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I spend too much time figuring out what to do next.

GTD helped me clarify incoming items and filter out "someday", "reference", "@errand", etc. so now I have a very nice list of about 80 "next actions at computer" that I'm ready, willing and able to do. The problem is there are 80 of them, and every morning I spend at least half an hour to pick 5-10 of them that I really intend to do "next". Worst of all, I don't have a good way to hold onto that thought process, so the next morning I inevitably spend another half hour re-picking items to do next.

David Allen writes: "You shouldn't bother to create some external structuring of the priorities on your lists that you'll then have to rearrange or rewrite as things change. ... You'll be prioritizing more intuitively as you see the whole list, against quite a number of shifting variables." (GTD p.141) But my problem is that I feel I can't "see the whole list" when it's 80 items long and ordered randomly.

Within "next actions at computer", what is the best way to organize next actions by "duration", "project", and (cough) "priority"? Or is there a completely different way I could arrange things to be able to "see the whole list" whenever I want to?

EDIT: My goal isn't to have a smaller list---I'm happy to have plenty of responsibilities---but I need better ways to arrange the list so I can return to it often and rapidly recall my past intuitions about the various items.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

After reading this small article by Kelly Waters, How To Prioritise Quickly And Intuitively (read both parts), and doing some experiments in Excel, I can consistently start working within 60 seconds of sitting down at the computer. It's easily done. The first time does take a few minutes, but once your system's in place it's effortless. Do this:

  1. Dump your 80 tasks into Excel, one per line, and then rank them by Importance, 1 to 80, writing the rank number in a second column.

  2. Hide the Importance column and create a new one called Difficulty. Rank them again, from 1 to 80.

  3. Unhide the other column, and voilá, you got coordinates:

enter image description here

  1. Graph those coordinates according to the article's instructions and you'll get four quadrants:

    • Important/Easy: High Value/Low Cost. You'll start here.
    • Important/Difficult: Tasks which will need further breakdown after you're through with the first quadrant.
    • Unimportant/Easy: Quick hits you can save for emergencies or rainy days.
    • Unimportant/Difficult: Stuff you won't even think about until all else is done.

enter image description here

The graph gets updated constanty, as you add and finish tasks. It's been a wonderful tool for me.

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Although importance and difficulty both tend to change a lot, it is really nice to see ways like this to arrange a lot of tasks into a graph. Thanks for the suggestions! – krubo Aug 24 '11 at 3:36
Oleg's answer regarding the MIT concept works very well as the last step in this. You can use the graph as a stretegic guideline and then pick the 'big rocks' within the Important/Easy quadrant you'll attack. After those are done, re-graph and pick new rocks. Both systems are complementary. – Eugenio Perea Aug 25 '11 at 16:09
I have great difficulty making this work in Excel without add-ons. To replicate my difficulty, just copy the table above and click "Insert->Chart->Scatter". Is there some trick? – krubo Nov 17 '11 at 18:23
I'm not using Excel, I'm using LibreOffice, but I think I may help. The trick is not to use the scatter option, but the line chart, and only graph the points, and then delete the points for the first series. That leaves the points for the second series, and those use the actual order of the list as the X-axis. Does that make sense? – Eugenio Perea Nov 17 '11 at 23:27

Try to use MIT concept from ZTD: at the beginning of each week select 3-5 big rocks for week - projects you'll focus on. Then each day select 3-4 Most Important Tasks for that day, according to your weekly plan. This approach will allow you to focus on essential.


Another tactic I use is to deal with one-two low-priority tasks each day, after all scheduled major tasks are done. This allows to cut off the long trail of minor items in my queue.

