You don't need a Projects list? Then throw away your calendar.

Hi Folks,

The real power in GTD is not really in the hand writing or typing we do onto lists—it’s in the executive and creative thinking triggered as we engage with them. This month I explore the one list that can easily be the most powerful in terms of maintaining ongoing control and focus in work and life—the Projects list. Here’s a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they can get along without it.

All the best,




People started keeping calendars a century ago. Why? Because life’s time-based commitments got more complex than they could trust their mind to manage. If you think that a Projects list is unnecessary, then throw away your calendar and trust life will just let you know what you should be doing, in the moment. Good luck. If you decide you need a calendar, then keep a list of your projects you’re committed to completing, as well as appointments to keep. Otherwise you’re intellectually dishonest.

If you’re still trying to get your arms around the concept of Projects, a Projects list, and GTD, you’re not alone. “Projects” does seem to be one of the toughest inventories or concepts for people to grasp with GTD—even very sophisticated folks. I think the word “project” is laden with so many heavyweight events in their companies, they don’t acknowledge that something in their own life and work deserves that kind of rigorous thinking and tracking, if it’s not of the nature of “construct building” or “design car.”

So, call these things whatever you want. If you can’t put “Get new babysitter” or “Create my ideal retirement scenario” on a Projects list, put it on the “Outcomes I need and want to have happen” list! And they don’t have to go into a computer, each with a formal project plan. You could just write them as a list on the whiteboard in your kitchen or keep a file folder with separate pieces of paper for each item, labeled “Things to finish.” But for heaven’s sake, capture all of them, clarify what it is you’re committed to complete, and keep them in an easily reviewed index.

The last and necessary key to graduate to a next level of control and focus in your life will be to ensure that you’ve not only captured and clarified all of your projects, but that you also revisit each of those entries often enough, deciding each one’s next action, and keeping the list current. Weekly is the most common interval for this kind of executive oversight.

Stop! Reflect for a second: What’s occurred in your life and work in the last seven days, about which you know that you’ve got something you need to handle, finish, resolve, or clarify, but you haven’t taken the few moments yet required to define the project that signifies or the next step required? Tricky business, to stay on top of all this…but absolutely necessary if you’re going to win at the game of work and business of life.

This excerpt is from a recent issue of David’s Productive Living newsletter. It’s free and sent about every 4 weeks. You’ll find essays from David Allen, thought-provoking quotes, and productivity tips you can use every day.

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  1. What should I do with next actions/ideas that only go in action when a need shows up.

    For instance, I just found out about an app for sound editing, and it looks promising and I would definitely buy it once I get back into editing music. So I made the decision to buy it, but not now, rather, when I feel like editing music, I’ll buy it. The real decision that I made, is the choice of that app, and ending research for sound editing software.

    So where should that action go?
    I have no intention of editing any music right now, so I don’t need to buy it now.
    But in the future, If I do have an intention to edit, I’d want myself to buy that app that I chose.

    Should I make an “If this, then that” list?
    ” – If wanted to edit music, buy ‘sound studio’ in appstore”

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Hussein,
    I have many such items on my Someday/Maybe list. During my weekly review, I briefly scan the list, and pull out any items that I feel like starting – it’s an intuitive process, but most of the list receives a “not yet” from me.

    For me, just having a someday/maybe list lets me park the “conditions aren’t right yet” actions without worrying about missing future opportunities.

  3. It has finally clicked for me! I put many things on my action list that are really projects. I need to move those to a separate list and then think about what is my next action and put that on my action list! I am sure all of you have gotten this already but this was a light bulb moment for me. I kept struggling with thinking I have captured everything and I have but not in an efficient manner.

    1. That’s great, Molly! Thanks for sharing. Your action list will be more useful now.

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