Priorities — trusting the system

Gonçalo Gil Mata — №28 with Preston Ni

This article is the third of a series where I’m addressing GTD 2.0 — the most desired upgrades to David Allen’s methodology. Last article was about differently paced collectors. Today, I’m going to propose an agile notion of priority that seems a common point of struggle for GTD’s next actions.

What goes next?

Many of us have already learned multiple approaches on how to organize tasks in terms of priority. Given the big pipeline we all have waiting for our attention, the need at hand is to have a system that helps us make good decisions about what goes next. GTD’s approach to next actions organization is cleverly set to address execution context as a limitation filter for those choices. This is new and refreshing, but doesn’t really solve what seems to bother everyone: is that choice safe enough? Can I trust those lists wholeheartedly? What about when they get too long? Is a context-driven choice really my best bet?

A changing reality

We all agree that reality changes quickly, and so previous evaluation and ordering of priorities gets easily outdated. In fact, safety of choice — critical for focus — fades as new inputs and events enter your world. It’s clever, thus, to pace the rhythm for collector revision, namely your email inbox, so that you can have a tunnel mode valid for a period of… say, 30 or 40 minutes. Then you’ll likely need to check again who’s at your door waiting for your attention and re-evaluate your choices.

GTD — the not so great escape from priority

Apparently, for David Allen, this speed of change was a good enough justification to escape dealing with priority at all, or at least to downgrade it against other criteria, such as context, time available, and energy. And while it has the interesting aspect of forcing you to apply an action-oriented mindset to any task—so you can fit the next action in the right box—it is nevertheless a considerably reactive approach. Should you be choosing what to do next from your current limitations, or creating the appropriate context to pursue your most valuable priorities?

Take out vs fit in

Everybody wants to make good choices. We fear regretting not having used our time wisely. That scarcity tends to throw us in a rush. Sometimes we force too many things to fit a given time slot, while the great secret of achievement appears to be hidden in taking out, not fitting in! Having the courage to leave things behind is what will give you the true freedom to accomplish what you really want. Some people even force false deadlines into a task, fearing otherwise it will never get done. But “never getting done” is clearly the best thing that can happen to a task that is not very valuable!

The all mighty system?

Be clear that your system will never tell you what to do next. That’s a myth. It’s always up to you to take a leap of faith and risk choosing one thing over something else. You can’t, and really shouldn’t, pass that responsibility to any system. That being said, the queue of candidates for your time should be structured and organized for you to pick the elected ones. The main criteria for this selection has to be obtained in a different level of perspective: the Cockpit Map (please see previous article on this). This is the overall view of your current issues and priorities, free of the big pile of “Someday” and “Maybe” ideas. While GTD also addresses this in its horizons, it doesn’t seem to bring them as close to the action system as I believe they should be.

Later, next, and now

There’s a linear gradient in the decision process about your candidates. They live in lists, and lists get back and forth in the path of their holy grail: getting execution time! But just like it is OK to keep stuff in your garage instead of chucking it away, you want some ease in the process of having things around, in pools that you just see once in a while: that’s your “Someday/Maybe” lists or, as I call them, your “LATER”. You don’t want this stuff around, messing with your focus items — you want it out of sight!

Then you have “NEXT.” Typically it’s GTD’s next actions, unless you’ve filled them up with stuff that is not your current focus, just out of a “nice to have” feeling. Practice frequently downgrading some of these candidates back to “Someday/Maybe”s as your reality evolves.

Finally, you need guidance: some ultra-short list that can live in a mix of your calendar and a post-it sticky note — they hold your pre-chosen best-off. You can also have a bigger list (up to around seven or eight items), but have it numbered by order of intended execution. This means that, while you are in your tunnel mode, you don’t have to choose anything; just follow previous choices and focus on the task, which is kind of sacred ground for high efficiency!

Final wrap up

GTD’s Next Action’s grouping by context seems to fail the proactivity required by value-driven productivity. A system will never tell you what to do next, but can do a good job if it presents you all your opportunities in a way that enhances safe choices for focusing on. New input evaluation should be paced, and a big pool of opportunities collected out of sight. Keep your lists of “NEXT” short, and with the help of a big picture Cockpit Map, build a two to three option guidance element before each execution period. Update it after each cycle, making sure you remove the need for decisions while you are focused on execution mode. Keep your cycles short, in an agile approach, and come back to bigger lists only when you’re really ready for more!

Photo: Flickr/Crystl CC BY 2.0

Goncalo gil mata

Gonçalo Gil Mata

Gonçalo is an executive coach, speaker, and author who is dedicated to enhancing top productivity in individuals and organizations. He is the founder of MIND4TIME and author of the blog What’s The Trick (, where he writes about productivity tricks and brain mechanics.

Visit Gonçalo's website Gonçalo on Facebook