Staring at my lists of tasks during my weekly review (about 285 the last time I checked the count in OmniFocus) my eyes start to glaze over with the thought of just how much monotonous crap there is buried in them. What’s even more daunting is as I look over my system during my weekly review I add around 30 – 50 tasks while only destroying about 25 that have gone dormant or have been completed during the week.

If you have been a GTD or any other type of productivity practitioner over the years, you have at least been in this situation once or twice. What tends to happen when you provide yourself with ubiquitous capture is that after awhile a lot of unimportant tasks may infiltrate their way into your system; unimportant tasks that may have sounded like a good idea at the time, but no longer hold any value, or worse, tasks that you know you should complete because of some agreement with yourself or others. What happens is that your system starts to rot from the inside out, and after seeing an easy task like “call mom” sit on your list for 7 weeks you tell yourself that your system doesn’t work. You aren’t getting anything done.

It isn’t your system and it isn’t GTD

The fact you have tasks in your system that are “uninspiring” and stagnant has nothing to do with how your system is failing you or how GTD just doesn’t work. This is more of a prioritization problem. GTD doesn’t talk about an old school A-B-C, 1-2-3 type of prioritization of tasks and projects but it does speak of how to make sure that important stuff gets paid attention to and the less important stuff moves to the back burner or gets trashed.

So, please, before you change your tool or give up on GTD completely understand that this idea of “action bloat” has nothing to do with either.

The link between actions and higher levels

What I have come to find from reading Mr. Allen’s books as well as learning from my own experiences is that if something in my action list doesn’t sync with what I want to accomplish in my life, the chances of me doing it are pretty slim. What’s even worse is the chances of me not doing it and feeling bad about myself and the state of my system are excellent.

So here is where some real “soul searching”, goals, and dreams come into play. if your action lists don’t resemble what you want for your life, then two bad things can happen:

  1. Your action lists stay stagnant and build up with tasks that seem like they have no purpose (because they don’t).
  2. You don’t accomplish any long term goals because your actions lists do not resemble these goals.

This all sounds good in theory but what about in practice? What about tasks like “take out the trash” or “clean the cat litter”? These don’t seem at all related to a higher purpose or life goal. You will run into a lot of tasks that are like this; daily/weekly/monthly tasks that seem like they are just a nuisance and don’t prove to be anything important.

All you have to do to make sure that a task on your action list links up to life goals is “play through the tape”.

Play through the tape

Hopefully everyone reading this still knows what a tape is. Anyways, the best way that I have found to make sure that your tasks on your action lists are important is by “playing through the tape” of what this action will accomplish.

Here is an example:

  • Action: Call your mom
  • Why? Because you haven’t talked to her for awhile.
  • Why does that matter? You want to make sure that you stay close to your family.
  • Why? Because your family and family life is something that is important to you and you value it.

Seems excessive I know, and maybe calling your mother isn’t the best example, but this little exercise can be applied to any task that is on your lists or even projects as well.

Here is the kicker. If you can’t “play through the tape” with a task and link it to some goal or important aspect of your life, put the task or project on your someday/maybe list or just get rid of it. If it isn’t that important there is no reason to do it, especially when you have 250 other actions that actually are important.

As time moves on you will start to find tasks that don’t belong at all in your system and you will be able to inherently “play through the tape”. You will start to see what is important and what isn’t in your task lists and with that be able to prune and tweak your lists to match your life goals. Make sure that you try this out, especially if there is some tasks on your lists that make you think that your system is broken or GTD isn’t working for you.

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