Engaging: Making the Best Action Choices - Practicing Stress-Free Productivity - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)



Practicing Stress-Free Productivity


Engaging: Making the Best Action Choices

Ultimately and always you must trust your intuition. There are many things you can do, however, that can enhance that trust.

WHEN IT COMES to your real-time, plow-through, get-it-done workday, how do you decide what to do at any given point?

As I’ve said, my simple answer is, trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you’re allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your liver, your intuition—whatever works for you as a reference point that has you step back and access whatever you consider the source of your inner wisdom. If you’ve ever made thoughtful versus knee-jerk and reactive choices, you’ll know what I mean.

That doesn’t mean you throw your life to the winds—unless, of course, it does. I actually went down that route myself with a vengeance at one point in my life, and I can attest that the lessons were valuable, if not necessarily necessary.*

As outlined in chapter 2 (pages 52-57), I have found three priority frameworks to be enormously helpful in the context of deciding actions:

· The four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment

· The threefold model for evaluating daily work

· The six-level model for reviewing your own work

These happen to be shown in reverse hierarchical order—that is, the reverse of the typical strategic top-down perspective. In keeping with the nature of the Getting Things Done methodology, I have found it useful to once again work from the bottom up, meaning I’ll start with the most mundane levels.

The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

Remember that you make your action choices based on the following four criteria, in order:

· Context

· Time available

· Energy available

· Priority

Let’s examine each of these in light of how you can best structure your systems and behaviors to take advantage of its dynamics.


At any point in time, the first thing to consider is, what could you possibly do, where you are, with the tools you have? Do you have a phone? Do you have access to the person you need to talk with face-to-face about three agenda items? Are you at the store where you need to buy something? If you can’t do the action because you’re not in the appropriate location or don’t have the appropriate tools, don’t worry about it.

As I’ve said, it’s often helpful to organize your action reminders by context—Calls, At Home, At Computer, Errands, Agenda for Joe, Agenda for Staff Meeting, and so on. Since context is the first criterion that comes into play in your best choice of actions, context-sorted lists prevent unnecessary reassessments about what to do. If you have a bunch of things to do on one to-do list, but you actually can’t do many of them in the same context, you force yourself to continually keep reconsidering all of them.

You have freedom when you are easy in your harness.

—Robert Frost

If you have traveled to meet a client at her office and on arrival discover that the meeting will be delayed for fifteen minutes, you will want to refer to your Calls list for something you could do to use your time productively. Your action lists should fold in or out, based on what you could possibly do at any time.

A second real benefit accrues from organizing action reminders by appropriate context: in itself that forces you to make the all-important determination about the next physical action on your stuff. All of my action lists are set up this way, so I have to decide on the very next physical action before I can know which list to put an item on. (Is this something that requires the computer? A phone? Being in a store? Talking in real time with my wife?) People who give themselves a Miscellaneous action list (i.e. one not specific in context) often let themselves slide in the next-action decision, too.

I frequently encourage people I’m working with to structure their list categories early on as they’re processing their in-trays, because that automatically grounds their projects in the real things that need to get done to get them moving.

Creative Context Sorting

As you begin to implement this methodology consistently, you will invariably find inventive ways to tailor your own contextual categories to fit your situation. Though sorting by the tool or physical location required is most common, there are often other uniquely useful ways to filter your reminders.

Before I go on a long trip, I will create “Before Trip” as a temporary category into which I will move everything from any of my action lists that must be handled before I leave. That becomes the only list I need to review, until they’re all done. At times I have had many next actions that required me to be in “creative writing” mode; though those actions were At Computer, they required a different time and frame of mind than the rest of the things I needed to do at my laptop. It was much more relaxing and productive to manage my focus by sorting those onto a different, Creative Writing action list. I currently divide my computer-required actions into those that don’t require an Internet connection, those that do, and those that are just surfing (potentially fun or interesting things on the Web to explore).