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+1 because this is what I'm already doing, and this works well for tracking more carefully the 5-10 things that end up being selected. After reading the link, I think my current goal is actually a bit anti-ZTD---how to more easily keep an eye out on all 80 items, including the 70 "less-essential" ones. – krubo Aug 24 '11 at 3:41

You should prioritize the 80+ actions by the importance of them. Remember, by importance not by urgency. They should have some difference on the importance. If you cannot figure out any of the importance difference of them, then they may be not important at all. Just deal with them one by one. When you complete them one by one and the list becomes shorter, I believe you can "see the whole list" at that time.

Another suggestion is that you can provide the actions list here if you still can do nothing after you read our answers. We may help you prioritize them and you just try if it works.

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I've had times in which I was in a similar boat you're in. That is - a big pile of NA's that I could potentially pick but due to the long list, I've found it hard to pick the right ones.

What I did is tag my NA's according to the following criteria:

  • Duration - a rough estimate (<15min, 30min, 1h, >90min)
  • Energy level - how much energy and focus I need to execute the NA (low, med, high)

This way, I could narrow down the list of NA's according to my mental state and time at hand. I could easily pick small NA's to do when I had 15 minutes until my next meeting and I could also easily pick larger more time and energy consuming NA's when it was relevant.

The downside of this approach is the maintenance penalty you have to "pay" for tagging your NA's when defining them. For this reason, I don't use this method 100% of the time. Only when my runway is overwhelming with a lot of small items.

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ThinkingRock as a GTD-Tool supports these properties, as well as dificulty and importance. – hstoerr Aug 25 '11 at 4:57

I was struggling with this same issue after my first round through GTD. It is true that David Allen advocates against setting formal priorities on action items. I found that this aspect is better covered in his second book Making It All Work, where there is more emphasis on developing the "Perspective" component of the GTD model. The theory is that if you develop all of your Horizons of Focus (that is, actions, projects, areas of focus, goals, vision, purpose), you will then develop the perspective and intuition to make satisfying choices on all these levels. So that's the idea. It is seemingly at odds with the otherwise somewhat formalized methods in the "Control" component of GTD, but you should try it out.

Of course, there is life beyond GTD. ;-) Especially in a professional setting, you will find all kinds of formalized models for computing value, importance, and priority of action items and projects, and for scheduling and risk assessment. But I guess you are coming more from a home/personal use. In that case, I would not spend too much time on this and try out the intuition based approach, possibly combined with the advice given elsewhere of picking a few tasks for the day at the beginning of the day.

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I don't have my GTD book handy, so i'm not sure if this is according to the letter of the book, but here's what I do when I run into the problem.

Behind most of those "next actions" is something like a project. Don't waste time prioritizing the next actions, there are too many and they are too fine-grained. Prioritize the projects behind them. Even the categories of projects. Then only create "next actions" for the projects that are important enough to spend time on this week.

Some next actions like "get milk on the way home" may not have projects behind them, but hopefully those kinds of things aren't the bulk of your 80 items.

There a basic principle of organization (which also applies to many other things) that Icall "pay as you go". The cost of each area the system must produce value in proportion to the energy it takes to maintain the organization. The cost of maintaining an up-to-date list of 80 "next actions" is not worth the organizational value that it brings.

So the answer is: Filter your projects before you boil them down to next tasks, and create a shorter list. It doesn't mean you have less to do, it just means you spend less time over-thinking the items that you won't ge taround to for a while anyway.

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My two cents:

1) The 'get a grip' method: It happens to me sometimes, as I am reading my lists, I suddenly go, 'OMG, this one!'. Then I do it. Sometimes you simply know, you can move into doing mode and then go back to your list once you're finished.

2) Long lists, as mentioned above, are repelling. Something that helped me a lot was dividing the @computer context (were most of my work happens) into smaller, more manageable contexts. The divisions are absolutely open and personal, depending on your needs and likes. Kind of task? (@Computer/thinking, @Computer/Writing, @Computer/full focus, @Computer/quickies...) Program to use? (@Computer/Photoshop, @Computer/Outlook...) Personal/Job related tasks? Experiment a lot, and keep what works best for you...

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