I went back and reread the GTD book to see what I’d forgotten from my first read-through a year or two ago. Quite a lot, it turns out (in fact, almost everything except for the definition of a next action), about which more later, but one of the concepts that struck me the most was the notion of a “someday/maybe” list.

This is a list of things that you’re thinking of doing but don’t currently have in progress. As with most GTD concepts, much of its power comes from allowing you to create clear boundaries: the relevant boundary here is that something you’re thinking of doing is either in progress (in which case it’s on your projects list) or is something you’ve consciously decided to defer (in which case it’s on the someday/maybe list). This forces you to think for a few seconds: do I want to work on this now or postpone it? If I want to work on this now, what’s the next action? But once you’ve done that, you can stop worrying about it. (Or at least that’s how the theory goes, and it matches my experience well enough.)

So, basically, the someday/maybe list is a repository for all those pipe dreams and worries that you’ve had that you’re not dealing with right now. Much of its value is simply as a place to write things down: part of the GTD idea is that, when a thought flits through your mind, you probably want to write it down somewhere unless you particularly want that thought to continue flitting through your mind. And many such thoughts translate into either new items for the someday/maybe list or comments on existing items for that list.

Of course, just making a list won’t do you any good if it turns into sweeping unpleasant thoughts under the carpet: that will translate into some combination of not getting things done that should get done and of worrying that you won’t get things done. So you’re supposed to look at your somebody/maybe list once a week, to ask yourself if any items there should be promoted to active projects.

The reason why this struck me so much is that it gave another way to look at my preferred way of dealing with books, namely to have a very short stack (ideally of length at most 1) of books that I’ve bought but haven’t yet read, while keeping a much longer list of books that have caught my eye for some reason. I got this revelation from lean (inventory is waste), and it’s served me very well over the last couple of years, but I had a hard time explaining just why it is that having a big stack of books that I really want to read but haven’t gotten around to reading is bad while having a long list of books that I really want to read but haven’t bought or gotten around to reading is good. (The third option would be to not have a list or a stack; for me, that would translate into an unreliable mental list, which is worse than a physical list.)

If you think about it in GTD terms, though, what’s going on is this: you see a book, and the thought flits through your mind that you should read it. Being a trained devotee, you know that you need to write this down somewhere: so is reading that book a current project, or a someday/maybe item?

If it’s a current project, then the logical next action is to buy it, so by all means do so at once. If you don’t have definite plans to read it soon, though, then it should go on the someday/maybe list, in which case buying it now isn’t appropriate. If you want to get a bit subtler, you can say that you have a current project of “always have a book to read”, in which case buying the book is appropriate if you’re close to finishing your current book and you want to read that book next, but isn’t appropriate otherwise.

Basically, there are (in my experience) a few reasons why I’m tempted to buy the book on the spot. One is because I like to fantasize how exciting it will be to read the book. That’s very pleasant, but buying the book isn’t a good response to fantasies like that: I should only buy the book if I’m actually going to read it, not just because I want to bask in the thought of reading it and can hallucinate that buying the book right now is a constructive step towards that end. Another reason is because I’m afraid that I’ll forget about the book if I don’t buy a copy right new, and I really would like to read it at some point in the future; fair enough, but making an entry on a list (possibly with some notes about what attracted me to the book) is a better response than buying it. A third is because I feel guilty walking into a bookstore, browsing their books, taking notes about what books to buy, and then walking out without giving them money; I still think that’s actually a pretty good reason to buy a book, but what I’ve found is that, if I have a low (frequently zero) unread book inventory, then I can assuage my guilt by buying one book and reading it next (or possibly after I’ve finished my other book in inventory). And if I’m not sure that I want to read the book next, then maybe that’s a sign that I shouldn’t buy it right now: I have lots of experience with the strategy of buying books because I feel that I should read them, and the results aren’t generally particularly positive.

The upshot is that I’ve moved my books-to-read (games-to-play, music-to-listen-to) lists to a ‘someday’ subdirectory of my GTD directory, and added a generic someday list there. And the results have been generally pleasant: it’s nice to have a place to write down ideas about things that I’m thinking of doing in the future. Equally importantly, it let me stop worrying about certain things that I knew I should get around to doing but just didn’t have enough spare cycles at the moment to work on; enough items have graduated from the someday list to full-fledged projects that it’s not just a sham.

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