Over the years I have seen people effectively use categories such as “Brain Gone” (for simple actions requiring no mental horsepower) and “Less Than 5-Minute” (for getting quick “wins”). At times people feel more comfortable sorting their reminders by the areas of focus in their life and work—“Financial,” “Family,” “Administrative,” etc. Recently someone shared with me the value she found in categorizing actions based upon the immediate emotional reward for doing them—service to others, life stability, abundance building, etc. There is no “right” way to structure your Next Actions lists—only what works best for you, and that part of your system will likely change as your life does.*

If you are a novice to this process, these details and distinctions may seem unnecessary or overwhelming. Just keep in mind that when you actually identify all the next actions you are committed to taking to fulfill your commitments in life and work, you will likely have many more than a hundred. To truly implement an effective “external brain” and garner its amazing results, managing this ground-floor level of your work with this degree of sophistication will pay off immeasurably.

Time Available

The second factor in choosing an action is how much time you have before you have to do something else. If your meeting is starting in ten minutes, you’ll most likely select a different action to do right now than you would if the next couple of hours were clear.

Obviously, it’s good to know how much time you have at hand (hence the value of accessible calendar and timepiece). A total-life action-reminder inventory will give you maximum information about what you need to do, and make it much easier to match your actions to the windows you have. In other words, if you have ten minutes before that next meeting, find a ten-minute thing to do. If your lists have only the big or important things on them, no item listed may be possible to handle in a ten-minute period—especially if they are missing next-action reminders. If you’re going to have to do those shorter action things anyway, the most productive way to get them done is to utilize the little “weird time” windows that occur throughout the day.

Additionally there are many times when you have been head down in some mentally intensive endeavor for a couple of hours, and you’d like to shift your focus and get some easy wins. Then it’s great to “snack” on your action lists for some simple things to complete easily and quickly. Change a restaurant reservation, call a friend and wish him or her happy birthday, order birdseed, or just walk next door to the market or pharmacy for something on your Errands list.

Energy Available

We all have times when we think more effectively, and times when we should not be thinking at all.

—Daniel Cohen

Although you can increase your energy level at times by changing your context and redirecting your focus, you can do only so much. The tail end of a day taken up by a marathon budget-planning session is probably not the best time to call a prospective client, start drafting a performance-review policy, or broach a new and sensitive topic with your life partner. It might be better to call an airline to change a reservation, process some expense receipts, step out on your patio and watch the sunset, skim a trade journal, or just clean up a desk drawer.

Just as having all your next-action options available allows you to take advantage of various time slots, knowing about everything you’re going to need to process and do at some point will allow you to match productive activity with your vitality level.

I recommend that you always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative horsepower. When you’re in one of those low-energy states, do those things. Casual reading (magazines, articles, catalogs, Web surfing), contact data that needs to be inputted, file purging, backing up your computer, even just watering your plants and filling your stapler—these are some of the myriad things that you need or want to deal with sometime anyway.

There is no reason not to be highly productive, even when you’re not in top form.

This is one of the best reasons for having very clean edges to your personal management system: it makes it easy to continue doing productive activity when you’re not in top form. If you’re in a low-energy mode and your reading material is disorganized, your receipts are all over the place, your filing system is chaotic, and your in-tray is dysfunctional, it just seems like too much work to find and organize the tasks at hand, so you simply avoid doing anything at all and then you feel even worse. One of the best ways to increase your energy is to close some of your loops. So always be sure to have some easy loops to close, right at hand.*

These first three criteria for choosing action (context, time, and energy) bespeak the need for a complete next-action reminder system. Much of the time you won’t be in a mode to do that kind of coordinated and organized thinking; it needs to have already been done. If it is, you can operate much more “in your zone” and choose from delineated actions that fit the situation.


It is impossible to feel good about your choices unless you are clear about what your work really is.

Given the context you’re in and the time and energy you have, the obvious next criterion for action choice is relative priority: “Out of all my remaining options, what is the most important thing for me to do?”

“How do I decide my priorities?” is a question I frequently hear from people. It springs from their experience of having more on their plate to do than they can comfortably handle. They know that some hard choices have to be made, and that some things may not get done at all.

At the end of the day, in order to feel good about what you didn’t get done, you must have made some conscious decisions about your accountabilities, goals, and values. That process invariably includes an often-complex interplay with the goals, values, and directions of the organization(s) and significant people in your life, and with the importance of those relationships to you. This criterion is addressed by utilizing the six-horizon commitment model I’ve described and will elaborate on shortly.

The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work

Setting priorities assumes that some things will be more important than others, but important relative to what? In this context, the answer is, to your work—that is, the job(s) you have accepted from yourself and/or from others. This is where the next two frameworks need to be brought to bear in your thinking. They’re about defining your work. Keep in mind that though much of this methodology will be within the arena of your professional focus, I’m using “work” in the universal sense, to mean anything you have a commitment to make happen, personally as well as professionally.

