A quick guide to GTD and projects

Some of the most common questions we get are about managing projects.  Here is how one of the Coaches replied when someone new to GTD was asking how to manage projects and all of the related steps with GTD.

There are 3 components to consider with your projects:
1. Tracking the outcome on a Projects list that serves as a master inventory of your Projects.  For example, “Complete 2010 Budget.”
2. Tracking the project support, future actions and reference for your projects.  For example, budget research you have been gathering, that you will use when working on the project.
3.  Tracking the next actions for the projects, on your context-sorted next actions lists.  For example, “Call Jose in marketing for his dept. budget figures,” or “Book meeting to go over taxes.”

The key to your next action lists is that they only hold your next actions.

So if you have a project that has 10 steps, but only one of those is a next action (meaning you have all of the information you need to take the action) then only that one would be organized on a next action list.  Many people will have some kind of keyword or enough in the description of the next action to tell them what project it relates to. All nine other actions that you cannot do yet are project support, until they become next actions.

There are many resources on GTD Connect, our online learning center, about all aspects of projects and project planning.

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  1. Hi!

    This post is priceless. I have a lot of projects and I used to key in all the action items into my outlook add in-if there are 10 actions for a project I used to key in all the ten actions into the context specific lists.

    This was done for all the projects thus resulting in gigantic lists in each context. My head reels when I look at them. I was searching for this one tip in the GTD books but could not find it.

    Thank you very much for this post. It makes implementing GTD so much easier.

  2. Agh!! I have struggled with this from Day 1. I’m not usually a “rules freak” but with GTD you’re trying to change so many behaviors at once that you get caught up in trying to do it “right” (just once!) so you can then examine how to improve. This one issue has nearly driven me mad and definitely driven me to failure more than once with the Outlook add-in.

    Of course, the trick still remains to “pop” your stack of supporting action items to the “next action” list once you complete the current action.

    Is that really “less work”… time will tell but the approach here sounds like a great idea.


  3. thank you thank you! This post says so much in a small space. You lasered in on what would help me the most.

  4. Thanks Kelly! This is a great clarification. For anyone using OmniFocus how do you build a view with only the next activity on each project? The closest I see is to assign a due date as a way to view next steps on each project. Please share your ideas if you don’t mind.

  5. @Phil Barton

    Hey Phil, I just looked at my OmniFocus install. It’s actually really simple to do this. You just have to click on the “View” button in the toolbar and set Project Filter to “Active” and Status Filter to “Next Action.” However, you can save it by going to the menubar and selecting Perspectives -> Save Window As -> New Perspective. Rename the new perspective to “Next Actions”. In addition, if you now go to the View menu in the menubar and click “Customize Toolbar…” you can drag the “Next Actions” perspective to the toolbar to have quick access to it.

    I made a screenshot of how the View toolbar should look: http://skitch.com/thanatesa/nj2h1/next-actions-only-in-omnifocus

    Hope that helps!

  6. Hi there,

    I have a question, the text says:

    “… So if you have a project that has 10 steps, but only 1 of those is a next action (meaning you have all of the information you need to take the action) then only that 1 would be organized on a next action list. …”

    Ok, the 1 NA on my NA list – but where do all the other nine go? Project support?

  7. Wlofgang wrote: where do all the other nine go? Project support?

    Kelly: Yes, project support.

    Glad you all found value in this post. It’s a key thing to understand with GTD and so glad I could shed some light on this.

    1. 13 years later, I ask:
      So, if actions should be distributed in categories, does this means, that my Project Support should contain these categories which shall contain the actions? (That is paper and/or digital)?

      1. Hi Jose Antonio,
        Project Support would only contain potential future actions, meaning actions that you cannot yet do. They do not need to be categorized until they become next actions. Your next actions do not stay in Project Support. The next actions go on categorized lists. The intent is that you would not need to look in Project Support when you are ready to do actions within a certain category.

  8. Hmm. So I use an index card based GTD system. What I have been doing up till now is using one notecard per project with the project title up at the top written large. These notecards sit in an easily accessible holder on my desk. But I have been writing both outcomes and series of actions (not NAs) on these cards, which I guess is technically project support. But then I also have a three-tray paper holder on my desk, and the middle tray is my “Hold” folder. In there I put my project support like forms to be filled out and receipts for reimbursements and so on. So I guess what I’ve done is sub-divided my project support into two categories (series of actions, and support documents). I’m wondering if this is a real bad idea and if so someone can explain why. I think part of my problem might be not necessarily seeing the difference between “Hold” and “Project Support” – so if there is a difference between the two and someone can explain that, I would be very appreciative. Thanks for your time.

  9. Hi Jay–

    Hold/Pending/Project support all sound the same to me–however–GTD makes the distinction within Hold of current next actions vs. future actions.

    Last thing I would want is to have to search through all of my project support for a project to find the one or two that are next actions. I want those triaged out already (on context lists).


  10. Kelly,

    Your clarification of each project down to the next action is very helpful. However, sometimes I have more than one next action within each category for a specific project. If I have all of the information required to start my next action items, why not list them in the context areas, and then use my intuitive judgment to select the next action to work on?

  11. Dean–you are not limited to only one next action on your context lists. If you have a project that has 5 parallel next actions (meaning any one of them could be a choice and are not dependent on one another), then any and all of those could go on your context lists. I have that for a Christmas card project I am working on. I have “buy stamps” and “buy labels” on @Errands, as well as “Photo card order” on @Waiting For and “work on mailing list names” on @Home.

    Hope that helps!

  12. I believe that at the beginning(when we started using GTD )we all had this problems. We didn’t knew where to start, what to do, is it ok to do this first…? and the list can go on. So we all need these lists! Thank you very much!

  13. Kelly-

    This is a very insightful article!

    I am struggling with a detail of pending actions, and I hope that you can help me with it.

    I have a next action that says “contact John DeJohn re: finished project 333-555-1224”

    Before I contact John, I want to have
    a. Our prototype complete
    b. 3 target customers signed up
    c. spoken with his subordinate.

    a,b and c are all part of different projects.

    Contact John would be part of the project “work with local government”.

    Now, I have several questions.

    1. Is “Work with Local Government” a Someday/Maybe project, if there are pieces that need to happen before I’m working directly on this?
    2. Where is the reminder to contact John?
    3. Is the change of events that happen before contacting John part of the “Work with Local Government” project support material?
    4. How do I make sure that each separate project alerts me that it’s then going to trigger something in another project?

    In other words: how do you manage intertwined projects, some pieces of which you aren’t yet acting on.

    To get even more complicated, how would you manage parts of a project that you brainstormed as possibilities – and each possibility has several actions – if you haven’t yet decided if you’d follow that path?

    Example here:

    “Market Research with Children” project
    a. Design questionaire
    b. Get input from Becky
    c. Get design help
    d. Find a questionaire online
    (a-d are actions)

    What if I haven’t yet decided whether I’m conducting market research, but want to store this stuff just in-case….. but the
    “Market Research with Children” is just one brainstormed path on a different project (Say – the project “Design New Features”)

    I know this is all very detailed, but these examples are what I struggle with, and understanding this will help me SO MUCh. thank you!

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