Managing projects with GTD

Having a complete and current projects list is one of the cornerstones to GTD mastery. To support you in getting there, here are 10 keys to defining and managing projects:

1. Projects are defined as outcomes that will require more than one action step to complete and that you can mark off as finished in the next 12 months.

2. Think of your Projects list as a current table of contents of the current outcomes on your plate.

3. Most people have 10-100 current projects, personally and professionally.

4. Current projects have at least one next action, waiting for, or calendar action, in order to be considered current.

5. Projects that have no current next action, waiting for, or calendar action are either no longer projects for you, or should be incubated to Someday/Maybe.

6. Future actions (i.e., actions that are dependent on something else happening first) do not go on the Next Actions lists until you can take action on them. They get stored with project plans.

7. The Projects list and project plans are typically reviewed in your GTD Weekly Review, ensuring each project has at least one current next action, waiting for, or calendar item.

8. It’s fine to have multiple next actions on any given project, as long as they are parallel and not sequential actions (e.g., “Buy stamps” and “Mail invitations” would not both be on Next Actions lists for the “Put on Party for David” project given that you need to buy the stamps before you can mail the invitations).

9. Projects are listed by the outcome you will achieve when you can mark it as done (what will be true?).

10. Effective project names motivate you toward the outcome you wish to achieve, and give you clear direction about what you are trying to accomplish.

How well are you doing on these? Where do you have any gaps? What is going well for you?

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  1. This post is so timely as I was just thinking about this on my drive to work. Having practiced GTD for the past 12 years this one element of GTD that I find troublesome.

    If the project is not slated to start for another 4 months (so still falls within the 12 month definition of a current project) why would I want to keep it on a current project list to review every week?

    It does’t go on the calendar because it’s not a definite date and it doesn’t go on the someday maybe list because it will happen within 4 months. For this reason I keep another project list that is not current as I don’t want to review that every week. What am I missing?

    1. Hi Ann,

      I think I understand you. You would not want to review every week a project that doesn’t start or become relevant until 4 months from now.

      My approach to this is that I keep 2 lists of projects. One “Active” and another one “On Hold/Backlogged”. I review in great detail the “Active” project list every week, but am satisfied with reviewing the name/reason to exist of the On Hold/Backlogged projects every week. To ensure that the On Hold/ Backlogged projects get activated when they are relevant, I set reminders in my calendar such as “Start planning Summer vacation”. I then pull that particular project from the on hold/backlogged list and drop it into Active.

      Hope this helps you

  2. Ann — I would hold it on “Waiting For” and identify “what” or “whom” you are waiting for … and leave it there until it becomes active.

  3. The other possibility is creating a trigger four months forward on your calendar to “Start Project X”. The project itself can then sit on your Someday list, perhaps with a note that reminds you not to worry about it. This seems to be one of the system’s acceptable use of the calendar. It works!

  4. I like using GTD ideas to organize my folder structure on my PC, so I have: \ref for reference, \prj for projects with NextAction.txt at the top level.

    One type of thing that comes up for me are “ongoing projects” … say “produce monthly report”. It’s something that I have to do every month, and there is no end date. There are a bunch of resources (say xls files) that I need every time I do this, so it would be good to keep them grouped together in one folder on my PC … but which folder? it’s not exactly reference, it’s not a project (no end date), …

    1. Hi Tom,
      I’m not a GTD expert and I’m also trying to figure out how best apply GTD to my daily life, but what I would do in your case is keeping the “templates” of the bunch of resources you need for the monthly report (or the ones used in a previous month) in the \ref folder, and I would add two reminders scheduled on a monthly basis: one for the project “monthly report” itself with a deadline on the date you need to deliver it, the other for the first action you normally do when you start working on the monthly report, on the date you normally start working on it (say one week before the deadline)

    2. Tom, I have dealt with this issue in my job, and this is how I managed it. Think of each monthly report as its own project. So, September’s report has its own project folder, October’s report has its own folder, etc. The spreadsheets and other resources you use to create these reports should be stored in the report project folder of the current month. Store these resource files in a sub-folder called “Project Support Materials”. So, for instance, in September’s Report folder, you would have the report file itself (I assume you copy, paste, and rename this file each month, or something similar), and then in the “Project Support Materials” sub-folder, you have all the necessary resources to complete the report. Once September’s report is finished, you archive September’s folder in your project records, and move the “Project Support Materials” into October’s report folder, which would be located wherever you store all your current project materials. In this manner, you always have the project support materials with the current iteration of the report, and don’t have to copy and paste these resources every month for each report. The only items which are archived here are the complete monthly reports. Let me know if I can provide more detail on this structure, or answer any additional questions. Thanks!