These days, daily work activity itself presents a relatively new type of challenge to most professionals, something that it’s helpful to understand as we endeavor to build the most productive systems. As I explained earlier, during the course of the workday, at any point in time, you’ll be engaged in one of three types of activities:

· Doing predefined work

· Doing work as it shows up

· Defining your work

You may be doing things on your action lists, doing things as they come up, or processing incoming inputs to determine what work needs to be done with them, then or later, from your lists.

This is common sense. But many people let themselves get sucked into the second activity—dealing with unplanned and unexpected things that show up—much too easily, and let the other two slide, to their detriment.

It is often easier to get wrapped up in the urgent demands of the moment than to deal with your in-tray, e-mail, and the rest of your open loops.

Let’s say it’s 10:26 a.m. Monday, and you’re in your office. You’ve just ended a half-hour unexpected phone call with a prospective client. You have three pages of scribbled notes from the conversation. There’s a meeting scheduled with your staff at eleven, about half an hour from now. You were out late last night with your spouse’s parents and are still a little frayed around the edges (you told your father-in-law you’d get back to him about … what?). Your assistant just put two arriving international express packages on your desk, and additionally says he needs to talk with you about three urgent meeting requests he doesn’t know how you want handled. You have a major strategic-planning session coming up in two days, for which you have yet to formulate your ideas. The oil indicator light in your car came on as you drove to work this morning. And your boss hinted as you passed her earlier in the hall that she’d like your thoughts on the e-mail she sent you last night, before this afternoon’s three o’clock meeting.

Are your systems set up to maximally support dealing with this reality, at 10:26 on Monday morning? If you’re still keeping things in your head, and if you’re still trying to capture only the “critical” stuff in your lists, I suggest that the answer is no.

I’ve noticed that people are actually more comfortable dealing with surprises and crises than they are taking control of processing, organizing, reviewing, and assessing that part of their work that is not as self-evident. It’s easy to get seduced into “busy” and “urgent” mode, especially when you have a lot of unprocessed and relatively out-of-control work on your desk, in your e-mail, and on your mind.

Success is learning to deal with Plan B.


In fact, much of our life and work does just show up in the moment, and it often becomes the priority when it does. It’s indeed true for most professionals (and parents of young children!) that the nature of their job requires them to be instantly available to handle new work as it appears in many forms. For instance, you need to pay attention to your boss when he shows up and wants a few minutes of your time. You get a request from a senior executive that suddenly takes precedence over anything else you thought you needed to do today. You find out about a serious problem fulfilling a major customer’s order, and you have to take care of it right away. Or your baby develops a serious cough.

These are all understandable judgment calls. But the angst begins to mount when the other actions on your lists are not reviewed and renegotiated by you or between you and everyone else. The constant sacrifices of not doing the work you have defined on your lists can be tolerated only if you know what you’re not doing. That requires regular processing of your in-tray (defining your work) and consistent review of complete lists of all your predetermined work.

There are no interruptions—there are only mismanaged inputs.

If choosing to do work that just showed up instead of doing work you predefined is a conscious choice based on your best call, that’s playing the game the most effective way you can. Most people, however, have major improvements to make in how they clarify, manage, and renegotiate their total inventory of projects and actions. If you let yourself get caught up in the urgency of the moment, without feeling comfortable about what you’re not dealing with, the result is frustration and anxiety. Too often the stress and reduced effectiveness are blamed on the surprises. If you know what you’re doing and what you’re not doing, surprises are just another opportunity to be flexible and creative, and to excel.

Another reason people consider unexpected demands or requests negative is because they don’t trust their own system and behaviors to be able to put a “bookmark” on any resulting action that needs to be taken, or on the work they’re doing at the moment. They know they need do something about the new work that just showed up, but they don’t trust that a simple note in their own in-tray will ensure it is handled with proper timing. So they stop their previous work and immediately go do what was just requested or required of them, complaining about the interruption that just disturbed their life. There are no interruptions, really—there are simply mismanaged occurrences.

In addition, when the in-tray and the action lists get ignored for too long, random things lying in them tend to surface as emergencies later on, adding more unexpected work-as-it-shows-up to fuel the fire.

