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Non-actionable lists: A productivity sanity tool

I really like the Getting Things Done method. It has made a really positive impact on my life, reducing day to day stress, and helping me focus on daily tasks as well as what’s really important in my life.

There’s no shortage of excellent blog posts on the nitty gritty of Getting Things Done (GTD), and there’s no substitute for David Allen’s original book. Instead of rehashing what’s already been said, I want to touch on an often overlooked aspect of GTD: non-actionable lists.

The first step to GTD is “capture”. Capture any piece of information nagging at you in a system (on paper, in a file or program)—once you do so that information becomes something you’re aware of and dealing with. Those items will be accounted for and cease to nag at you. I capture absolutely everything: to-dos, long term goals, and tasks as small as changing lightbulbs. It all gets captured.

The second step is to “process” what you’ve captured, and organize it into your system. Some of these items will be actionable, some will relate to a project you’re working on, some of them might be long term ideas you’re not actively pursuing yet, and some might actually be fine to discard.

Most blog posts about GTD focus on the actionable items. There are great tools for working through the actionable items (Omnifocus is my personal weapon of choice). I want to focus on the non-actionable items. What to do with those?

In his book, David Allen talks about making a ‘Someday Maybe’ list. The idea is that you should capture any long term goal or project you want to pursue at some point, but aren’t able to straight away.

If you focus entirely on the immediately actionable, those long term goals will still be in your mind, eating away at you. You might find yourself working through a pile of emails, and your mind keeps drifting to that musical project you want to start or how you’d really like to learn French.

Once you capture these items, you’ll lose the sense that there’s a pile of really interesting things you should be doing. You’ll look over your Someday Maybe list during your weekly review, and if there’s a possibility of elevating one of them to active project status you can do that. If not, that’s fine, the idea is captured, and you’re on top of it.

Your Someday Maybe list can also help inform large decisions in your life as these lists will likely contain items that you are most passionate about. Not having to worry about taking action immediately frees you to write down anything that excites you.

The Someday Maybe list has become a big part of my GTD workflow, and has lifted a huge amount of emotional weight from my shoulders.

But here’s the real kicker: on an episode of Mac Power Users, David Sparks mentioned his ‘Not Doing’ list. The Not Doing list is an extension of the Someday Maybe list. When you’re reviewing your Someday Maybe list, you’ll likely find you’ve accumulated quite a few items, and reviewing it could produce the inverse of the desired effect. Sparks remedies this conundrum by deciding not to do certain items – at least for the foreseeable future – and moves them to a Not Doing list.

Say you have “learn German” on your Someday Maybe list, but you know that for the next few years that’s just not going to happen. But you’re not ready to give up on it completely. Move it to the Not Doing list.

Why not just remove these items from your list altogether? There are some good reasons:

If you remove an item from your Someday Maybe list, it’ll likely return to its previous state, floating around your mind, pestering you. Instead, you have a list representing items you’ve actively decided not to pursue at present. The difference sounds small but measured in emotional weight, it’s large.

Another advantage of the Not Doing list is that during your weekly review, you may find that you’ve made projects out of some Someday Maybe items, freeing up capacity to learn German after all, for example. You can’t spend time learning German today, which would make it a project, but it’s more possible than it was previously.

The main thing is that all these ideas, goals and thoughts are captured. You can review them at any point. Something that you hope to do one day is captured on a list and can be turned into a project when you’re able. Things you’re not able to work on right now are on a list representing conscious decisions, instead of weighing you down thinking you’re neglecting them. And most of all, you know that the most important things to you are captured, you’re on top of them, and you’re moving in that direction.

Software

It’s pretty hard to talk about GTD without briefly nerding out about software tools. Although I do use Omnifocus, I’ve decided to use it only for projects and actionable items. Anything that isn’t immediately actionable gets stored in files in Dropbox. This way I’m not overwhelmed by long term goals when I just need to get work done. I’m a developer, so I create these files in markdown, but any simple text editor will do. On my iPhone I use Byword to review these files, and often use Dropbox actions in Drafts to make quick entries in these or other markdown lists I keep in Dropbox.

If you’re new to GTD or an old hand, I hope you’ll find non-actionable lists as rewarding and empowering as I do.

This post was originally written for the Domain7 blog.