Determining Priority GTD Style

By Michael Gorsline

OmniFocus is a GTD inspired productivity application for Mac. When I visit the OmniFocus discussion boards, at fairly regular intervals someone will ask, “But why can’t you Omni guys incorporate a way to assign priority to action items?” and an argument promptly ensues. GTD folks try to explain why that just doesn’t make sense. Others work to advance the idea that rating the priority of action items is essential.

From the Getting Things Done perspective you don’t want to assign “priority” to action items on the front end for a couple of reasons. The first is that priority always depends on the constellation of situations at hand. From a GTD view you just can’t decide priority in a vacuum. To the question, “What is the priority?” the question that needs to be asked to answer it is “…the  priority in what context?” When you know more about the the given situation in the moment, the priority becomes clear.

When you do try to assign priority to action items on the front end, you’re apt to run into the following problem. As soon as a couple of variables shift, as they are guaranteed to do, it will alter the array of possibilities. So lots of the action items you have rated at given priority levels are going to change. And when they do, then you’re busy re-prioritizing all those items. You finish and brush the dust off your hands, breathing a sigh of relief. Then another change pops up and your priority labels are inaccurate all over again. I lived through doing this re-prioritizing hamster wheel in the early 90’s and ended up dropping the practice. Looking at the on the ground practice, GTD suggests that priority makes a lot more sense to assess when you know the complete context of the given moment.

What You Need to Know

So what details do you need to know? First, what is the context? Where are you, and what tools you have at your disposal? Examples are at the computer, @computer; at the computer and hooked up to internet service, @computer: online; talking with my spouse, @Erin in my case; at the hardware store, @cavernous box store, etc. Unlike priority, context is something that makes sense to decide on the front end. If you know you want an avocado, you likely know where you’re going to want to buy it. If you have an email to send, you know where you’re likely to send it from. So deciding the context of each item on the front end and writing them down makes sense. Here’s another reason.

As I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post, our brains just aren’t good at carrying around that kind information, or more accurately, they aren’t good at retrieving it when we want it. It either will clog up our psychic RAM and take up valuable processing space, or it will be relegated to long term memory. Unfortunately the way our cranial long term storage works depends on cues that may or may not come to mind at the moment we need them. So writing down next actions and the contexts we know we’ll do them in, or digitally recording them, will make the best use of how our brains work. This in turn will ensure that when we leave the grocery store, for instance, we’ll have all the things we need, not just the ones that happened to be triggered by internal and external (grocery store visual input) cues that happen onto our mental scene.

The other two variables you’ll want to take into account before deciding on priority are the time available, and energy available. One of the strengths of Getting Things Done is the way that it seizes all sorts of strange little windows of time, and distills those into moments of productivity. They’re usually moments that we wouldn’t get much out of in any case. Sitting waiting for Super Lube to finish up their signature service on my wagon doesn’t usually leave me with any rewarding sense of satisfaction. On the other hand if I have the gut sense that just sitting and being present in the moment as I wait for them to pronounce me ready for checkout is a priority, then I could go for that option. If I do go with getting something done, that is work that won’t need to be done later, leaving you that much closer to the GTD goal of “having nothing on your mind”.

Sift Out Context

So let’s put it all together. Rather than making our decisions about what to do based on predetermined priorities that are likely to change like specks in a kaleidoscope anyway, GTD suggests that we use four criteria to decide:

1. Context
2. Time available
3. Energy Available
4. Priority
Using all four requires looking at context in the moment—where we are and what tools we have—and assessing time and energy available on the fly. Only then are we able to use our brain’s strength, intuition, or gut if you prefer, to assess what the priority might be given the circumstances consisting of the prior three criteria in our list. I use context, time available, and energy available as a sieve to sift out what can be done in this weird little window of a few minutes. Only after I’ve looked at these three can I determine what is the priority for right now, the present moment.