Many people use the inevitability of an almost infinite stream of immediately evident things to do as a way to avoid the responsibilities of defining their work and managing their total inventory. It’s easy to get lured into not-quite-so-critical stuff that is right at hand, especially if your in-tray and your personal organization are out of control. Too often “managing by wandering around” is an excuse for getting away from amorphous piles of stuff.

This is where the need for the Getting Things Done methodology really shows up. Most people did not grow up in a world where defining the edges of work and managing huge numbers of open loops were required. But when you’ve developed the skill and habits of processing input rapidly into a rigorously defined system, it becomes much easier to trust your judgment calls about the dance of what to do, what to stop doing, and what to do instead.

The Moment-To-Moment Balancing Act

At a master level, you can shift like lightning from one foot to the other and back again. While you’re processing your in-tray, for example, you assistant enters to tell you about a situation that needs immediate attention. No sweat—your in-tray and e-mail are still there, with everything still to be processed in a coordinated view, ready to be picked up again when you can get back to it. While you’re on hold on the phone, you can be reviewing your action lists and getting a sense of what you’re going to do when the call is done. When your infant is crawling around in the living room and you’re highly attuned to anything unusual you might have to respond to, you can be handling simple Web-surfing research on your At Computer list. While you wait for a meeting to start, you can work down the Read/Review stack you’ve brought with you. And when the conversation you weren’t expecting with your boss shrinks the time you have before your next meeting to twelve minutes, you can easily find a way to use that window to good advantage.

To ignore the unexpected (even if it were possible) would be to live without opportunity, spontaneity, and the rich moments of which “life” is made.

—Stephen Covey

You can only do one of these work activities at a time. If you stop to talk to someone in his or her office, you’re not working off your lists or processing incoming stuff. The challenge is to feel confident about what you have decided to do.

So how do you decide? This again will involve your intuitive judgments—how important is the unexpected work, against all the rest? How long can you let your in-tray go unprocessed and all your stuff unreviewed and trust that you’re making good decisions about what to do?

Do unexpected work as it shows up, not because it is the path of least resistance, but because it is the thing you need to do vis-à-vis all the rest.

People often complain about the interruptions that prevent them from doing their work. But interruptions are unavoidable in life. When you become elegant at dispatching what’s coming in and are organized enough to take advantage of “weird time” windows that show up, you can switch between one task and the other rapidly. You can be processing e-mails while you’re on hold on a conference call. Research has now proven that you can’t actually multitask, i.e. put conscious focused attention on more than one thing at a time; and if you are trying to, it denigrates your performance considerably. If your head is your only system for placeholding, you will experience an attempted multitasking internally, which is psychologically impossible and the source of much stress for many people. If you have established practices for parking still-incomplete items midstream, however, your focus can shift cleanly from one to the next and back again, with the precision of a martial artist who appears to fight four people at once, but who in reality is simply rapidly shifting attention.

Nonetheless, even if you are a “black belt” in capturing and bookmarking what’s going on, you must still learn to make quick and appropriate choices among those many tasks to keep a healthy balance of your workflow. Your choices will still have to be calibrated against your own clarity about the nature and goals of your work.

Your ability to deal with surprise is your competitive edge, and a key to sanity and sustainability in your lifestyle. But at a certain point, if you’re not catching up and getting things under control, staying busy with only the work at hand will undermine your effectiveness. And ultimately, in order to know whether you should stop what you’re doing and do something else, you’ll need to have a good sense of all your roles and how they fit together in a larger context. The only way you can have that is to evaluate your life and work appropriately at multiple horizons.

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

The six levels of work as we saw in chapter 2 (pages 54-56) may be thought of in terms of altitude, as in the floors of a building:

· Horizon 5: Life

· Horizon 4: Long-term visions

· Horizon 3: One-to two-year goals

· Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability

· Horizon 1: Current projects

· Ground: Current actions

It makes sense that each of these levels should enhance and align with the ones above it. In other words, your priorities will sit in a hierarchy from the top down. Ultimately, if the phone call you’re supposed to make clashes with your life purpose or values, to be in sync with yourself you won’t make it. If your job structure doesn’t match up with where you need to be a year from now, you should rethink how you’ve framed your areas of focus and roles, if you want to get where you’re going most efficiently.

