Priorities and GTD

Challenges with priorities and GTD

A GTD Connect member asked:
I am having a challenge understanding priorities and GTD. I have at least 100 projects, from LARGE to little. Now you break down those projects to single actions which at least triples your actions. So I might have about 300 single actions to be done.

Wouldn’t the first thing to do be according to priority? The LARGEST and Loudest? The one that is going to give you the largest return, like not get fired on the job?

I’m still working on perspective, because I know that has a lot to do with it. But I just wanted a little help on the day-to-day, minute-by-minute tactical level.


How to decide what to do

GTD Coach Kelly Forrister responded:
1/ Context is first since it will always be required to do what you want to do. For example, if your computer is required to write an email, but you don’t have it with you, then you can’t take that action. If being @Home is required to mow your lawn, but you’re not home, you can’t take that action.

2/ Time available is also a limitation in that if you don’t have the time to take an action, it won’t matter if it’s high priority or not. If you only have ten minutes, but you need an hour to take an action, that will eliminate some choices.

3/ Resources will make a difference in terms of what you have the energy and resources to do. If your brain is toast, good chance you won’t want to do that high priority thing anyway, since you won’t have the mental horsepower for it. Ever have that feeling that your brain works better/worse at different times of the day? That’s resources. You will naturally make different choices.

4/ When the first three limitations have narrowed down your choices, then it’s time for strategic thinking: priority. What will give you the biggest payoff to do in this moment? Maybe in one moment that’s doing what prevents getting fired and in another doing what makes you the most money. And the next day it might be what will make your boss happy and the next what will make your spouse or partner happy.


Two questions that can help clarify priority

  • What’s the value in getting this done?
  • What’s the risk if I don’t?

If you aren’t crystal clear on your priorities, climb up the Horizons of Focus, especially to Areas of Focus to know what you are actually responsible for personally and professionally. Many times people will do that and realize they have things on their projects and next actions lists that are not really their job. If you are not sure what your areas are (most people have 5–7 personally and 5–7 professionally) then maybe it’s time for some updates on that with people you think can help you get clear on that.

And, don’t underestimate what fully capturing, clarifying, and organizing will do. Only when those are really complete will you fully trust your intuitive choices about what to do. Otherwise, you’ll have that nagging sense you’re missing something that might be more important.


Join the Conversation


  1. I empathize with that GTD Connect member, and have a bit to say about it…

    I understand needing a method to select the appropriate action to do from a large list of actions, but in my mind, GTD treats this process too statically in the name of simplicity: always start with context, then time available, then energy available, then priority. In the real world, both context and time available can be changed in order to accommodate the execution of high priority actions. Not only that, but an action’s priority is often very dynamic.

    In my experience, if an action’s priority is high enough, it might be the most important attribute to consider. You can often change your context and sometimes even your time available. With a good shot of espresso, energy available can be changed too 🙂

    Let’s say your context is currently Home, any you have an action that requires you to be at the office. GTD says “don’t even look at the actions on the @Office context list because you can’t do them when you’re not at the office!” Had you looked on your @Office list and realized that there is a high priority action, you might decide, “I need to go into the office (change your context) to do this action!”. Sometimes, priority can trump all other things when deciding what to do!

    Another example: let’s say you have a high priority action that requires a computer or a phone, but those contexts aren’t available. GTD says “don’t bother looking at actions on the @computer or @phone lists when you’re not in those contexts, because YOU CAN’T DO THEM!”. In the real world, you change your context if the priority of an action is high enough — when you have a high priority action that requires a phone or computer and you don’t have them, you get to a phone or computer to do that action (change your context). Again, in this example, priority trumps context.

    Also, Time Available seems too rigid as well. Let’s say I have 30 minutes until a meeting, and I have an important action that will take me an hour. GTD says “I can’t do this action, since there’s not enough time!”. Perhaps that’s too restrictive. For example, maybe you should finish 30 minutes of that 60-minute action, because the priority makes it the most important thing right now. Or, maybe you skip that meeting to do the action, or maybe you ask to reschedule the meeting, etc. Here, priority trumps time available.