Say I’m sitting in the shoe store waiting for the shoe salesman at 6:17. I’ve got my phone and my notepad with me with some notes from this afternoon’s meeting. I’m not going to listen voicemails because the salesman might come striding up and interrupt me in the middle of a message, and I’d just have to listen to it again later—time wasted. I open my email program on my phone and take a gander, and there’s that email I still need to respond to. I’m too fried to think about the details clearly now. The meeting this afternoon didn’t have anything urgent in it. Plus it will be more efficient to pull next actions out of my notes when I have a legal pad in front of me. Not very convenient to do here. I also could look over my calendar to review upcoming meetings and deadlines. I could do some minor deck clearing by deleting any emails that don’t contain any info I need to access or file. Based on intuition and the relatively similar priority. I decide to go with reviewing my calendar.

Going with Your Gut

Now these little windows are often easier to decide what to do with than larger swaths of time. But the small window of time serves as a nice example, keeping the process front and center. For some this post was review, which is often good in any case. For others this will clarify the nature of how GTD triangulates priority by using your brain’s crowning skill, on the ground intuition. So letting your gut lead you doesn’t have to mean that it’s been too long since you’ve been to the gym. Instead it can mean using your brain in a manner that enhances its strengths and shores up those areas it just does better with support, keeping you moving on the path toward effortless productivity.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great article!

    I’ve yet to hear someone with a complete GTD system complain about the lack of priorities.

    Another trap of trying to predefine priorities is the assumption that, once defined, priorities remain static. In reality priorities are fluid from minute to minute.

    How do you deal with that? See above!

  2. Great article!

    In my experience, when people want to force priority codes they want the lists to tell them what to do–not their intuition/heart/gut/butt. No system will ever tell you what to do–how could it? The factors change too quickly and the lists don’t have the strategic intelligence your brain does to know the best choice in the moment given ALL of the criteria needed to make a decision: context, time available, resources and priorities.

    The lists can show you your choices, but it won’t tell you which one is the best one to choose.

  3. Hi Kelly,

    That’s a nice observation to have from someone who is one of the big time experts in GTD Coaching. As a therapist what you mention strikes me as almost an existential dodging of responsibility, which we’re apt to do from time to time. It’s also seems like an attempt to stretch the cranking widgets concept a bit further than really it goes.

    “Intuition/heart/gut/butt” got an audible chuckle out of me.

    Nice, concise distillation of what this means. Thanks for the thoughts.


  4. @Mark That’s a good point. Those that say that priority on the front end is a must most often GTD dabblers, rather than anyone who has tried implementing the system as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Just not terribly surprising that the system doesn’t make sense to them, as they haven’t had the chance drive it out on the freeway to see what it can do.

  5. In my experience, the priority coding adds a lot of overhead to the system … and there has never been a commensurate payoff. Too much work and it never stuck for more than a short period of time.

    Always seemed like a good idea. Now I rarely give it a thought.

  6. @Dean That last line struck me funny. It reminds me of someone referring back to a former struggle with an addiction that they’ve managed successfully for years.

    You never know when that siren song of priority coding might call to you, and you’ll have to lash yourself the the GTD mast to resist its perils.

  7. The problem I had with GTD 2 years ago was that I would keep, for example, a list of things to do in a given context, but because of lack of prioritization and scheduling, I would never be in that context.

    For example, you mention “at the hardware store, @cavernous box store”. Unless you know that going to that store has a high priority because you need to buy a bulb for your lamp, and you schedule time to *be* in that context, you’ll never get to the point where you look at your @cavernous list.

    I’m still trying to find a good combination of GTD and other methods (Time Management for System Administrators shows a good mash-up of different methods, e.g.)

  8. Hi JJ. Thanks for sharing what was working for you and what was more difficult. I get what you’re saying. I’m on my way out the door, but this is a good question so I’ll toss in what might be helpful.

    For me a couple things come to mind from a GTD perspective. One is the weekly review as a tool for sifting out what your priorities. There is no replacement going over all the projects you do have and figuring out what YOU really want taken care of in the coming weeks. This ensures that you do look at that context often enough to determine if it is something to be taken care of that week.