Let’s look at that first example from the bottom up. The phone call you need to make (action) is about the deal you’re working on (project), which would increase sales (accountability). This particular deal would give you the opportunity to move up in the sales force (job goal) because of the new market your company wants to penetrate (organization vision). And that would get you closer to the way you want to be living, both financially and professionally (life).

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.


Or, from the other direction, you’ve decided that you want to be your own boss and unlock some of your unique assets and talents in a particular area that resonates with you (life). So you create a business for yourself (vision), with some short-term key operational objectives (job goal). That gives you some critical roles you need to fulfill to get it rolling (accountability), with some immediate outcomes to achieve (projects). On each of those projects you’ll have things you need to do, as soon as you can do them (next actions).

The healthiest approach for relaxed control and inspired productivity is to manage all the levels in a balanced fashion. At any of those levels, it’s critical to identify all the open loops, all the incompletions, and all the commitments that you have right now, as best you can. They all came, consciously or not, from the urges, pulls, and pushes from these multiple levels within you. Without an acceptance and an objective assessment of what’s true in the present, and feeling confident you can manage what you’ve created, it’s always difficult to cast off for new shores. What’s in your e-mail? What are the projects you need to start or complete with your kids? What do you need to handle in your current roles at the office? What’s pushing you to change or attracting you to create in the next months or years? These are all open loops in your head, though often it takes deeper and more introspective processes to identify the bigger goals and subtler inclinations.

The best place to succeed is where you are with what you have.

—Charles Schwab

There is magic in being in the present in your life. I’m always amazed at the power of clear observation simply about what’s going on, what’s true. Finding out the exact details of your personal finances, clarifying the historical data about the company you’re buying, or getting the facts about who really said what to whom in an interpersonal conflict can be constructive, if not absolutely necessary and downright healing.

Getting things done, and feeling good about it, means being willing to recognize, acknowledge, and appropriately engage with all the things within the ecosystem of your consciousness. Mastering the art of stress-free productivity requires it.

Working from the Bottom Up

You’re never lacking in opportunities to clarify your priorities at any level. Pay attention to which horizon is calling you.

In order to create productive alignment in your life, you could quite reasonably start with a clarification from the top down. Decide why you’re on the planet. Figure out what kind of life and work and lifestyle would best allow you to fulfill that contract. What kind of job and personal relationships would support that direction? What key things would you need to put in place and make happen right now, and what could you do physically as soon as possible to kick-start each of those?

In truth, you can approach your priorities from any level, at any time. I always have something that I could do constructively to enhance my awareness and focus on each level. I’m never lacking in more visions to elaborate, goals to reassess, projects to identify or create, or actions to decide on. The trick is to learn to pay attention to the ones you need to, at the appropriate time, to keep you clear and present with whatever you’re doing.

Trying to manage from the top down when the bottom is out of control may be the least effective approach.

Because everything will ultimately be driven by the priorities of the level above it, any formulation of your priorities would obviously most efficiently begin at the top. For example, if you spend time prioritizing your work and then later discover that it’s not the work you think you ought to be doing, you may have wasted time and energy that could have been better spent defining the next job you really want. The problem is that without a sense of control at the implementation level (current projects and actions), and without trust in your own ability to manage those levels appropriately, trying to manage yourself from the top down often creates frustration.

From a practical perspective, I suggest going from the bottom up instead. I’ve coached people from both directions, and in terms of lasting value, I can honestly say that getting someone in control of the details of his or her current physical world, and then elevating the focus from there, has never missed.

Handle what has your attention and you’ll then discover what really has your attention.

The primary reason to work from this bottom-up direction is that it clears your inner decks to begin with, allowing your creative attention to focus on the more meaningful and elusive visions that you may need to challenge yourself to identify. Also, this particular method has a high degree of flexibility and freedom, and it includes a thinking and organizing practice that is universal and effective no matter what it’s focused on. That makes it worth learning, no matter what the actual content you’re dealing with at the moment may be. Change your mind and this process will help you adjust with maximum speed. It takes no time to reset a vision or goal, but learning to objectify and execute on it in a streamlined, coordinated, and stress-free way is an art that must be learned and practiced. Knowing you have that ability will give you permission to play a bigger game. It’s truly empowering.