    Same thing with energy available. You’re tired, and don’t have much energy. However, you have a high priority action that requires lots of energy. GTD says “I can’t do this action because I don’t have enough energy available!” In the real world, sometimes (if not often), you have to do things that you don’t have the energy to do. Here, priority trumps energy available. Or, you change your energy available with a couple of strong cups of coffee 🙂

    The bottom line is that GTD appears to under-emphasize the importance of considering priority when choosing what action you should be doing. While this makes it easier to define this process in GTD (easier to communicate the process to readers), it also creates a disconnect with how people operate (and should operate) in the real world. Just my two cents, but seems like an adjustment that GTD could make to be less idealistic and more realistic about how to choose what to do (or adjustments you can make to be more “available” to do something important).


    1. I really like your comments, Rob. I resolve some of these issues by creating time blocks on my calendar for projects and major tasks that I consider high priority, regardless of context. As you stated, I will make sure that when that time block arrives, I have everything — the appropriate tools — to be able to execute on that project of task.

    2. Rob,

      You make many excellent points about the importance of priority when choosing what to do now. In my opinion, priority is difficult to track because it is subject to change, whereas context usually is not. What seemed most important yesterday might not still be most important today. What required a phone yesterday probably still requires a phone today. Further, if I am on an airplane and want to be productive, I really don’t need to look at my @calls list, because that just isn’t an option until we land no matter how high of a priority I think a particular call is.

      I keep my lists in Outlook Tasks and have a !Today category that self sorts to the top. I apply this category to high-priority tasks that need to get done today, in addition to the category of whatever context I applied when I entered that particular next action into my system, so it shows up on both lists. If something is no longer a !Today level priority but still needs to get done eventually, I remove the !Today tag and it stays in the original context list.

      I agree with you that we shouldn’t get too rigid about choosing from contexts as they are often (but not always), flexible given the importance of a competing priority. Intuitive decision making based on a relatively recent, “weekly” review of all lists should take priority over contexts whenever possible.



  2. Hi Rob,

    Your wrote>> The bottom line is that GTD appears to under-emphasize the importance of considering priority when choosing what action you should be doing

    My thoughts>> Thanks for sharing your experience. Actually, something to consider is that priority comes in even sooner in your decision making, during the clarifying stage. That’s truly when you’re deciding the priority to take it on, when you ask, “Is it actionable?”. So priority isn’t just after it’s on your list and you’re choosing what to engage in. It actually comes in much earlier in the process as a first cut, when you decide what you’re going to do about it.

    And, there are plenty of times when context, time available, and resources are ALL available (or easily changeable as you say), and then priority is your best approach.

    Best of luck to you in your GTD journey.


    1. Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for your reply. I’ve listened to the GTD audio book at least 5 times, and I always have trouble listening to the part where David talks about how one should approach deciding what to do. It is made very clear: you ALWAYS consider context first… and should ALWAYS consider priority last… no flexibility.

      I think one of the problems is that an action’s priority is not formally tracked in GTD…
      perhaps because it is so dynamic, and because it is relative to other actions being tracked. For that matter, the time and energy required to do an action are also not formally tracked in GTD. Yet, each time we need to decide what to do (by reviewing actions in a context list), we must determine these things again and again. This seems redundant, since the time and energy required don’t change each time you review that action. Maybe the reason these things aren’t tracked in GTD is because they would make GTD become too “heavy”, where the process becomes tedious?

      However, what if an action’s priority WERE tracked in GTD? Would it be valuable for one to review a list of ones highest priority actions (independent from context)? I personally think this would be extremely valuable! I’d have less stress wondering whether my focus is on the most important actions.

      GTD emphasizes the importance of getting things out of your head; however, if I’m always concerned that I’m not working on the most important things (because my system doesn’t offer an easy way to identify them), then I will trust my system less. This has been one of the biggest hindrances to my becoming fully engaged in GTD, and I’m hoping to find a solution because I really do recognize the great power it offers.


