Managing Projects – Tips from David Allen

Here’s a great Q&A between David and a new GTD’er.  To appreciate David’s response, it helps to understand the GTD definitions for projects and next actions:

Projects = Your outcomes that require more than one action step.

Next Actions = Your next physical, visible action steps. Some are project-related, some are not.


If a project requires, by your definition, at least two steps, I am not clear about how many of the needed steps to put into my action list.  For example, say I have a project with 20 steps.  I may be able to do the step 1, but if I had also put down 2  or 3 steps of that project, I might have done more on the project.   Presently I have about 57 projects, but some are monster projects I’ll be working on for months.  Others I can list two steps and it’s done very quickly.  A few projects are so trivial–but important enough to be listed–that some days I don’t do the one item I listed as the next step for that project.  I could put it into the “Someday” list, but I know I’ll do it sooner than that, so it stays around not being done.  I’d rather do step 2 and then 3 and then 4 of a more important project (I might be on a roll!) than complete one whole project that is easier to do but less important.  So I’m a bit unclear about how much of one project to put in my action list.  I find myself doing the “Weekly Review” every day, so I can add more steps from more important projects.  Could you share any thoughts about how to solve this concern?   

David Allen’s reply:

The key to your action lists is that you do not have to re-think what you can and cannot do at the moment, as you look at them. If you put sequential steps there, it dulls the attraction of engaging with the list to begin with.

If there’s a good chance that a project can be finished in one sitting, in one fell swoop, then probably best to label it simply a next action and put it on your action list.

The weekly review, thoroughly done, once a week, should be sufficient to prevent having to think at that level much more often.

Nothing wrong with getting on a roll with a project, doing action steps as they show up; just make sure you’re taking some sort of note that you can throw in your in-basket if you don’t finish, which will serve as a bookmark to determine the next action before too long.

You might listen to this podcast that I did with Kelly Forrister on my staff, talking about some of those same questions.  You’ll also find a ton of resources on GTD Connect on managing projects.

Join the Conversation


  1. I would go a step further… You have the project on your project list, and the next physical action(s) you can do on your action list.

    Now in your reference system (or project file) you have a list of all the steps you need to do to complete the project. It doesn’t really matter if they’re sequential tasks or not. As you are working on the project, complete an action, or during the weekly review, you transfer tasks from the project list to your next action list — either the next sequential task or whatever tasks you want to accomplish next.

    For full-blown project management systems, the project list is a project plan. It’s worthy of review and updates during your weekly reviews… but you may not want all the tasks on your next action lists all the time.

    I have a few projects where my next action is simply “do work from the project plan” — especially when the tasks are not context specific (like calls, errands, etc.). Once in a while the next action is “do work from the plan” as well as “discuss X with David” and “go to Target to buy supplies.”

    Obviously, use whatever works for you. Don’t let your next action lists get bogged down unnecessarily, but also don’t ignore the fact that without those things written down somewhere it may still be on your mind. Just change the somewhere to be an appropriate place for what it is.

    Hope that helps.

  2. This is one of my favorite aspects of the GTD system. I can do 2-3 actions. When my attention wavers, I just send the next action to the bottom of my NA’s list. I can fully release my mind of the project and move on fresh to the next because I know it will eventually get done. Sometimes it may take a week or so to circle back to that project. It works for me because it keeps me excited about my projects and minimizes burn out.

    For really important projects or projects with deadlines, I’ll throw a NA post-it in one of my 43 folders to make sure it gets put on the top of my list for that day.

    GTD has been life changing for me. I keep my next actions in a journal and since I started really implementing the system – I have 46 pages of crossed of actions. A page of crossed off to-do lists is truly better than any work of art 🙂 Thanks David!!

  3. I definitely found it useful to think of next actions as bookmarks to launch you back into a project.

    You look at a next action and can just do it. By the time its done, the project is in front of you and you know what to do next so there is no overhead or bookkeeping, just continue.

    When you get interrupted, make sure (perhaps via your inbox) that the next action step from wherever you got to ends up in your list.

    Its like a bookmark, you don’t need to mark every page as long as you mark where to continue when you put the book down.

  4. I found myself in that same dilemma when I started out using GTD. I would have 4 or 5 ‘Next Actions’ for the same Project. It caused grid-lock for me 🙂 Just as David mentions, I too found myself avoiding my Next Action List or simply over-focusing on the needs of one project and neglecting the others.
    I resolved my problem by using an additional Action type (Call, Next, Agenda, etc) called ‘List’ for my tasks. Note- I do all of my GTD in Outlook using the GTD Add-In. Adding this new Action in this product allows me to filter when/if I need to see my ‘List’ tasks or ‘Next Action’ tasks via Task Views or Project Central.

