The GTD Approach to Linking Next Actions and Projects

One of the most common questions about implementing GTD is how to link projects and next actions. The recommendation in Getting Things Done is that you park your next actions on context-based lists — not as separate lists under each of your projects. Why does David Allen recommend that and what will you gain?

Sorting Next Actions by Context

Sorting next actions by context, not by project, can initially seem awkward. Some people are used to having multiple files, piles, notepads, documents, and spreadsheets related to a project, with next actions for the project buried amongst all of that information. Next Actions lists don’t replace project plans—we would just call that data “project support.” In our experience, it rarely works to have current next actions stored with project support for day-to-day action management.

Your list management software may have a way to link projects and next actions and display them so you can see the action(s) associated with each project. If not, you can use a keyword in the project name and the next actions to achieve that. And the best way to put your mind at ease about projects and their next actions is to consistently do a GTD Weekly Review®.

The Challenge

Think of the last time you had 20 minutes free and decided to work on a key project. How easy was it to dig through your project support to find the immediate next actions based on the tools, people, and places available to you at the moment? You probably chose to avoid it and do something else, especially if you knew there was still thinking to do on next actions in the project materials.

The Benefit

When your next actions are already defined and sorted by context, you can move more quickly, more easily, and more in sync with how you are naturally choosing what to do first—by context. That way project support is the parking lot for future actions that are dependent on something else happening first.

For more support on managing projects, check out the Anatomy of Projects webinar on GTD Connect.


Join the Conversation


  1. This has never made sense to me in GTD. I can do everything “At Computer”, my entire job and business is on the computer. So I go to my Projects list, and its all in there. I can do ANYTHING, all the time. How does context apply anymore when its all on the computer? I spend most of my time sorting through giant lists of next actions so I have everything captured and processed, but never enough time to do it all. Seems all very silly and the more into GTD I get the less of my most important projects get completed. I want to bring this into my work team but if i can’t get my head wrapped around it after 2 years trying i don’t see the point.

    1. Hi Wil, if you look in our forum you’ll find lots of discussion about other context lists that subdivide At Computer. We encourage people to get creative about contexts so that they don’t end up with one list, such as At Computer that seems dauntingly long.

      Also, in March of this year David Allen did a webinar for GTD Connect about contexts in GTD. There was discussion of what has and has not changed with technology, mobility, and hybrid work environments. You can email [email protected] if you’d like to set up a free trial.

    2. Obviously, since I don’t know you it’s next to impossible to give you advice. But, I’ll do my best. First, I find it hard to believe that you never make phone calls, never have to drive to pick up kids, pets, groceries or other things, never have meetings, never have to sit down with a piece of paper and CREATE or DESIGN, never have to read letters, etc . . . but so be it. Second, the computer also has Context. There’s the spreadsheet you work with, the memos you read and write, slide presentations you make or read, emails and other programs. So for you, “Context” might have to be more specific than just “Computer.” Third, you say . . . . “giant lists of Next Actions” . . . there’s something wrong with that. I have many Projects . . . and my projects have various Steps . . . but never have more than one Next Action per project or step. If you have dozens of Projects (?????) then prioritize. Select the most important and focus on Next Actions for those. Look at it like this. The Next Actions are what will fill your day. So if you’re working five days next week and on average, you accomplish 5 Next Actions per day . . . you’d want to have no more than 25 Next Actions laid out . . . AT MOST. 10-15 might be more like it. Finally, in my experience, this doesn’t happen overnight. But if you work with it for about a week, you will be addicted. I’ve found nothing more efficient. It’s like a machine designed to chew up “actions” and get things done. (No pun intended.)

      1. Helen. Do you somehow link next actions to projects? I would love if this is not really needed because it limits the number of apps to choose from for my gtd. In the other hand I’m not sure if I can remember which next action belongs to which project. Especially if you have 100 plus projects.

  2. I am somewhere between Wil and Helen. At any given time I have some 15 project’s going on which always have a couple of tasks that could be classified as next action. And most tasks can be done at the computer.

    The problem with not organizing the tasks by projects but instead just focusing on the next action is that it also creates a constant mental context switching between all projects and each project moving at snail pace.

    I try to see context as a way to do task batching (for example send emails to all clients) but I also see a project as a context. Today I will work with project A. Tomorrow on project B. Etc.

  3. I keep all my Next Actions items and support materials within each respective Project to which they belong. Then, I tag each next action item by the context (@WaitingFor, @Agendas, @Errands, etc). This allows me to search by tag which ends up making the tags act as lists. This way I can bounce back and forth between the ‘Projects’ horizon and ‘Calendar/Actions’ ground level easily and keep the big picture in context. There are many software that allow you to use tags. If you go this route be sure to use tags/lists that you actually refer to and avoid creating to many tags/lists.
    As I write this I am thinking you could probably alternatively tag each next action on your separate lists with the name of the project it falls under. It seems like you would always be sunsetting and creating new tags/projects though.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.