    2. Kelly,

      Would you please elaborate on how you might treat a high-priority next action or project differently when clarifying and organizing vs. low priority ones? It would be nice if medium and low-priority projects could all get relegated to someday/maybe, but they may become high priority and need to be addressed before my next weekly review. I know that David says that when you really mature your thinking, everything you aren’t doing this very minute is a someday/maybe. Clearly my thinking has room for growth 🙂



      1. Hi Nate!

        Happy to elaborate more.

        You asked: Would you please elaborate on how you might treat a high-priority next action or project differently when clarifying and organizing vs. low priority ones?

        The prioritizing I’m doing during clarifying starts by asking, “Is it actionable?” Yes or No are the only answers to that. “NO” options are trash, reference, or incubate (Someday/Maybe or Calendar Tickler). If “YES”, the next question to ask is, “What’s the Next Action?” There are 3 choices about what to do with it then: Do now (if it will take less than two minutes), delegate (can someone else do this?), or defer (move to calendar or Next Actions lists). What I think you’re asking is fine tuning under defer. You know it’s actionable, but you can’t do it in the moment, and you’re choosing not to delegate it. So your choices for defer would be to put it on your calendar if it needs to be done ON a day, or on a next actions list sorted by context if it needs to be done BY or ANY day. That’s your call based on when you think you can/should work on this. Then taking it a cut further, to delineate it as a higher priority item, I use due dates–but sparingly. Don’t get caught in a trap of fake due dates. I use them judiciously, so when I see one I really take notice.

        Then day-to-day, I’m looking at my calendar daily for actions that need to be done on a day or at a time. I’m looking at my Next Actions lists any chance I get. I sort my lists by due date so they rise to the top.

        I did two webinars on you might get value from too called “The Art of Choosing Yes” and “The Art of Choosing No”. The free trial will give you access to those recordings.

        Hope that helps!


  3. En el capitulo de Hacer (también llamado Ejecutar) se habla de 3 formas de trabajar: El trabajo programado, Aclarar las cosas pendientes y Hacer el trabajo mientras resulta, es decir si algo usted lo ve muy importante lo puede hacer de inmediato así en las listas filtradas por contexto, tiempo disponible y energía no aparezca, el método no se lo impide… usted al Aclarar (Procesar) sentado con buen tiempo contesto una serie de preguntas sobre una cosa para convertirla en una Próxima Acción para hacer en la semana en que se encuentra, por tanto si lo hizo a conciencia lo que esta es su lista de próximas acciones deben ser tareas importantes para obtener los resultados deseados por usted para esta semana… una de las normas de Hacer en GTD es hacer las tareas que correspondan a Resultados Esperados (Proyectos) con fechas objetivas mucho antes de su vencimiento con lo que muchas de nuestras urgencias actuales no se volverán a presentar. Creo que debe hacer el lector 2 cosas primero dedicarse a seguir el método GTD lo mejor posible, incluyendo las aclaraciones que le hago arriba y segundo leer de nuevo el libre de Allen pero esta vez con más detenimiento y tomando nota de todos los pasos de cada parte de la metodología….. para entender GTD se debe estudiar, luego vivir y después volver a estudiar en un ciclo continuo.

  4. Thanks for these posts, everyone. I think they put the spotlight on a crucial area of GTD. I am still not convinced that it’s not a weakness in the GTD system. I am ashamed to say that I cannot translate the post by Juan Carlos, but Rob you have hit on the head a nail that I’ve been thinking about for some time. One can indeed choose contexts, we are not just the sport of whatever breeze blows. Very often, but not always. The interaction between actions and planning is one I haven’t bottomed out yet in GTD. I have several @errands actions, do I wait until I am in town and do what I can in that context, or do I look at the weather forecast and actually plan a trip to town (preferably when it will be sunny and dry – living in the UK, this is an issue!?). Or if one of the items on the @errands list is urgent, I make a special trip to town and soon, but I check my @errands list for the other things I can do while I’m there. GTD covers Natural Project Planning, which I think is brilliant, but not day or week or month planning. I find this odd. Of course, the day or week plan may go out of the window, and then I need to look at my context lists to see what, in the new circumstances and in the moment, I can do. But is that a good reason for not making a plan? Having a plan gives focus and direction. The Agile Results system of JD Meier, is an interesting take on this idea, in that one sets out 3 desired outcomes for e.g the day, and then starts again the next day with a fresh list. So it’s not so much a ‘to do’ list as a focussing tool. Kelly, that is an interesting comment about priority coming in at the clarifying stage. I believe that GTD is not in favour of simplistic ‘assign Priority A,B,C’ approaches. How then do I decide and note priority (as against the action) when I am clarifying? Many thanks again for the debate.