    My weekly review looks like this. As I review my Project List (64 projects currently), I compare it to my ‘Next Action’ List. I know that I should have a ‘Next Action’ task for each project (roughly 64 actions). With my large projects, I frequently brainstorm the next 2,3 or even 4 tasks needed to move that particular project along. Instead of misplacing those or adding them to my ‘Next Action’ List, I label those tasks with the action ‘List’. During my review, if my ‘Next Action’ list is short or if I draw a blank on what I should do next on a particular project to move it along- I simply review my project’s ‘List’ tasks. So, in essence I update my ‘Next Action’ List from my ‘List’ tasks. My ‘Next Action’ List stays under control and focused on my projects.

    Now, you could see it as an additional step, but it works well for me. Many of my projects are very detailed oriented will lots of tasks so capturing them all under ‘List’ in one trusted place until they are moved to ‘Next Action’ allows me to empty my mind and just focus on the ‘Next Action’ List during my day-to-dy work.

    Thanks for opportunity to share. Thank you Mr. Allen for GTD!

    GTDer for 5 years.

  5. I’ve had a similar issue with managing the next actions on multi-step projects and what seems to be working (well, has worked for a few months) is that I generally spend some time working out the steps of a project – either all or at least the next 5-10 – and put that in the reference material for the project. Only the immediate next action goes into the formal list of next actions but, when I finish that next action, I immediately pull over the next next action from the project reference material into my next actions list.

    Basically this means I can do a reasonable amount of pre-planning/thinking on a project’s actions without having several items from that project in my next action list and, once one next action is done, I can also easily pull up the next next action and work on that if it’s the most appropriate thing to be doing. It also gives me a list of what’s been done on the project in the reference material.

  6. Obviously GTD is not a tool-depending system but sometimes, still not using any kind of software, their ideas may help a little. I use MonkeyGTD off-line to control my lists. There I insert next actions and projects. It’s inside the Projects where I insert it’s next actions. And I can set it’s “Depends on next action”. So, when I tick a project’s next action (in the NA list) as done, the software brings to my NA list, the one which is it’s dependent one. And I don’t need to manage it (my lists). Maybe some kind of adaptation could be done in other systems as to adopt it. Ore use this tool – MonkeyGTD – which is the best I found to control myself with GTD. Find it at
    Good luck.
    Geraldo Dias – Brazil

  7. I have struggled with this area of aligning projects and next actions and also the best place to list the sequential action steps of simple projects. I use an Excel spreadsheet (no macros) to list my Outcomes (=Projects) alongside my Actions. If an Outcome needs say 3 simple steps then I do 3 rows and triplicate the Outcome. I also have a column called “NA” (Next Action) which is either “Y” or “N”. Only the first action has “NA” equal to “Y”. Then just apply a simple Excel Autofilter to the sheet and select “NA” = “Y” to see a clean list of your Next Actions.

  8. I’d like to know the reason why my message was cut from here. Did I say something that couldn’t be said? I’d like to be a participant but need to know what may or not be said so my msgs stay here.
    Antonio Geraldo – Brazil

  9. Dear David –

    Thanks for pointing out a pitfall so many people fall into. It’s so easy to confuse our priorities and get frustrated, unless, of course, we follow a system that works.

    Thanks again,

    Jonathan Flaks

  10. Going by David’s statement “if all parts of a project are planned, then its only a matter of picking up a phone, writing mail etc.” in other words taking the next action.

    However, deciding how much to plan or to what level plan and deciding the appropriate next action is not trivial (again these may be the 10% of your projects). This is even more complex for long-term projects. e.g. retirement planning

    It would be very useful for me (as well as other users of GTD) if this blog would explain 2-3 sample projects planned and implemented using GTD philosophy.


  11. Hello SRS,

    We’ll look at doing more blog posts on detailing out projects, as you suggest. There are loads of resources on GTD Times and GTD Connect on projects that you should find helpful now. Here are two links on GTD Times I would suggest, if you haven’t seen these:

    We’re also working on a new product for the fall on GTD & Projects. Should give a ton of detail and helpful models for wading through your projects.


  12. Kelly

    Thanks for the response and the links. The reason I suggest taking a live project, breaking it into tasks and doing it the GTD-way is to better understand the intricacies of implementation. The problem I see with most projects is a lack of integrated or central planning. Now if you do go that route your task list becomes hard to manage.

    Not sure if this makes sense to you at the moment but if you were to take an example, I can point the difficulties. I would appreciate if you mail me the update on GTD and projects.


    Dr. Saraf

  13. I’d add that having a few next actions for large contexts may well make sense as you will have different contexts to taking the next action – a call, at the computer, an errand. You want to be able to access the next action in the right context.


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