I have learned over the years that the most important thing to deal with is whatever is most on your mind. The fact that you think it shouldn’t be on your mind is irrelevant. It’s there, and it’s there for a reason. “Buy cat food” may certainly not rank high on some theoretical prioritizing inventory, but if that’s what’s pulling on you the most, in the moment, then handling it in some way would be Job One. Once you handle what has your attention, it frees you up to notice what really has your attention. Which, when you handle that, will allow you to see what really has your attention, and so on. Almost without exception the executives I have worked with are most plagued by the management of the nitty-gritty of their workaday world—e-mails, meetings, travel, projects going off the rails, etc. When they begin to get all that under control, their attention invariably turns to areas of focus and interest from a higher perspective—family, career, and quality-of-life stuff. So don’t worry about what horizon or what content of your life is the highest priority to deal with—deal with what’s present. When you do, you will more effectively uncover and address what’s really true and meaningful for you.*

While Horizon 5 (purpose and principles) is obviously the most important context within which to set priorities, experience has shown me that when we understand and implement all the levels of work in which we are engaged, especially the Ground and Horizon 1 levels, we gain greater freedom and resources to do the bigger work that we’re all about. If your boat is sinking, you really don’t care in which direction it’s pointed! Although a bottom-up approach is not a conceptual priority, from a practical perspective it’s a critical factor in achieving a balanced, productive, and comfortable life.

Ground The first thing to do is make sure your action lists are complete, which in itself can be quite a task. Those who focus on gathering and objectifying all of those items discover that there are many (often of some importance) they’ve forgotten, misplaced, or just not recognized.

Aside from your calendar, if you don’t have at least fifty next actions and waiting-fors, including all the agendas for people and meetings, I would be skeptical about whether you really had all of them. If you’ve followed through rigorously with the steps and suggestions in part 2, though, you may have them already. If not, and you do want to get this level up-to-date, set aside some time to work through chapters 4 through 6 in real implementation mode.

When you’ve finished getting this level of control current, you’ll automatically have a more grounded sense of immediate priorities, which is almost impossible to achieve otherwise.

Horizon 1 Finalize your Projects list. Does it truly capture all the commitments you have that will require more than one action to get done? That will define the boundaries of the kind of week-to- week operational world you’re in and allow you to relax your thinking for longer intervals.

If you make a complete list of all of the things you want to have happen in your life and work at this level, you’ll discover that there are actions you need to do that you didn’t realize. Just creating this objective inventory will give you a firmer basis on which to make decisions about what to do when you have discretionary time. Invariably when people get their Projects list up-to-date, they discover there are several things that could be done readily to move things they care about forward.

Taking the inventory of your current work at all levels will automatically produce greater focus, alignment, and sense of priorities.

Very few people have this clear data defined and available to themselves in some objective form. Before any discussion about what should be done this afternoon can take place, this information must be at hand.

Again, if you’ve been putting into practice the methodology of Getting Things Done, your Projects list will be where it needs to be. For most of the people we coach, it takes ten to fifteen hours of capturing, clarifying, and organizing to get to the point of trusting the thoroughness of their inventory.

And to achieve the most pristine level of “mind like water” (nothing on your mind except what’s present in the moment), Horizon 1 is the level that seems to incorporate some of the most interesting challenges. For all of us, there are situations and circumstances that emerge that bother, interest, or distract us, but with which it is not immediately obvious or evident how to engage. Your son has a problem with his math teacher; you are frustrated with how long it takes to implement a procedure in your company; you have a concern about the person running your fund-raising committee; you keep thinking you ought to be rekindling your interest in painting; etc. Quieting that subtle noise requires identifying objective outcomes for each of those (a project), with accompanying next actions placed into your trusted system. Playing consistently at this level of the stress-free productivity game is a hallmark of its mastery.

Horizon 2 This is the level of “current job responsibilities” and “areas of my life to maintain at an appropriate standard.” What are the hats you wear, the roles you play? Professionally, this would relate to your current position and work. Personally, it would include the areas of responsibility you’ve taken on in your family, in your community, and of course with yourself as a functioning person.

If you’re not totally sure what your job is, it will always feel overwhelming.

You may have some of these roles already defined and written out. If you’ve recently taken a new position and there’s an agreement or contract about your areas of accountability, that would certainly be a good start. If you’ve done any kind of personal goal-setting and values-clarifying exercises in the past and still have any materials you created then, add those to the mix.

