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24 Oct Productive Living email: "dummy" work

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  • 24 Oct Productive Living email: "dummy" work

    David's latest Productive Living email about "dummy" work compels me to share a neat little tip that my GTD coach Julie Ireland (thanks Julie!!!) shared with me a couple years ago. She encouraged me to identify dummy work with its own unique context: "@BrainDead" -- which I've since abbreviated to "BDEAD" since I use all caps to distinguish context names from other text. It was a great suggestion and I've been using it ever since. Whenever my brain is toast I can just go to my BDEAD context and find something productive to do with the available time.

  • #2
    I'm a stickler for semantics and would argue against this practice as it has been described. Instead of creating a context I suggest creating a reference list instead of an action list for dummy things like refilling your stapler, watering your plants and cleaning your toilet.

    The key difference between a reference list and an action list is that reference lists don't contain items that are permanently crossed off. I have such a list that includes things like "empty dishwasher", "fill dishwasher", "empty dish drainer", "water plants", "dust furniture", "vacuum floor", "defrag hard disk", etc. I don't cross off these things when I do them.

    I assert that "Brain Dead" is NOT a context. It's a level of energy (the 3rd of 4 factors that limit your choices of what to do in the moment). Contexts are the first limiting factor of your choices. They are aligned to key locations or tools that are required for you to take action. If you treat @BrainDead as a context you'd be faced with a mix of things that you can and can't do at the moment. You'd have @Braindead things that you can only do at home and @BrainDead things you could only do in the office. Mixing those things together is BAD!

    I've practiced GTD for six years, read the books and seen the mastering workflow seminar. Nowhere does DA mention tracking energy level or time required on action lists. Doing so creates unnecessary overhead to the system. That's what your intuition is for. The system is there to do the remembering part for you so that your brain can intuitively think about the work instead of trying to think of (remember) it.

    You will have defined work on your action lists that you could do when you are brain dead, too. As you review an action list to decide what to do next use intuition to decide in the moment if you have the energy to tackle an action.

    At the end of the day do what works for you. I'm just cautioning you about the dangers of mixing semantics and creating complication and resistance to the system.


    • #3
      Love Braindead

      I actually agree that braindead can be a valid context. Your brain is a tool and sometimes it's not the sharpest so having a list of things that can be done then makes sense. I'd also think that for an item to go on the list it has to be a do anywhere item just so you don't have a mix of things that can't be done in that state but that's more a matter of how you assign the context to a particular item.

      For me well over half the projects I have are recurring ones. Some have to be done daily, some weekly, some once a quarter, some twice a year and some once a year or even once every decade or longer. Putting all those types of things in a reference list just adds a layer of complexity and makes it more likely that I will never get them done on time. I need to have the actions listed and available in the contexts in which they happen. Just because I will have to do it again does not mean it's not able to be checked off now for this instance. In fact the win of checking them off is well worth the effort to put the recurring tasks into my projects int eh first place.

      Today we just finished one, Clean the chicken barn. We do this once a year, there are several actions that have to happen (call the person who trades the chicken manure for veges, schedule the time and day to do it together, buy enough shavings to re-bed the chicken condos and actually clean them out) I crunched through the various actions and now I finished and checked off the final one. But I already see that I now have a pending project (equivalent of a tickler) for it to start again next fall.


      • #4
        One of the things I like about David Allen is that he seems very reasonable when it comes to accommodating personalization of GTD. The basics are fairly well established, but the specifics can be appropriately tweaked or personalized.

        "BrainDead" works fine as a context for me, and I'll comment that most of my braindead items are not recurring. They are low-level actions that I would like to accomplish but have no specific urgency or timeframe for doing so (nor do they require significant presence of mind). Realistically, many of them could be deferred to the Someday / Maybe list.

        Ellobogrande stated, "Contexts are the first limiting factor of your choices" and that statement alone supports the use of BrainDead as a context for me, because when my brain has been beat up by a long day of back-to-back meetings, my resultant state of brain-deadness is most definitely a primary limiting factor!

        Also, I noticed that Oogiem uses OmniFocus, and I love the way OmniFocus handles recurring actions: specify how often you need to perform the action and OF allows you the satisfaction of checking that action complete each time you do it, then automatically opens a new action at the next appointed time.


        • #5
          In my paper system, I keep braindead actions in the appropriate context list but write them at the bottom of the page. In my abandoned electronic system, I used to tag them as braindead.


          • #6
            I wouldn't use the term "braindead" because I feel I would be sending my subconscious mind a negative signal; and also because I don't think it's a black-and-white category but has shades of gray.

            As I've mentioned often before, when I have context lists as multiple items on a sheet of paper, I put the ones that will take less energy closer to the bottom of the page. That way, usually I start at the top and get the more difficult things done, leaving the easier ones for when I'm tired; but when I'm tired I don't even have to read the actions at the top of the list. Just considering doing them would further drain my energy. I start reading partway down. How far down depends on how tired I am.

            I also list more important actions further to the left, so those tend to get done first, too.


            • #7
              How do you sign up to receive regular emails by David Allen or how do you find essays written by him on a regular basis? Are these paying services?


              • #8
                David's Productive Living newsletter (distributed via email) is free for the asking! Learn more (and view past newsletters) at or send a blank email to to sign up immediately. Enjoy!