In the previous episode of the Productivity Made Simple (using GTD to improve your productivity) series we were talking about where to start with GTD – the brain dump exercise. Today it’s time to take your massive list of things, and create an actionable plan that makes selecting what to do next very easy.

If you’re not using any methodology in your work then selecting your next task can be difficult. There are so many things to do, yet so little time. You can try to do the most important tasks first, but how do you decide what is truly important and what only seems like it is? Furthermore, is something indeed important or just urgent?

Solving challenges like this is where GTD really shines. You can use the methodology to take your brain dump list and divide it into actionable sections, in the least confusing way possible.

Dividing your list into projects

Your brain dump list is not something you can work with effectively. If you want to be productive you need something smaller and more manageable.

The first step towards creating such a thing is to turn your list of tasks into a list of projects. Now how do you do that?

Take your list and gather all similar tasks together. By similar, I mean the tasks that essentially touch upon the same area.

Let’s just say that you’re a freelance designer, and a blogger, just as an example. On your main list there might be tasks like: improve the menu for client X, design custom buttons for client X, do some finishing touches on client’s Y site, write a new post for my blog, update WordPress.

You can take such tasks and divide them into groups of: client X tasks, client Y tasks, my blog tasks – these are your projects.

I’m using a specific example because that’s the easiest way of explaining most things, but the concept can be easily applied to any other areas and different kinds of tasks. The main rule of recognizing a project is to find at least two tasks that are closely related to each other.

This is the first approach – taking the tasks and gathering them into projects. There’s also the second approach – picking complex tasks and creating projects around them. By complex, I mean everything that requires taking more than one action to complete them.

Here’s another example. Something like “have the car fixed” is likely to appear on your list. This sounds like a single task but it isn’t. To actually get this done you need to take care of a number of tasks. In this case: choose a mechanic, call them and make an appointment, get your car to the mechanic, pick the car up. In the end, a seemingly simple task of having the car fixed has turned into a project. And that’s OK.

In the end, what you want to end up with is a number of projects, where each project consists of at least two tasks. From here you can proceed to the next step.

Next tasks list

This is where you spend the majority of your time when working with GTD.

As of now, you have your list of projects, but don’t quite know what to do with it yet. Start by selecting only ONE task from each project, and then putting it on a separate list.

This one task should be the next reasonable thing you can do to get a given project going. Every project has such a task, so selecting it shouldn’t be a problem.

For our car fixing example the next task would be to choose a mechanic.

However, don’t try to select more than one. I know that for some projects it might seem that more tasks need to be done at the same time, but it’s not true. Even when you have two tasks you think you’ll have to do at the same time, you’re still going to start with one and then do the other. It’s not possible to do one task with your left hand and the other with your right hand. Stick to a single next task for each project only.

The list you’re creating right now (one containing only a single task from each project) is called the next tasks list. The name explains it well enough. It is the list that contains all the tasks you need to take care of next; nothing more.

Selecting things to do from the next tasks list

The list itself is still a set of many different tasks, so you need to find a way of deciding which one you should actually do first.

There are four main factors that can help you decide what to do when you’re looking at your next tasks list.

1. Your context.

This sounds fancy, but what it actually means is the environment you’re currently in. Some possible contexts might be: at the office, at home, on my phone, shopping mall, and so on.

It’s obvious that some tasks can be done only when you’re in the right context. If you have an office job you can’t do any job-related tasks if you’re not at the office, so don’t even clutter your mind with them when you’re at home.

This context principle is pretty obvious, but it’s still good to keep it in mind to be able to snap out of unproductive thinking that sometimes catches us off guard.

2. Available time.

Different tasks consume different amounts of time. If you have only 30 minutes to spare there’s no point in starting to work on the new marketing strategy for your company…

When selecting a task always try to predict how much time it can take, and compare it to the amount of time you actually have.

3. Available energy.

Maybe you just don’t feel like doing any creative work… Maybe some simple physical work would be more appropriate right now … like washing the car or something.

This is OK, you don’t have to be at your 100% mental strength round the clock. Sometimes it’s good to use those other moments to do other work.

4. Priorities.

This is where the fun starts. The last element in deciding what to do next.

Basically, I’m sure you have an idea about what priorities are. Either something is important to you at the moment or it isn’t.

For example, yesterday you were feeling just fine, but today you feel ill, so going to a doctor is the highest priority even though yesterday it had no priority.

Priorities can change daily; this is normal. It doesn’t mean that you’re an unorganized person. I would say the contrary: if you have the same priorities for the last 10 years maybe it’s time to think them through.

This is just a simplified model of priorities, and for now it’ll do. However, GTD takes the idea of priorities much further, and turns it into something much more useful. We’re going to talk about priorities in one of the next posts, but for now just think of them like the answer to the question of “what’s the most important task for me at this precise moment in time?

That’s basically it when it comes to selecting what to do next. Just to recap:

  1. Create your projects list.
  2. Take one task from each project, and put it into your next tasks list.
  3. Choose what to do next based on your context, available time, available energy, and priorities (in that order).
  4. Do the task.
  5. Put another task from the same project on the next tasks list.
  6. Go back to point #3.

A question to you. Do you find GTD complex and challenging to implement? To be honest, that was my initial impression. But I’m glad I ended up implementing it anyway, that’s for sure.

(Photo credit: Your Next Step via Shutterstock)

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