Next I recommend that you make and keep a list called “Areas of Focus.” You might like to separate this into “Professional” and “Personal” sublists, in which case you’ll want to use them both equally for a consistent review. This is one of the most useful checklists you can create for your own self-management. It won’t require the kind of once-a-week recalibration that the Projects list will; more likely it will have meaning on a longer recursion cycle. Depending on the speed of change in some of the more important areas of your life and work, this should be used as a trigger for potential new projects every one to three months.

You probably have somewhere between four and seven key areas of responsibility in your work, and a similar number personally. Your job may include things like staff development, systems design, long-range planning, administrative support, customer service, and marketing; or accountabilities for facilities, fulfillment, quality control, asset management, and so on. If you’re your own business, your attention will be on many more areas than if you have a very specialized function in a large organization. The rest of your life might entail areas of focus such as parenting, partnering, spiritual community, health, volunteering, home management, personal finances, self-development, creative expression, and so forth. And each one of those specific areas could be broken down into useful subcategories. “Parenting” could generate separate checklists for each of your children. “Marketing” can include “Program Design,” “Research,” “Social Media,” etc.

The operational purpose of the Areas of Focus list is to ensure that you have all your projects and next actions defined, so you can manage your responsibilities appropriately. If you were to create an accounting of those and evaluate them objectively, in terms of what you’re doing and should be doing, you’ll undoubtedly uncover projects you need to add to your Projects list. You may, in reviewing the list, decide that some areas are just fine and are being taken care of. Then again, you may realize that something has been bugging or intriguing you in one area and that a project should be created to deal with it. “Areas of Focus” is really just a more abstract and refined version of the Triggers list we covered earlier.

Every person I have worked with in the past thirty years has uncovered at least two or three important gaps at this level of discussion. For instance, a common role a manager or executive has is “staff.” Upon reflection, most realize they need to add a project or two in that area, such as “Upgrade support office procedures,” “Research hiring a chief of staff,” or “Upgrade performance review processes.” Or when objectifying the accountabilities for aspects of one’s personal life, often projects like “Research yoga classes” and “Set up summer activities for the kids” show up.

A discussion of priorities would have to incorporate all of these levels of current agreements between you and others. If you get this professional “job description” checklist in play and keep it current, you’ll probably be more relaxed and in control than most people in our culture. Few people are doing only what they were hired to do, and keeping clear about new and changing expectations needs to be a constantly updated conversation. Equally few people maintain a consistent and objective overview of all the relevant areas of their balanced life—family, fun, or finances—with a mind to execute on the gaps. Driving your thinking and systems from these levels will go a long way toward moving you from hope to trust as you make the necessary on-the-run choices about what to do.

When you’re not sure where you’re going or what’s really important to you, you’ll never know when enough is enough.

Horizons 3-5 Whereas the three lower levels have mostly to do with the current state of things—your actions, projects, and areas of responsibility—from Horizon 3 up the factors of the future and your direction and intentions are primary. There is still an inventory to take at these plateaus (especially at the top level, purpose and principles, which represents an ongoing criterion for monitoring and correcting activities and behaviors), but it’s more about “What is true right now about where I’ve decided I’m going and how I’m going to get there?” This can range from one-year goals in your job (Horizon 3) to a three-year vision for your career and personal net worth (Horizon 4) to intuiting your life purpose and how to maximize its expression (Horizon 5).

I’m blending the three uppermost levels together here because situations often can’t easily be pigeonholed into one or another of these categories. Also, since Getting Things Done is more about the art of implementation and execution than about how to define goals and vision, I won’t offer a rigorous examination here. But by its very nature this investigation can broach potentially deep and complex arenas, which could include business strategy, organization development, career planning, and life direction and values.

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.

—Jonathan Kozol

For our purposes, the focus is on capturing what motivators exist for you in current reality that determine the inventory of what your work actually is, right now (some of which may be stemming from your higher-level commitments and intentions). Whether your directions and goals should be changed or clarified—based on deeper thinking, analysis, and intuition—could be another discussion. Even so, there are probably some things you can identify right now that can help you get current in your own thinking about your work and what’s important in it.

If you were to intuitively frame a picture of what you think you might be doing twelve to eighteen months from now, or what the nature of your job will look like at that point, what would that trigger? At this level, which is subtler, there may be things personally you need to let go of, and people and systems that may need to be developed to allow the transition. And as the job itself is a moving target, given the shifting sands of the professional world these days, there may need to be projects defined to ensure viability of the outputs in your area.

