Recently I have had the pleasure of teaching and coaching other people (mostly consultants and entrepreneurs) on Getting Things Done. I’ve been using GTD for about 2 years myself, mostly teaching myself how to become better and more effective at it. Occasionally I would inspire friends or colleagues to read David Allen’s book or to start experimenting with GTD in their own life. However, training entire groups of people and coaching several colleagues and clients is a whole different, but very exciting game!

I’ll probably be writing more about these particular experiences in future posts. In this post I would like to discuss one common theme I’ve noticed when ‘students’ start asking questions about the newly acquired principles and tools of GTD.

I would frequently get a remark or question along the lines of “What am I doing wrong? My next action list is only growing and never seems to become empty!

Think about this. Your life is a mess. You start using GTD to organize this mess and to finally get some things done. And then you notice your list of things-to-do is growing at an alarming rate and in fact doesn’t seem to become empty at all, no matter how hard you work!

This frightening observation can easily deter or discourage a GTD ‘student’, until I explain there is a logical and simple explanation for this counterintuitive phenomenon.

It may seem overwhelming but you have to accept the fact that your next action list will never be empty! Consider this. You have a number of values, roles, responsibilities and goals in your life. These translate into a number of projects. A project is defined according to the GTD principle that any multistep action is in fact a project that needs to go on your project list. If you apply GTD correctly, every project on your list has a next action, that is, the number of next actions is at least as big as the number of projects (since some next actions don’t require a project). On average I’ve found that I have about 200 ‘current’ projects on my project list. This means my next action list is about the same length! In your daily or weekly GTD review you remove the finished actions and select the next next action for each project. Finished projects tend to be replaced with new projects (perhaps from your someday/maybe list). On average, a couple of hundred projects (and therefore a couple of hundred next actions!) will be very normal!

In fact, to turn the whole thing around: an empty next action list would imply an empty project list, which would in turn imply that you’re either not using GTD or you’re dead! Also, people with very short next action lists make me very suspicious. They cannot be applying GTD in the correct and intended way in my not so humble opinion ;)
Perhaps they’ve only added the things they have to do right now, but not the things they should do or want to do in their life. In other words, their next action list has deteriorated into a common to-do list.

Some GTD ‘students’ think they can ‘solve’ this situation by simply not writing down all of their projects and/or all of their next actions. Of course, this is not a real solution at all. Not writing down your projects and actions doesn’t mean they’re not there! It’s better to face the reality of things and get into the flow of handling your (large but specific and complete) next action list with ease.

I’ve accepted the fact that my next action list will never be empty. In fact, I welcome a long, varied, rich list of next actions! I have learned to apply a little trick to make the list seem less overwhelming though. I make a point of looking at all of my finished next actions and/or projects and the end of each day while doing my daily mini-review. I do not strive for an empty next action list, I ‘reward’ myself for accomplishing as many important next actions as possible each and every day!