Getting Things Done: Action Choices

The typical knowledge worker of today is saddled with a seemingly infinite list of projects and incomplete tasks across work, family and personal life. Despite the plethora of productivity tools and frameworks available at our disposal, it appears practically impossible to keep track of all our tasks and action items and still lead a meaningful life.

I have been attempting to implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology over the last 2 months. Though I am far from internalizing the system as a way of working, the GTD methodology has certainly helped gain better control of my activities and commitments in various areas of life. In particular, Allen’s three models for making action choices have made a tangible difference in the way I approach work at any given moment. I attempt to give you a 5-min overview to one of these models in the hope that it’d serve you to better deal with the multiple demands on your limited time.

The basic premise of the GTD methodology is that the nature of work has transformed far more dramatically than our ability or training to deal with the change. Work today has no clear boundaries. It is far less self-evident than the defined work of a factory-worker in the second half of the 20th century. There is so much change in our jobs and lives at a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis that it is practically impossible to deal with the big picture while taking care of the nitty-gritty on any given day. Given this practical reality, the apparently sensible advice to focus on the most important task or track tasks with a relentless focus on action items may often set you up for failure.

This is where Allen’s three models for making action choices come into the picture. Used together, they can enable you to keep your focus on the big picture while not missing out on the details. In this article, I will focus on the four-criteria model to make action choices in the moment.

The Four-Criteria Model to Choose Actions in the Moment

At any given time of the day, you can use 4 criteria to decide what you should do from among the many things that you could possible work on. The four criteria are context, time available, energy available and priority, in that order. We think that we must work on the task with the highest priority but you are often constrained by the first three criteria.

Context includes anything in the external environment that prevents you from doing certain tasks. For example, if you want to call someone but your phone isn’t handy, you are not going to be able to do it regardless of the importance of making the call. Or if you are traveling on a crowded train, you cannot do exploratory thinking that requires you to organize your thoughts on a whiteboard, even if a brilliant idea strikes you at that moment.

The second criterion, time available, precludes you from doing anything that requires a longer amount of time. If you need to spend an hour reading a report but have a meeting in another 10 minutes, it might not make sense to start reading the report at that moment. You’d probably need that time to just get into the mental frame to understand the report. If you choose to read a bit now and then come back later, this time would need to be invested again, which means the earlier time spent was futile. Splintering the day into multiple brackets of 10–20 minutes is one of the reasons people feel busy through the day but achieve little at the end of the day.

The third criterion, energy available, will determine how deeply you engage with the task at hand and thereby, the quality of the output. Some activities will require you to have a reservoir of fresh creative energy; others may require more physical horsepower. Having a sense of the nature and quantum of energy available at your disposal will enable you to avoid wasting energy by dissipating it on tasks not suited to the energy available. For example, spending an hour in the right setting at your study desk to write a blog when you are just not feeling creative enough is an hour wasted because you are likely to get very little writing done.

The final criterion, priority, comes into effect only when you find yourself in the right context with adequate amount of time and energy available. Only in such a situation can you really think about what the most important tasks are. Assessing priority in the moment requires you to access your intuition and make a judgment call. It is relevant only when you have done previous work to evaluate what is important to you and to organize the myriad commitments on your time.

Utilizing the four-criteria model will help you make better action choices in the moment and avoid being overwhelmed by the urge to tick off whatever is next on the to-do list or feeling stressed about not working on the most-important tasks. In subsequent articles, I will describe the other two models — the threefold model to identify daily work and the six level model to review your own work.