For whatever reason, I’ve been playing a fair amount of Flight Control HD this week, and it’s reminded me of my current attempt to get my next action list under control. In both cases, there are a bunch of items (tasks, planes) that you’d like to take care of, with new ones appearing all the time. In both cases, each individual item doesn’t take very long to deal with (at least once you get good at breaking your real-life projects down into chunks), but there are lots of them, and they get into each other’s way. The result is that, if there are too many buzzing around, I stop being able to guide them to completion and instead they crash into each other, not leaving anybody very happy.

Actually, maybe that’s not the best analogy: the tasks don’t crash into each other, instead it’s like a game of Flight Control HD where more and more planes get added, and where planes don’t actually collide but where you stop being able to guide almost all of them to their landing spots, instead filling up your screen and annoying you / making you feel guilty. Which is kind of what my next action list looked like a month ago: way too many tasks competing for my attention.

So: if I wanted to design Flight Control HD such that I was engaged as frequently as possible without feeling overwhelmed, how would I do it? To avoid feeling overwhelmed, I’d want to limit the number of planes; but to remain engaged, I’d want enough planes to keep me on my toes. If I could find that magic number of planes, I’d have a great time.

Of course, in real life, the planes tasks keep on coming. But GTD has a safety valve in the form of the someday/maybe list: if something seems like a good idea but you’re really not up to dealing with it right now, you put it on the someday/maybe list. Used properly, it keeps you from getting too stressed out about things: if you’ll be happier not doing a task right now than doing it right now, then over to the someday/maybe list it goes.

With that in mind: how many tasks should be in flight (on our next action list) at any given moment? The someday/maybe list takes care of the problem of having too many tasks in flight; the other side of the problem is having too few tasks in flight. If we run out of stuff to do, we’ll either be bored or go through the someday/maybe list; and if we do the latter too often, then the someday/maybe list ends up really being a next action list in disguise. (With all the usual potential for hidden problems, e.g. probably somewhere in your brain you’d be keeping a list of “things that I really want to treat as next actions but are on the wrong list”.) So the answer is: our next action list should be long enough that we don’t have to go to the someday/maybe list more frequently than we’re comfortable with.

And, happily, GTD has some advice for how frequently we should look at our someday/maybe list: you should do so once a week, during your weekly review! So: your next action list should contain a week’s worth of items, plus enough slack to deal with variation. (As a bonus, keeping it at that length should make your weekly review quite a bit more interesting.)

With that in mind, my new rule is: if I don’t expect to do something within the next two weeks, then it’s a someday/maybe item, not a next action item. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m a lot closer than I was a week ago, and it’s been very refreshing. My morning ‘scan the next action list to get some ideas for today’ routine has gotten a lot more focused and productive; and items that I feel are important to me have a much harder time hiding. I’ve moved a ton of stuff off to the indefinite future, and I feel fine about that; I’ve also gotten some things taken care of that I’d been putting off for months, and I feel great about that, too!

Having said that, the new system isn’t working perfectly yet: I’m pretty sure my next action list is still a little long, and I don’t expect to actually start refilling it from my someday/maybe list for at least a couple of weeks, maybe a month. No longer than that, though; and if it takes as long as a month, it will mean that I’ve decided to actually concentrate on longer projects and carry them through instead of working on a bunch of unrelated projects, which is an outcome that I would be perfectly happy with. (My problem before wasn’t just with the length of my next action list, it was with the number of different projects that I pretended I was working on at once.)

Or, alternatively, if it takes me a month to start looking at my someday/maybe list, it may also mean that I’m spending more time consciously deciding not to knock off items, instead just hanging out more. Which I would also be perfectly fine with! GTD isn’t about being “productive”, it’s about doing what you most want to do at any given time, and isn’t at all judgmental about what you should want to do. It does surface tensions concerning what different parts of your brain most want to do, but whatever answer they come up with after duking it out is okay with GTD.

Last week, Rob Myers tweeted that “Why do I assume that someday I will get caught up?” Which is a very healthy point of view, I think. The point is not to make a huge effort to get “caught up”, whatever that might mean, after which mythical moment we’ll somehow be able to relax. I’d much rather instead figure out how to feel relaxed right now, while spending time being engaged on tasks that I both enjoy and find rewarding.

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