    I think part of this is an existential question. Everything we choose to do has an “opportunity cost”. Often there are items that just are not going to fit in for a period of time given other priorities. There are always going to be more possibilities than time available no matter what system I use. I do have some items, fixing a knob on my daughter’s dresser that is going to involve some modifications that will take 30 min, which I’d like to do eventually, but it just hasn’t made the cut this summer, and may not for a while. But since I do review regularly what I have on my plate, I feel good about not having fixed it yet because I know what I’ve decided to do instead is more important. It’s that whole “feeling good about what you’re not doing” piece that we’ve had a recent post on here a the Times

    The other thought I have is back of the envelope thinking. I can be useful to make a little map of sorts and jot down that “Cavernous box store”, and maybe even look at the area the store is in on Google maps to see if there are other errands that would fit in that area, or on the way there. Sometimes the map of the physical area will trigger bring other errands to miind that can be, or need to be, taken care of around that store or on the way. Sometimes identifying other errands for the area will shift the balance, and suddenly that cluster of errands will take on a higher priority.

    Also I may only get the items I need and still not have the time immediately for the repair or project. But I’m one step closer, and having the item(s) on hand will alter my priorities so that I am that much closer to having it match my context and energy available so I can take care of it when an appropriate window of time opens up.

    All that said, GTD does fit in remarkably well with other approaches if you’re more inclined to creating a hybrid yourself. Also we may get lucky here and have Kelly or Maurice drop by and add some of their expertise as well.

    Thanks for reading and weighing in.

  9. My hit was that you may not have any habits built in with the Next Action (context) list yet, like you do with your Calendar. So it sounds like your natural tendency is for the Calendar to remind you of what you think you really need to do.

    The GTD approach would certainly value daily review of the calendar for actions that require a day or time, but the Action lists are just as critical for daily review all of the other moving parts that need to get done, but aren’t tied to a day or time.

    Throughout my day, I’m typically toggling between 3 things:

    Action lists

    The nice part about sorting the Action lists by contexts, rather than scanning through one gigantic list, is that I only need to scan the lists that match my current context (person, place or tool.)


  10. For me, the lack of prioritisation is one of the biggest problems with GTD, but suprisingly my justification for using priorities is actually *very* GTD: keeping processing & doing separate, and keeping “stuff” out of your head.

    I find prioritising “on the fly” very difficult; it’s actually one of the things most likely to make me procrastinate! But while I’m doing a review, I’m in the perfect frame of mind to determine my priorities in relation to my higher level goals, project dependencies & any deadlines. I thought GTD was supposed to be about keeping things out of your head; well, I don’t know about you, but to make effective decisions about priority I need to have the bigger picture in mind, which is a lot to be carrying around in your head the whole time (or do you spend half an hour looking at your 10,000ft+ levels and examining how each task fits into them before reaching a decision?!!). During a review I’m able to look at the bigger picture and make sensible decisions about what needs prioritising.

    I have tried “pure GTD” but I ended up in as much of a mess as I was in before I had any proper system, since I had these long lists for each context with no guides on what to do first, or even whether I should be switching to another context. I think “pure” GTD is best for people who are more frequently constrained by context, and who have many different contexts. I have few meaningful contexts and I usually have a lot of freedom about which context to operate in.

    Most of David Allen’s objections to prioritisation seem to be based on several assumptions: that you are constrained by context, that you are good at determining priority “on the fly”, that you have fairly short Next Action lists, and that assigning priorities means that’s the only criterion you’ll use to decide what to do. Modern task management software/webapps allow you to view your tasks in all sorts of ways, not just by priority, so if you are in a particular context you can view only that context and then sort by date or priority, or enter the time you have available and be presented with only tasks that you have time for, or view by any other criteria the software allows you to.

    I use priorities, but they aren’t the only thing I use to decide what to do, they are just a guide to help me make the best use of my time without having to think too hard when I should just be acting. If I’m tired or feel like I deserve a reward I’ll pick something easy rather than something that’s top priority (I use tags in Toodledo to mark the nicer tasks as “easy”, so I can call these up at a click); if I’m sat at the computer I’ll look at my @computer context list (although I’ll probably start with the top priority tasks in that context); if I only have 10 minutes I’ll look at the list of tasks that take 10 minutes or less. Context is often not the most logical way for me to choose my tasks, since I’m usually at home; if I have an appointment that requires I leave the house I’ll look at my @errands list, but I can sometimes go a week without having any fixed commitments outside the house so I need to be reminded of more urgent errands regardless of where I am.

