Do you try to work on projects instead of next actions, or misuse due dates? Here are some common pitfalls that you can avoid!
I’ve been practicing GTD for about six years and my system has evolved a lot over that time.
I’m not a GTD master, but I’ve learned a lot since I first started practicing six years ago. Here are some mistakes I made as a GTD newbie and what I now do instead.
Copying someone else’s setup (or changing your setup based on someone else’s feedback) is one of the surest ways to miss out on a key strength of GTD.
GTD works because it’s based on the fundamentals of productivity. But it’s ultimately just a blueprint for you to create a personal productivity system. Your system is as unique as your fingerprint.
That’s because no one else thinks, creates, or writes like you. So, what works for your system is very unlikely to work for someone else and vice versa. Instead of copying another person’s exact setup, get inspiration and ideas from others and create your own monster.
In the beginning, the way I approached each workday was to think about a project that was on my mind and then just dive right in on completing as many tasks related to that project as I could until I wasn’t stressed about it.
That often meant I’d spend all day making progress on one project — sometimes to the detriment of other projects or emails. It also meant I was constantly switching contexts from word processing, to emailing, to brainstorming.
I also realized that sometimes working on the project wasn’t what got it off my mind, it was clarifying my next steps by making an outline or brainstorming. These days, instead of reviewing my Projects list to determine what to do each day, I review my Next Actions lists which are sorted by contexts.
Working within contexts means you can make progress on a particular task on your mind AND get things checked off for other projects too! I can’t tell you how amazing it feels clear 20 next actions from my “internet” and “emails” lists in a single day because I know it means I’ve made progress on multiple projects.
Also, if a project is on my mind, I usually create a next action called “brainstorm steps for project completion” or “outline next steps for project.” Just having a plan is a psychological weight lifted.
I changed jobs last year and, when I tried to carry over my usual GTD setup, things stopped working! I was literally having nightmares about being late for a meeting or forgetting about something I had to do. So, I went back to the fundamentals. I reread GTD and reapplied it to my new work responsibilities.
My GTD practice in my new job looks different from what it looked like with my old job. I’ve changed my task manager (Todoist) system, how I use my calendar, and I’ve been using project support materials more effectively.
Don’t be afraid to reassess stuff that isn’t working — just don’t do this all the time because it might be a form of procrastination in disguise. If something is confusing or you feel stuck, reach out to other GTDers on Reddit or GTD Forums for guidance, support, or ideas.
In my old job, I would hold seasonal events like conferences and awards ceremonies on a regular basis. I knew exactly what to do to execute the project so I created a checklist so I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.
I would create a Todoist template and then dump those tasks into Todoist. But then, because I was working on projects instead of next actions, I would end up seeing a super long list of tasks each time I viewed this project which was SO stressful!
These days, I have project support folders for my email, files, and notes (I’ve just started using Obsidian for managing notes). For each project in Todoist, I only list the next action (or next actions for parallel tasks)—not the entire checklist. This helps me stay focused and not get overwhelmed.
The checklist lives with my project support notes. Each time I do a weekly review, I review that checklist. Each time I check off something on that project, I’ll pull up the next item or items on the checklist and add that to one of my next actions lists. I also save so much time not having to search for emails related to an active project. I can just pull them up right away from the project support folder in Outlook.
Especially in Todoist (and most task managers, frankly), this can become overwhelming pretty quickly. I used to put “would be nice to work on this” tasks with a due date in Todoist. Or if I told someone I’d try to get something to them by Friday, I’d put that task in Todoist with a due date of Friday.
This worked for a while until I had too many days where other fires popped up. I would usually just move tasks to the next day if I didn’t get them done, but somewhere along the way, I would lose track of the “real” due date.
These days, I use a tickler file entry on my calendar to remind myself to start on a task or project. If I told someone I’d get something to them by Friday, I put that on my calendar as a reminder/tickler. The difference being, I can always just email them that I won’t be able to get it to them by Friday but haven’t forgotten.
I usually just try to put due dates on things that, if I don’t do them, will cause something else to “explode.” e.g. If I don’t process the payroll by Friday, people won’t get paid.
Also, during my weekly review, I’ll notice these reminders or tasks on my calendar so I’ll technically get reminded about it twice. Once during my weekly review, and once when I review my calendar that day.
Hopefully, those who are getting (re)started can learn from my mistakes as you start (re)building your system!