In the personal arena, this is where you would want to consider things like: “My career is going to stagnate unless I assert my own goals more specifically to my boss [or my boss’s boss].” Or “What new things are my children going to be doing in the next couple of years, and what do I need to do differently because of that?” Or “What preparation do I need to ensure that I can deal with this health problem we’ve just uncovered?”

Through a longer scope you might assess: How is your career going? How is your personal life moving along? What is your organization doing relative to changes in the environment, and what impact does that have on you? These are the one-to-five-year-horizon questions that, when I ask them, elicit different and important kinds of answers from everyone.

I coached someone in a large international bank who, after a few months of implementing this methodology and getting control of his day-to-day inventory of work, decided the time was right to invest in his own start-up high-tech firm. The thought had been too intimidating for him to address initially, but working from the Ground level up made it much more accessible and a natural consequence of thinking at this horizon. I recently heard of his phenomenal success in the new endeavor.

If you’re involved in anything that has a future of longer than a year (marriage, kids, career, a company, an art form, a lifelong passion), you would do well to think about what you might need to be doing to manage things along that vector.

Questions to ask are:

· What are the longer-term goals and objectives in my organization, and what projects do I need to have in place related to them to fulfill my responsibilities?

· What longer-term goals and objectives have I set for myself, and what projects do I need to have in place to make them happen?

· What other significant things are happening that could affect my options about what I’m doing?

Let me emphasize here that setting new goals or raising your standards is not what I’m specifically advocating. I am, rather, directing your focus to what may be inherently true about these situations within your current reality. If they are there in any obvious or subtle way, then addressing them appropriately will be critical to getting into your own clear space.

Here are some examples of the kinds of issues that show up at this level of conversation:

The changing nature of your job, given the shifting priorities of the company. Instead of managing the production of your own training programs in-house, you’re going to outsource them to vendors.

The direction in which you feel you need to move in your career. You see yourself doing a different kind of job a year from now, and you need to make a transition out of the one you have while exploring the options for a transfer or promotion.

The organization’s direction, given globalization and expansion. You see a lot of major international travel looming on the horizon for you, and given your lifestyle preferences, you need to consider how to readjust your career plans.

Lifestyle preferences and changing needs. As your kids get older, your need to be at home with them is diminishing, and your interest in investment and retirement planning is growing.

At the topmost level of thinking you’ll need to ask some of the ultimate questions: Why does your company exist? Why do you exist? What is the core DNA of your existence, personally and/or organizationally, that drives your choices? This is the big-picture stuff with which hundreds of books and gurus and models are devoted to helping you grapple.

Why? This is the great question with which we all struggle.

You can have all the other levels of your life and work shipshape, defined, and organized to a T. Still, if you’re the slightest bit off course in terms of what at the deepest level you want or are called to be doing, you’re going to be uncomfortable.

Getting Priority Thinking off Your Mind

Take at least a few minutes, if you haven’t already done so, to jot down some informal notes about things that occurred to you while you were reading this chapter. Whatever popped into your mind at these more elevated levels of your inner radar, write it down and get it out of your head.

Neutral is a state where you are not jumping ahead too quickly or moving too slow. Neutral does not mean being inactive, complacent, or passive. It’s about a calm poise that allows for new information and new possibilities to emerge before taking further action. When in neutral you actually increase your sensitivity and intuitive intelligence. Neutral is fertile ground for new possibilities to grow from.

—Doc Childre

Then process those notes. Decide whether what you wrote down is something you really want to move on or not. If not, throw the note away, or put it on a Someday/Maybe list or in a folder called “Dreams and Goals I Might Get Around to at Some Point.” Perhaps you want to continue accumulating more of this kind of future thinking and would like to do the exercise with more formality—for example, by drafting a new business plan with your partners, designing and writing out your idea of a dream life with your spouse, creating a more specific career map for the next three years for yourself, or just getting a personal coach who can lead you through those discussions and thought processes. If so, put that outcome on your Projects list, and decide the next action. Then do it, hand it off to get done, or put the action reminder on the appropriate list.

With that done, you may want to turn your focus to developmental thinking about specific projects that have been identified but not fleshed out as fully as you’d like. You’ll want to ensure that you’re set up for that kind of vertical processing.