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bucket

First of all, a very Happy New Year to all of you LifeClever readers.

I’ve been a pretty faithful GTD adherent for several years now. Barring project lists, which have never seemed worth the effort to maintain, I’ve stuck to David Allen’s guidelines no matter what combination of calendar, task list, and capture system I was playing with at any particular moment. Until now.

A Moment of Clarity

Last week, I was reading Neil Fiore’s excellent book on avoiding procrastination, The Now Habit. (I love his psychological approach to creating a happy work environment so that you actually look forwarding to work instead of resisting it, but I’ll do a more complete review after a few weeks of use.)

As I read the book, I started to think about the things that gave me anxiety about my own system, the things that soured me on tasks. And it suddenly dawned on me how much time I spent fussing around with them. Every time I finished even the smallest milestone, I’d click into my task manager and slowly work through my contexts, reading and evaluating each and every task. Not to pick the next task, but rather to just sort of “check in” with them. Yes, it’s crazy.

And yes, technically, contexts are intended to limit the tasks you have to see at any one moment. But beyond the @waiting list, my contexts are mostly flexible. Some tasks can be done at home or at work. I’d created a @weekend list for projects that required uninterrupted blocks of an hour or more, like building an IKEA desk. I’d created an @agenda list for items that required particular people. An @phone list. An @errand list. An @vacation list. And tasks were constantly shuffling between each context, often with nothing actually getting done.

Stop the madness!

Yes, I’m sure some of the GTD purists out there are clucking their tongues at this point. “Well,” they’re thinking, “you obviously weren’t following GTD orthodoxy. If only you’d picked four or five broad contexts and stuck with them and resisted the temptation to ‘manage your tasks,’ contexts would have worked for you.”

Maybe so. But I realized that by dividing up my tasks at all, I was creating additional psychic load, both in creating new tasks and sorting through existing ones. Instead of one finite list of 74 tasks, I had an amorphous group of changing contexts with dozens of tasks constantly shuffling between them. And try as I might, I couldn’t stabilize them.

Now there are a lot of GTD variants floating around, but I’ve never anyone suggest getting rid of contexts altogether. But that’s exactly what I did. Now, my tasks are all together in one place, with a separate @waiting list because that’s such a clear, either/or category even I couldn’t see getting rid of it.

One Bucket to Rule Them All

As soon as I dumped all my tasks into one bucket, I felt a sense of peace. There, before me, were my tasks. A mountain, perhaps, but mountains can be climbed.

Now, creating a new task has one less step, and I have no excuse for paging through my task list any more unless I’m there to pick the next to-do off the pile. Having separate contexts never actually reduced my anxiety, and I’ve gotten a definite morale boost from having a finite and concrete list of tasks that doesn’t float around, so to speak.

The coming months will determine whether a task list without contexts will work for me, but in the meantime, I encourage you to give it a try.

Photo by davidw

24 Comments

  • Jason White

    gravatarJan 2, 2008
    7:11 am

    I had a huge mountainous task list that went unchanged for nearly a year, until I realized that I had fallen prey to my own ability to renege on a contract. Written by myself surely, but that seems to be one of the tests of the GTD system: That if you break a contract with your self you are setting yourself up for failure.

    So I erased my task list.

    Now I only put the things in there that I can accomplish and I need to accomplish and usually in a particular order. Otherwise, I just do the things that need doing without recording them or marking them complete.

    There is only one other place for things and that is the @pending file (Aside from the ebay, travel, websites and places to visit folders) and as long as I visit that one regularly we are all good.

    Yes I like the one bucket approach. Yes one task list, but only for tasks that need extra attention or a serious priority.

  • Joshua Clanton

    gravatarJan 2, 2008
    8:35 am

    That is an excellent suggestion. It’s actually one that I’ve been unconsciously following for a while now. I used to use Backpack to keep all of my tasks separated into different contexts, but nowadays I’m trying to just put it all back into one big list so that I don’t have to actively remember to check each one of them. Instead, I can just scroll through one Backpack page and get an overview of everything that needs doing.

  • Ramy

    gravatarJan 2, 2008
    12:16 pm

    I use this exact system for my tasks. I actually tried the complex byzantine filing system but it clearly didn’t work for me. I use iCal and Apple Mail in Leopard to stay organized. I have 3 calendars : Personal, Work and TV (for reminding myself the good TV shows not to miss !) and I use these 3 calendars for my tasks, to. iCal integration with Mail.app is really awesome, I have to say. Since I use Mail.app everyday, I have no choice to check my to-do list ! Nice blog, by the way !

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarJan 2, 2008
    3:17 pm

    Glad you like the site, Ramy!

  • Kristi Holl

    gravatarJan 2, 2008
    8:07 pm

    I think you made a very wise decision with your one-bucket strategy. We can make ourselves crazy with all our systems to make life simpler! I used to have the most organized To Do lists around, but little got crossed off. I now have a very short list, but a lot more gets done. In the end, it comes down to what works for the individual–and what gives you peace of mind. A frantic mind doesn’t work with ANY system!