    1. It seems I was not quite correct about GTD and (non-project) planning – this is from ‘Getting Things Done’, the book (P98 in my e-book):

      “First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as preference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment.”

      So, the value of having a plan to begin with is acknowledged.

      I see I have strayed off topic, from ‘Priorities and GTD’ into ‘Planning and GTD’, but I take comfort in David Drake’s post, which shows that these aspects are related.

  5. TRADUCTOR DE GOOGLE: In the chapter of Doing (also called Executing) we talk about 3 ways of working: Scheduled work, Clarify the pending things and Do the work as it turns out, that is, if something you see is very important, you can immediately do so in the lists filtered by context, time available and energy does not appear, the method does not prevent it … you to clarify (process) sitting in good weather I answer a series of questions about one thing to turn it into a next action to do in the week when is found, so if you did it thoroughly what this is your list of next actions should be important tasks to get the desired results for you this week … one of the rules of doing in GTD is to do the tasks that correspond to results Expected (Projects) with objective dates well before their expiration with what many of our current urgencies will not be presented again. I think the reader should do 2 things first to follow the GTD method as best as possible, including the clarifications I make above and second read Allen’s free again but this time more carefully and taking note of all the steps of each part of the methodology … .. to understand GTD should be studied, then live and then return to study in a continuous cycle.

  6. Thank you for the translation, Juan Carlos. Some good points, upon which I shall ponder..

  7. Read The Power of Less – best book on the subject in my opinion and has made a great impact upon my ability to prioritize and manage tasks

  8. One approach to solving this riddle I’ve been considering is the “Only 10s” approach, or the “If it’s not a heck yes!, the it’s a ‘No'” approach – in other words, everything by default goes into the “someday/maybe” list. Unless it becomes a “must”, in which case it migrates into an appropriate context, purely to ease planning, but knowing that it will get done in the very near future. In that respect, priority always comes FIRST.

  9. Yes, some of the prioritizing does come when things are being processed. I see a few things here that I think you are missing:
    1. The weekly review – here you will look over everything once a week. You’ll see all your items then and if a deadline is looming, etc. you can adjust to move things to your calendar, etc. as needed. With this, you don’t really need week or monthly planning, you are figuring that out during your weekly review.
    2. I do think you are applying contexts too rigidly. The home, work, phone/calls, etc. are a good starting point, but sometimes if one list is getting too long, you may have to break it up or move some items to Agendas depending what makes sense. Right now I have a Work – Billable, Work – Non-billable and Work – Quiet for contexts along with several agendas for weekly meetings or when I catch certain people and frankly, I can do all of that work from home that isn’t in person agendas since I can remote log in, so I could have it on my Home list if I wanted to, but I don’t because splitting it up this way is the right contexts for me and my Home list would be too long. I only have so much time a week I can put to Non-billable, so I separate it off so I can plan that time accordingly. Work – Quiet I need to either be working from home alone or in early/staying late alone to get that high focus work done.
    One of David’s books he mentions someone who made their lists based on energy available as for them it was more important to have it grouped that way. Others have mentioned adding tags or something similar to sort items you want to do today to the top. So have some flexibility in your contexts and look at what you need to look at, don’t feel you have to be rigid and only look at work, if you are willing to change contexts, you may want to quickly review all your lists. Or have a tentative plan for the day/week and adjust on the fly as needed. Or if you have a project that is just that important, maybe it gets its own agenda?
    3. You are missing an important point of GTD which is you should be prioritizing from your lists on the fly as that is something the brain is great at doing on an external stored list. As things come up or change, priorities are constantly changing. Having everything you need to do on lists will allow you to continually evaluate priorities.

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