    If you take GTD to heart, and really do get all the “stuff” out of your head into your system, then the lists can get pretty unwieldy. I try to be disciplined about moving things into “someday/maybe”, but if I’m too strict I end up with nothing fun on my lists at all! I don’t know, maybe I’m too good at thinking up things to do and not good enough at making decisions, but I don’t know how anyone can look at a list of 30+ tasks and be able to make a quick decision about what to do next without some guide to priority!

    I don’t care what anyone says, some tasks are more intrinsically important or urgent (e.g. those things you’ll get into trouble about if you don’t do, things that an important project with a deadline depends on, things that contribute towards a goal that you value highly, tasks that someone else is relying on you to do etc), but it isn’t always obvious at a glance which tasks these are (especially in a very simple classic GTD setup where Next Actions are orphaned in a context list. I have no idea how anyone can make good decisions with that kind of setup!). In a review I can see all of this information and make better decisions about which tasks should be prioritised, something I just can’t do while I’m in “action mode”!

  11. Well missdipsy, it’s clear that you’ve done your GTD homework and have given the system genuine try. And I think the central theme of your post presents a good question. First let me say that I am not a David Allen Co trained GTD coach; I only play one on TV. Actually as a coach and therapist in private practice I just draw heavily on GTD ideas. So I will respond with my impressions from that vantage point.

    Since it sounds like you have tried out the system as recommended, and you have found that for your uniques circumstances you like using priority as one of several criteria, and find it makes the system feel more flexible and workable for you, my instinct as a therapist and coach is to say adapt away.

    I think the central thing about your situation that presents an interesting challenge is having less of your scheduling landscape determined by outside forces. I think that David’s assumption about context is correct. Context IS always constraining, by definition. You can only work where you are and with whatever tools are at your disposal. But your situation seems to be that you have few pre-determined constraints so you could be doing any of a number of things, for instance running any of a number of errands OR or on the phone OR on email OR working on Word.
    So clearly one option is to adapt GTD and do what you are doing. Seems like you’re finding a lot useful like capturing info regularly, getting things out of your head, deciding on next actions, determining context, etc that are worth sticking with.

    I use OmniFocus and one of the things I love about doing electronic GTD is being able to alter the order of action items in my context lists on the fly. So one way I cope with more weighty items is I just put the more pressing items up toward the top. This feels better to me than fiddling with what letter to assign the item (which will often change anyway) or how many stars or exclamation marks to put next to it. When something new arises, as it always seems to, which shifts priority I can quickly drag and drop to alter what I look at toward the top of the list. On my laptop it is one keyboard shortcut away. Works better for me, but not sure it would for you. Again I have no investment in getting you to do anything differently esp if it’s working well for you.

    I‚Äôm hopeful that Kelly or another official GTD coach might drop by and have a more fine-grained GTD response to your interesting question, esp since I’m curious how David would recommend coping with your circumstances according to GTD principles. Thanks for reading, and weighing in with your experiences.

  12. @missdipsy – I don’t think that is very odd. While I rely on my NA list, two things have helped me with the issues you’re addressing without resorting to setting an explicit priority tag on my tasks.

    The first is to be very, very aggressive about moving projects to an “on hold” or “someday/maybe” status. I try to make sure that everything coming up in my NA list is something I really have as a priority for the week. I do work off other projects sometimes, retrieving things by context usually. But in general, I’ve been trimming down my real active projects list to about 1/4 the length it used to be.

    And I leave some time in my schedule for those “more fun” tasks. If I’ve covered my appointments, taken care of deadline-driven projects, and made progress on active projects, then I don’t have a problem with switching to some context I know has more entertaining work.

    The other trick is doing some very rough prioritization of my active projects NA list. I put the most important of the active projects at the top of my list. And I put the most important tasks or roadblock tasks at the top of each project so they show up first. It doesn’t enforce strict prioritization, but it does mean the first to-do items I see are the ones that are right in front me near the top of the list.

    Does that make any sense for the kind of work you do?

  13. Those dismayed by the fact that sometimes with GTD you may do only small tasks (because it’s appropriate in that context to do them), may be comforted by the knowledge that:

    doing small tasks leaves you more
    – time
    – mental space
    to do other more important tasks later

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