    Kristi Holl http://www.KristiHoll.com http://www.Writers-First-Aid.blogspot.com

  • Neil Fiore

    gravatarJan 2, 2008
    8:26 pm

    Happy New Year from Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit [book and CDs] & Awaken Your Strongest Self. The problem with focusing on getting things done is that it doesn’t tell your brain and body where to start. The Now Habits say, focus on “When can I start … for 15 to 30 minutes on my top priority?” Tell the workers–your mind and body Where, When, and on What to start. Then Choose to start for 15 minutes without interuptions. Record all focused, uninterrupted work–as with “billable hours” that lawyers and architects use–and total up 5 to 20 hours per week of quality time on your top priorities [enough to write a book in one year or learn to play the piano]. Create a place safe of self-criticism and pressure. More is available at http://www.neilfiore.com and http://www.amazon.com Best wishes for a creative, productive year, Neil Fiore http://www.neilfiore.blogspot.com

  • Aman Chaudhary

    gravatarJan 3, 2008
    3:38 am

    It’s interesting that LifeClever and LifeHacker have both recently converged on this “simplified GTD.” It’s actually approaches the streamlined and effective MissionControl.com system which has only the “Doing Now,” “Not Doing Now,” and “Never Doing Now” lists.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarJan 3, 2008
    6:35 am

    Neil Fiore–not only did you write a great book, but you commented on my post! I salute you, Productivity Guru.

  • swatymyers

    gravatarJan 3, 2008
    11:41 am

    Wow. This is pretty hysterical given that I just yesterday decided to junk my context-driven GTD notebook for a good old priorities-based planner and great big, long task list.

    Great post, and happy to hear I’m not alone.I was starting to get a complex.

  • JB

    gravatarJan 4, 2008
    8:35 am

    I can totally identify with the need to see all tasks in one place. I used to have one master task list without context, but found that a I needed to group similar task-types together. My solution: a 4 quadrant 8.5×11 sheet with four “evolving” categories (right now they’re: @SunProject, @Phone, @Other, @WaitingFor). This gives me one sheet with all my stuff, but placed into a context. I guess you could also be more descriptive with your tasks and “hide” the context right in there.

  • Margaret

    gravatarJan 4, 2008
    8:39 am

    The context thing never worked for me, either. Since I work freelance and from home, my biggest problem was not figuring out what I could do because I was in a particular place or had access to a phone, but figuring out what was (1) most important to get done (2) most likely to get done because I was in that kind of mood. I love GTD, but I had to commit my own heresy to make it work well for me.

    I have one big bucket that I review weekly. When I review it, I make a second list. This second list is all the stuff I would like to get done, must get done, and think I should be able to get done. After the second list is complete, I panic and realize that there’s no way it can all get done; that’s when I start crossing things off the second list. When the second list is down to a managable set of tasks, the whole thing goes on the week’s notes page of my pocket Moleskine planner. If it doesn’t fit on that page, I know I’ve over-committed myself and I’m forced to re-think my week’s tasks.

  • Mark

    gravatarJan 4, 2008
    11:33 pm

    What an interesting discussion this is shaping up to be. It seems that the GTD system is clearly not for everyone. I have not employed it yet, but it appeals to me for probably the same reason it appeals to everyone else: it’s logical and holds the promise that with the system and some discipline, I’ll be the person that I want to be. Thus the bit on creating a criticism-free space, and the remarks from the candid contributor who acknowledged that the breakdown was at the root. It’s the inability to honor a contract with ourselves.

    There is also a whiff of pathos that suffuses the productivity blogs. Is it the feeling that we’re only now recognizing that what’s served us till our middle years just isn’t serving us well enough after all? I will be curious to hear from posters as to why you all subscribe to the new zeitgeist of productivity. Is it a bleed-over from the business world (i.e., benchmarking)? Is it the generally increased pace of work- and home-life?

    And lastly, is the one-bucket approach the final recognition of the false promise of productivity regimens? The surrender to the contract-breaker within us?

    I will give Omnifocus a try because I am determined to do it better, and do it with a system, but I have to admit I’m not at all convinced that I can be that better person–¦.at least in the personal productivity department.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarJan 5, 2008
    7:46 am

    Mark–very thoughtful response. I’m going to be posting more about this in the next few weeks, and you’re nailing it right on the head. Please follow along in future posts about “the death of productivity” and keep commenting!

  • Gwend

    gravatarJan 5, 2008
    2:01 pm

    Wonderful thread. I just wanted to pipe in and mention “Things” which is available as a free public preview at the moment. Though I’ve been experimenting with OmniFocus since last summer, and feel awfully loyal, I have to say there is a little part of me that watches as I futz too much with my columns, contexts, and due dates. Though I like the feeling of confronting all my tasks and being aware of them (in other words, I’m grateful I hopped on the productivity zeitgeist this year), I do get a little frustrated with the complexity I seem to be creating around my system.

