Choosing what to do

EngageThe five steps of GTD workflow are Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. When it’s time to Engage, people often ask how to choose from what may be long lists of tasks to do. That’s when it’s helpful to use the criteria for choosing:

Context – What place, tool, or person will the action require? This is the first limitation for choosing–it has to be. If you’re not in the right place, don’t have the right tool, or access to the required person, you can’t take the action.

Time available – How much time do you have to take the action? If you have 20 minutes, only consider actions that you think will take less than 20 minutes.

Resources – What is your energy like to take the action? Have you been in back-to-back meetings all day and you’re tired? Or are you just finishing your morning coffee and feeling alert and enthusiastic? You’re probably already considering this more than you realize when you choose what to do.

Priorities – What’s the most important one to choose based on your roles, goals, long-term strategy, and purpose?

How do you know what your priorities are? This is where GTD’s Horizons of Focus® model comes in. GTD defines “work” from six different horizons, corresponding to different altitudes of perspective.

HORIZON 5: Purpose and Principles

HORIZON 4: Vision

HORIZON 3: Goals and Objectives

HORIZON 2: Areas of Focus and Accountability

HORIZON 1: Projects

GROUND: Calendar/Actions

Your priorities are determined from the top down—i.e. your purpose and values will drive your vision of the purpose being fulfilled, which will create goals and objectives, which will frame areas of focus and accountability. All of those will generate projects which will require actions to get them done. Every level of that is valuable, but the Areas of Focus level in particular can be helpful for setting priorities.  Know what your job really is and saying “no” will come a little easier.

Finally, look at how you’re spending your time when you Engage.  This is where the Three-fold Nature of Work model comes in. It’s a useful way to look at how you spend your time:
Doing pre-defined work – Choosing from work you already clarified and put on your calendar & Next Actions lists

Doing work as it appears – New things that show up that you choose to work on

Defining work – Processing new inputs (swing back to Capture, Clarify, and Organize)

Of those three, where do you spend more time than you think you should? And which one doesn’t get enough of your time?

Join the Conversation


  1. This is a general analysis and reflection of the GTD methodology. I wonder if David Allen will see this and agree, disagree or have an indifferent response to my thought process 🙂

    I’ve been using GTD process for the past 10 years. I have also been learning about The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path (NEP) for roughly 10 years. I noticed several conceptual similarities, differences and synergies between the NEP (i.e. Right Understanding, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration, and Right Meditation) and GTD framework (i.e. Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, Engage).

    Here is my reflection (i.e. noticing what I noticed) about these two frameworks:

    1. Right Understanding (NEP) vs. Clarify (GTD):
    • Similarity: Both involve gaining an accurate understanding of the situation. In NEP, this means understanding the nature of suffering, its causes, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. In GTD, this means understanding what a task involves and what needs to be done.
    • Difference: NEP’s Right Understanding is more philosophical and existential, while GTD’s Clarify is more task-oriented.
    • Synergy: Both emphasize the importance of clear understanding before proceeding to action.

    2. Right Intent (NEP) vs. Reflect (GTD):
    • Similarity: Both deal with setting intentions. In NEP, this means developing intentions that align with ethical behavior, renunciation, and loving-kindness. In GTD, Reflect involves reviewing one’s commitments and setting intentions about what tasks to tackle next.
    • Difference: NEP’s Right Intent involves ethical and spiritual dimensions, while GTD’s Reflect is more about time management and prioritization.
    • Synergy: Both focus on the importance of conscious intention in determining the direction of one’s efforts.

    3. Right Speech (NEP) vs. No direct GTD counterpart:
    • NEP’s Right Speech, which involves speaking truthfully, kindly, and helpfully, doesn’t have a direct GTD counterpart. However, good communication can facilitate GTD’s process by ensuring clear understanding of tasks.

    4. Right Action (NEP) vs. Engage (GTD):
    • Similarity: Both involve taking action. NEP’s Right Action is about acting in ways that are morally and ethically sound. GTD’s Engage is about taking action on the tasks that have been captured, clarified, organized, and reflected upon.
    • Difference: NEP’s Right Action includes an ethical dimension, while GTD’s Engage is about executing tasks effectively.
    • Synergy: Both systems acknowledge the crucial role of taking appropriate action in achieving desired outcomes.

    5. Right Livelihood (NEP) vs. No direct GTD counterpart:
    • NEP’s Right Livelihood, which calls for choosing a profession that does not harm oneself or others, doesn’t have a direct counterpart in GTD. GTD is more focused on productivity in whatever profession one is in, rather than the ethical implications of the profession itself.

    6. Right Effort (NEP) vs. Overall philosophy of GTD:
    • Similarity: Both emphasize the importance of applying consistent effort. NEP’s Right Effort involves diligently working to maintain positive mental states and eliminate negative ones. GTD also requires consistent effort in managing and executing tasks.
    • Difference: NEP’s Right Effort is more about mental cultivation, while GTD’s emphasis is on task completion.
    • Synergy: Both appreciate the role of persistent effort in achieving one’s goals.

    7. Right Mindfulness (NEP) vs. Reflect (GTD):
    • Similarity: Both involve maintaining awareness of one’s current situation. NEP’s Right Mindfulness involves being fully aware and present in one’s current actions. In GTD, Reflect means reviewing one’s commitments and tasks regularly.
    • Difference: NEP’s Right Mindfulness has a broader and more existential perspective, while GTD’s Reflect is about task and commitment review.
    • Synergy: Both emphasize the importance of regular reflection and awareness.

    8. Right Concentration (NEP) vs. Part of Engage (GTD):
    • Similarity: Both involve focusing one’s mental energy. NEP’s Right Concentration is about developing the mental focus necessary for deep meditation. In GTD, a certain level of concentration is needed to effectively engage with tasks.
    • Difference: NEP’s Right Concentration involves a spiritual practice of meditation, while the concentration in GTD is task-oriented.
    • Synergy: Both value the ability to focus as a key aspect of successful practice.

    Overall, while the NEP and GTD have different overall goals (spiritual liberation vs. productivity and stress reduction), they share a number of similar principles, such as the importance of understanding, intention, action, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. The main differences lie in the scope (existential vs. task-oriented) and in areas like speech and livelihood, which are addressed in the NEP but not directly in GTD. Despite these differences, the two systems could potentially complement each other, with the NEP providing a broader existential and ethical framework, and GTD providing a concrete system for managing day-to-day tasks.

    Also, David’s underlying theme is “moving from Chaos to Calm”. I think a strong connections exists between a chaotic state of mind and the Buddhist concept of Dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction).

    And that’s that!

  2. Would argue that if you bring in the higher levels (50k feet, 40k feet, 30k ft) instead of just analyzing projects and actions you’d find even more similarity between the two frameworks. What is the vision? What are the goals? Look at project or goal trigger lists- what do you want out of life? Are you living your life according to your principles? Is there a problem (or injustice) that you can solve?

  3. That is brilliant Niven. Your analysis outlines so many different important aspects. It shows how our awareness, perceptions, choices and perspectives create our existence, what we do, what we essentially stand for, and who we are. In addition, it shows the principles, depth and breadth of the gtd system in ways that are overlooked. You have given us a lot to think about. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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