  5. Hello,

    This is a great way to look at it! I am curious as to how people handle the “list of next actions” for any given project, i.e. beyond just the next couple of actions. For example, if you’ve got 10 sequential action items to complete a specific project, do you have a collection/list of all of those items somewhere? They don’t really fit on the project list, and only the topmost one belongs on the Next Actions list. I have traditionally just decided the Next Action for a project when I complete the current Next Action and am doing my review, but this isn’t the most efficient way.

    Any ideas or recommendations?


    1. I just read a book discussing setting up GTD in OneNote and they recommended you create a ‘section’ for the project and then within that section each page is ‘next action’. You would move the next ‘next action’ page from the project section to the Next Action section and then delete/archive it when it’s completed. I’m not sure this is the best most smooth way to do it within your system but it would work. I also have a ‘master list’ of to-do’s for each project that is a bit easier to look down for my weekly review.

  6. How do you file e-mails connected to projects in outlook? Do you create a folder for each project? Do you put e-mails in the note section of a “project task” Or…?

  7. Hello there

    I’m struggling with this in a specific way.

    I work as a freelance copywriter, and usually I’d get an order from a client, who needs 20 new SEO articles. Each article may require 1-2 hours of work.

    How do I manage this? Would you guys move the whole thing to projects or actions? Or a combination?

    Best regards

  8. Hey,
    I do what you do (content writing).
    I suggest doing something like this:
    Work Projects -> Awesome Articles Making -> 20 articles for client X -> article about fish / deadline: tomorrow midnight – and into the calendar.
    done with that? put the next article as action to do.
    In order to see how it all fits in the scedule, I use Google calendar.
    Or you can do it per client but I think it’s less efficient.
    I have categories like:
    Spreading Noy in the word (self-marketing). Article writing, Facebook posts (for clients), Instagram posts, etc. and I diviede my attention according to their importance. for example: self marketing takes 20% of my work time (cuz this is what I decided). so i know tjat out of 50 hours work a week, 10 hours will go on marketing meaning 2 hours A day – and that way I could scedule in the calendar properly.
    hope this made sense for you.

  9. Ann, I hope my answer is not too late, but this is how I handle projects for close future:
    – I use the ticker file to put the project name in the month I need to start it, or one week before (it will be a trigger to start the project).
    – Until then I keep all my data (actions, information etc.) in the projects filling system (digital or a real box/folder). I keep a space in one of my cabinets for ongoing projects, and also I use a OneNote notebook for digital project filling system.
    – On every weekly review I look in the tickler file and see if there are projects / next actions that I need to clarify and add to proper lists. (My tickler file is a digital one with hierarchical lists for every week and month in the current year, and for the upcoming years.

  10. I have been practicing GTD for the past five months, and it has helped me tremendously. But I am still a bit unrefined in a few areas. One of them is projects. What I have been struggling with is – when do I actually do this project planning? So for example within the GTD framework the time for doing less than two minute actions is now. The time for defining next actions is when I am processing my In-Bucket every morning. But once I have identified things that require more than one action, and put it on the project list, it happens to just sit there for a long time or get lost, because there is no defined time to process or plan for projects. What could be the solution to this?

    1. The time to do the project planning is when you identify an Inbox item to be a project. Then you create a project out of this item, define the desired outcome and probably define a few more steps that either go into your inbox for later processing or are being processed right away. And even if you can’t define any next actions for now, they maybe will pop up during the next days and eventually the project will be reviewed in your weekly review. If there are no more next actions definable for the project, you either have to abandon it, put it to someday/maybe or find another way to define a next action.

    2. My understanding is that projects should either have a next action, a waiting for, or a calendar task associated. When you do your regular review, you review your projects list and assign next actions, waiting fors, and calendar items as needed to each project; I would also evaluate project direction and planning at this time. The time when you actually process these project tasks is the same time when you process your other one-off tasks. I collate my one-off tasks and project tasks, so when I’m processing tasks I do the one-off tasks and the project next actions during the same period, and similarly for one-off waiting fors and one-off calendar items.

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