    I won’t make a proper plug for Things until I have some experience with it, but it’s definitely worth checking out. It feels cleaner so far. The interface just doesn’t make as many demands.

  • Scott

    gravatarJan 6, 2008
    5:07 pm

    Add me to the list of those that never, ever was able to get into the Contexts framework. I spent the first 3 months after reading GTD in 2003, setting up my system, and I felt the same unease you describe, David. The unease came off in two distinct chunks: the first was getting rid of the 43 folders (31 day, 12 months). But the second, biggest aha of the whole system–”and it remains the biggest today even 5 years later–” was dumping contexts. I woke one morning, going, “wait… I have only one context… my life!” Hard to describe now what an insight that was, but it was huge, and I felt the weight lift off my brain. I dumped all the categories, and set up everything to flow into one Inbox, always.

    I certainly get that a no-context method wouldn’t work for everyone. But if you’re feeling stressed about applying the excitement you got from reading GTD, try deleting the contexts idea. Personally, I’ve always loved tossing orthodoxy, and molding David Allen’s system has been no different. Make it work for you, I’m pretty sure that’s the object.

  • MikeDidIt

    gravatarJan 6, 2008
    5:54 pm

    My system is close to yours but a single bucket is not enough for me. Nevertheless, I definitely don’t use contexts the way the GTD crowd advocates. I was wasting a lot of time with contexts like @Phone, @Web, etc. Now I use @Home and @Work. This allows me to quickly hide my Work stuff when I’m home, etc., and vice versa. I have a lot of tasks in both worlds so I like being able to hide the noise, so to speak.

    I use Priority to slot items for this week, someday, reference, etc.

    I use Toodledo.com as it is very helpful. Vitalist.com works well, too.

    Have a great one!

  • Bod

    gravatarJan 9, 2008
    12:24 pm

    As a recent adopter I too have been struggling with contexts. After a few short weeks my lists seem to have settled on @work, @home,@waiting and someday maybe. I can’t get past that I still need to set some sort of priority and then create the appropriate context.

  • Carissa Thorp

    gravatarJan 17, 2008
    8:45 pm

    Having one list with no context isn’t GTD heresy (see Chapter 2 p41 in the Australian edition). Allen says 20/30 up to 50 tasks is probably the limit for a single “Next Actions” list, but that’s a suggestion, not a rule.

    Contexts are just one of the ways to “batch” tasks. In GTD, if you don’t use context, you move sideways to “Time Available”, “Energy Available”, &/or “Priority”. I also batch in other ways.

    Personally, I use contexts, but only because I limit myself to 4, the number I can fit onto a 2 page spread in my notebook; so I essentially have one list, but divided up visually on the page/s. Contexts just didn’t work for me when I had to flip between separate pages. I think it was the lack of an in-one-glance overview of all current tasks that was the problem, rather than contexts themselves.

    I will say, I probably don’t have as many tasks as most people, so my solution might not work for everyone. And each context I chose is a sort of combination of “the four criteria”, and not just a purely location and tool delimited category.

    regards

  • Dan

    gravatarMay 20, 2008
    8:04 am

    For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:

    Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar. A mobile version is available too.

    As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between “Active”, “Someday/Maybe” and “Archive”. This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.

    Hope you like it.

  • K man

    gravatarAug 6, 2008
    12:00 pm

    Looks like a lot of people suffer from analysis-paralysis. Whatever happened to the simple to-do list on a scrap of paper tucked into your wallet.

  • benster1961

    gravatarDec 11, 2008
    8:54 pm

    I loved all the comments. I still don’t have a perfect system but I’m strongly considering checking out Neil Fiore’s books. I need to get beyond my procrastination.

    Any comments on his materials?

  • Mark

    gravatarDec 30, 2008
    9:33 am

    No offense, but your system wasn’t as “faithful” to GTD guidelines as you may have thought. Looking at the contexts that you mention (@waiting @weekend @agenda @vacation @errand), most are not contexts at all, but =buckets=.

    That’s why you had to scan and “slowly work through” you contexts “… evaluating each and every task” every time you “finished even the smallest milestone”.

    You’re right, that is crazy. In GTD, the whole idea of contexts are to make tasks =pre-filtered= so that you do not have to think on the fly.

    If one bucket works for you, go for it. But it would seem to only compound the amount you need to scan after each milestone.

  • Kim

    gravatarJan 13, 2009
    5:09 pm

    I don’t have many contexts and keep them flexible based on what’s happening in my life. At the moment I’m on leave for a while and mostly hanging around home, so I have @home, @out (errands), @waiting for, and @work for the things to do when I get back.

    @home gets pretty long but there’s no practical difference between, say, making a phone call or doing the dusting, so they don’t need to be in different lists.

    I then mark high priority and short tasks for easy spotting.

  • Janet B

    gravatarJan 27, 2010
    11:30 am

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