categories.
Contexts Are Almost Obsolete
While they may have helped a while ago, contexts aren’t what they used to be. And especially for those of us who work from home, and have powerful computational tools that can be carried anywhere with us — contexts are becoming almost completely unhelpful.
Back in the early 2000’s, a context like “@home” did help to distinguish from a context like “@office”. By and large, there were things you could only do at home, and things you could only do at the office. The same thing was true for “@phone” and “@computer”. But now our phones are computers. Many of the things we used to only do on our computers can be done nearly as efficiently on our phones. That’s saying nothing of things like tablets, ubiquitous wi-fi, and hot spots — which make it quite easy to work from nearly anywhere.
In general, contexts in productivity systems are becoming less helpful as a method of sorting next actions because they’re collapsing into one. Now that once neat and helpful way of sorting next actions into separate manageable lists has become almost useless. You’re back down to a giant list of next actions that can be done anywhere, and maybe one or two other small lists that can’t. Cue that overwhelmed feeling once again.
Contexts Don’t Prioritize or Motivate
There’s another issue with classical GTD-type contexts that always tripped me up. Even if I had neat and manageable context-based lists of next actions, there was nothing to push me to do certain actions over others. Looking at my context lists would tell me what I could or couldn’t do, but not what I should do — or at least what I should try to do.
To put it another way: it’s great to see that I can’t have lunch with my boss’s boss now that I’m driving 50 miles to a different meeting. But my productivity system should make it easier for me to see that I should have skipped driving 50 miles away and chosen to have lunch with my boss’s boss.
In short, a next action list should help clarify priority and urgency. And I’m not talking here about calendar urgency — the “do it today or the opportunity goes away” type. That stuff is easy to manage. It goes on the calendar. And the calendar tends to work well.
What I’m really scared of, and I think most people are too, are those tasks that don’t have hard deadlines. It’s those things that you should do, but they’re not urgent; they’re up to you. And they’re so easy to put off until later, because they’re not pulling at you. No one is yelling at you to do them.
And maybe it’s just that I haven’t gotten good enough at continuously thinking about this (as Covey calls it) “Quadrant 2” stuff — the important, but not urgent stuff. But even if I do need to get better at it — isn’t that something a good productivity system should help me with?
I think it is. So I altered my system to make it easier for me to push myself to do that important, but not always urgent stuff. I’m using relative time categories.
Using Relative Time Categories (T-N-T-N)
So rather than separate my actions into contexts by tools or locations, I’ve gone back to a more old school approach. I’m creating a simple schedule. I have 4 separate lists of next actions:
- Next Few Days
- This Week
- Next Week & After
As I look at my projects and actions associated with them, I decide which actions I want to do soon, and which ones I think I can do later. I sort them accordingly. As each day passes, I move tasks around. As new tasks pop up, I add them first to the “next week & after” list, unless there’s true urgency assigned.
For the most part, these categories are self-explanatory. As I finish the things under “today,” and get ready for tomorrow, I move up some items from “next few days.” Everything else moves up as I feel I have time to accommodate more tasks.
These categories have helped do the two things that standard contexts and a giant next action list never did: feel better about my tasks and push myself more regularly to finish them. There’s something about putting a target date on tasks that just works for me. I think that this strikes a great balance between overscheduling myself and the dizzying decision fatigue of having no deadlines for actions.
I’ve always respected the philosophy of hardcore GTD-ers, which is “don’t put a date on a task if it doesn’t need to be done by that date.” I get it, for many of us, a date on an action represents a commitment. And we don’t want to force ourselves into a date if it’s not a hard deadline. But how else am I going to push myself to do something sooner — rather than later? To me, having these relative lists just makes more sense.
Using these date categories comes with 2 warnings. Both are important.
First warning: These categories will only work if you review your list of tasks about once per week. I do a variant of a GTD-style weekly review every Friday (or sometime on the weekend). One of my main steps is to move tasks up to “this week” and add new ones to the list. Call me crazy, but it gives me a much better feeling about my giant list of tasks when I’m doing some sort of scheduling.
If you don’t review this categorized list every week, your mind ends up forgetting the importance of the categories. They won’t hold as much weight, and you’re unlikely to keep pushing yourself to do them in the assigned time frames.
Second Warning: You won’t get all the actions done in the time frames. Accept that, and be agile in moving them around. But if you can get 70% of the actions you laid out done within the week, you’re doing well. Of course, you have to make sure to schedule the actions that serve your goals — rather than things that “pop up”. But that’s true with any system — and that’s also highly personal.
In short, I’m still a fan of GTD and systems like it that rely on large next action lists. However, I don’t think contexts are that useful anymore. At least they’re not useful enough to help you divide and conquer your next actions like they once were.
I also never found contexts to push me to get more next actions done each day — especially when my choices about what to do each day can (and did) change the contexts I ended up in.
For those reasons, I’ve adopted a simplified relative scheduling system, that relies on 4 time-based categories: today, next few days, this week, next week and after. It serves to push me to arrange my day around getting key things done. And it works well.
Perhaps it can work for you, too.