The feeling of never-ending lists

Date: Tuesday, July 05, 2011 by GTD Times Staff

Pedro from Brazil wrote:

Question: Since I’m always completing “old” tasks and “generating” new tasks, my “list” ALWAYS has tasks to be completed. GTD is nice because you can see all task and never lose track of anything, but on the other hand it’s weird because it gives me the feeling that it never ends!

David Allen: The answer to your question is very simple: you’re never finished until you’re dead (if even then, on other levels of our existence). The essence of GTD is to get yourself “in the driver’s seat” about what you’re doing, and want and need to do. It’s not about finishing everything. You don’t have to finish something to be free of it. You simply need to decide what it means to you, park the outcomes and actions in the appropriate places that you trust will be reviewed at the right time… and you’re free.



11 Responses to “The feeling of never-ending lists”

  1. Ben Ziff says:

    All well and good, David, but I see GTD’s implicit requirment that we be hunched over our “radar screen” 24/7, scanning for tasks and projects, as a conceptual downside of the program. At least for me – who’s been attempting GTD for over 5 years now – THIS has been the greatest obstacle: that there is never a moment when you cannot be “ready for anything,” to coin a phrase….

  2. Cheryl says:

    Ben, you’re making up a rule to your disadvantage. For me, keeping lists sets me free to ignore those lists for minutes or weeks at a time. I know of no implicit requirement to hunch. In fact, when I’m in a hunch, it’s a sure sign I’m not ready for anything.

  3. Alan says:

    It’s just a fact of life that your list will always be never ending. I think the whole point of GTD is to back on track quicker when you get derailed.

  4. virens says:

    For me this question just does not exist: you always have some projects until you are alive, as David has said.

    The biggest advantage of the GTD methodology is that it allows you to ‘intelligently procrastinate’ and don’t feel guilty. For instance, I had a project in my list for which I procrastinated – hmmm, I just put it into Someday/Maybe – for a year. And it was pretty OK not to do it. I just say to my internal voice – not today. Yes, I know that I need to do it, but it OK not to do it. Same as today – I have finally done one of the necessary (but boring) project just because felt not well (“low battery”). Looking on my project list in Deferred and Someday, I saw it – oh, that’s a good time to do. I done it and felt great 🙂

    For me, that’s ”ready for anything” state – you can turn even your bad day into a good one. If I’m not in a creative mood (I’m a researcher), I just do the tasks from my list that do not require a high creativity (proofread a paper, write a documentation, or answer a bunch of emails). The thing is that you _know_ what you _can_ do, and hence can choose not to do it on this particular day.

  5. Jeff says:

    The freedom begins when you can have the list and focus your attention. That’s why it’s called getting things don and not “getting it all done right now”. The list require a perspective that most of us never take the time to develop.

  6. Raymond Li says:

    @Ben: How can we be ready for anything when we’re glued to the “radar screen?” We can’t. Like Cheryl, I’ve found being glued to my lists means I’m probably procrastinating or there’s something I need to capture/clarify. Maybe there’s too much detail on the “radar screen.” Capturing just enough so you know what to do next to move a project forward might keep your lists easier to manage and ready for anything.

  7. Jim says:

    If your lists are too long, deactivate a few projects. Under GTD, goals are achieved in parallel. Being in the driving seat, you can deactivate a project, be happy with it and know the effect on your life. Later on, check the “future” projects list and reactivate it again.

    Got some pressing projects ? You have urgent tax affairs, a trip to arrange and some urgent meetings ? Fine. Deactivate that project to double glaze your windows. Come back to it in 6 months or a year. As David said, “park the outcomes and actions in the appropriate places that you trust will be reviewed at the right time… and you’re free”. Easy.

  8. Tom says:

    I struggled mightily with this attitude for a while when I started GTD (and still do at times.) I keep a context of “Reminders” on my NA list so I’ll see them often. At that time I wrote, and still use this one:

    What GTD Is and Means

    My GTD System, if truly complete in an ideal sense, defines my Life!!

    It lays out a process – living my life – not an end point to be achieved.

    It portrays the decisions I’ve made (up front) about what I am going to DO (with my life), not the things I have to get DONE.

    It isn’t possible to “complete” the lists in their entirety if they represent my life.

  9. Mark Jantzen says:

    It’s true that GTD cannot overcome a situation where you are physically overcommitted.

    That’s a conversation at a higher horizon.

    While I’m nowhere near an expert I’ve got a pretty complete system and there’s no requirement to stare at it 24/7.

    Couple of keys that might help – make sure you use Someday/Maybe a lot. I’m constantly moving things back and forth between actionable (next actions/projects) and Someday/Maybe. I’m constantly asking myself if I’ve made an agreement to do something. If not then off to S/M.

    Also make sure your projects are things you can actually mark off as “done”. If not those are Areas of Focus that you don’t want to “blend” with projects.

    And, of course, the Weekly Review. A cliche that is really true!

  10. Ted Allen says:

    I can understand the concern / oppression of never ending lists.
    My father was a real list maker. He died a couple of years ago at 82 and had 8 lists in his pocket.
    For his children, his lists created a heavy burden that has lasted for years. Every morning when he left for work he left a list on the kitchen table of work for us to complete (we lived on a farm which was his hobby). The lists could not be completed in the day 90% of the time. There wasn’t any reward for finishing tasks except to get more things to do.
    The result was an incentive to procrastinate and a lifelong struggle with lists.
    Finally, I’m beginning to be able to look at task lists as something other than complete evil, but it’s taken 50 years before I could feel comfortable being able to say, I’m not going to do that.

  11. Tony says:

    @Ted – I feel for ya, and your dad. I’m sure he had the best of intentions of bringing his kids up to be productive and responsible, but the way he chose actually got in the way of you using a basic tool.

    @Pedro – I have a similar feeling about my lists. My own negative reaction to facing my lists comes from the fact that there is TOO MUCH ON IT. I look at the first half a dozen items on my “at work” list and I immediately get a tightness in my stomach, because I know for a fact that several of those will be done later than people expect of me. The obvious answer is saying “no” more often – not entirely sure how to do that when there is nobody else to do stuff that the business clearly NEEDS to get done.

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