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Associating "Next Actions" in "@" contexts with their parent projects

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  • Associating "Next Actions" in "@" contexts with their parent projects

    One aspect of implementing GTD I have struggled with is how to associate "Next Actions" when they are in "@" contexts with their parent projects and vice verce. For example, let's say I have a project named "London trip" that has several next actions.

    It would look like this in my Outlook task:
    Subject: London Trip
    Category: Active Project
    Next Actions
    1. NY car reservations
    2. LN car reservations
    3. Dry cleaning and laundry
    4. Pack
    5. Notify alarm company

    Desired Outcome: Have a stress-less trip to and from London.

    Completed Actions:
    1. Stop mail - 6/25
    2. Stop newspaper - 6/25
    Now, I need to have several next actions in motion because there are a few things I can do on any given day in any order. For example:
    Subject: NY car reservations
    Subject: @Calls
    Subject: LN car reservations
    Subject: @Calls
    Subject: Drop of suit to dry cleaner
    Subject: @Errands
    I have a few questions about how I am setting myself up. These questions express some of my frustration of how to easily associate hundreds of items with each other without opening tasks repeatedly. Keeping track mentally is not workable and goes against one of the GTD principles of having a trusted system and not having to mentally track things.
    1. Is it "dangerous" to have more than one "Next Action" active in my "@" contexts at once?
    2. Does anyone have suggestions for how to associate a next action with its parent project so it can easily be identified?
    3. How about a simple way to "know" that a next action listed in the project entry is active in an "@" context or needs to be added?

    I just started playing with the following ideas
    1. Keep project titles short and use them in the "Next Action" subject, i.e. "LN Trip > NY car reservations"
    2. Use the exact text of the "Next Action" subject, minus the project name" for what goes in the notes of the project task, i.e. "1. NY car reservations"

    My main concern is I am leading myself into a cross-referencing tangle that will frustrate me more. I'd love to see some "worked examples" of what successful GTD'ers do.

  • #2
    I assign multiple Outlook categories to each task. One is for context, one is for the associated project, and others are for areas of focus.

    Beyond Contacts gets around the Palm's category limits, making all these categories visible on the Palm.

    The underlying data is in ResultsManager, a MindManager add-in. It gives me both a context view and a project view, and explicitly flags projects which have no Next Actions associated with them.



    • #3
      I'm having exactly that same dilemma. I want to know that I have something set to do next for each project.

      I started by listing my projects all the same way (ex. >> Fall Conference). Then, at the end of each "next action" task for that project I would add the project label (ex. Call Kevin for budget >> Fall Conference). That way, each individual task only had the context category (ex. @Calls), but I could use the find feature to search on >> Fall Conference and get everything related to the project.

      The trouble with this, I'm finding, is that I have so many projects to go through on my weekly review, that would take a really long time to use that search feature on each project. On top of that, even if during the previous weekly review, I listed tasks that should keep me on target and on time throughout the week, things change (and I end up doing that search and check by project multiple times during the week).

      I like the idea of assigning two categories (context and project) to each next action, but then I lose the nice list of project names (because all of the next actions are mixed in). I might have to sacrifice that that so that I have that way to check on whether or not next actions are assigned. The only change I'll have to make is to switch my next actions to have the project listed first (ex. >> Fall Conference >> Call Kevin for budget) so that I can sort by subject and put each project's tasks together in the list.

      Katherine, do you give the project name the category of "Projects" (ex. Task: Fall Conference; Category: Projects) or do you make a new category with each project name (Task: Fall Conference; Category: Fall Conference)?

      I used to keep all of my tasks sorted by project... it wasn't working out at all. This system has been wonderful in helping me make better use of my time by "batching" like work together. I still feel a little hesitant about knowing where all the parts are - this is a great discussion. Does anyone else do it differently?



      • #4
        Originally posted by Julia
        Katherine, do you give the project name the category of "Projects" (ex. Task: Fall Conference; Category: Projects) or do you make a new category with each project name (Task: Fall Conference; Category: Fall Conference)?
        New category for each project name. So I might have:

        Task: Call John Smith; Category: @Phone, ^Fall Conference

        Then Outlook's category view will give me all phone calls, all tasks associated with the Fall conference, etc. Note that the '^' for project names causes them to cluster together in an alphabetical sort.

        I use ResultsManager, not Outlook, for the Weekly Review. It has a dashboard that's especially designed to generate the project list. In Outlook, though, you can collapse the category view to see just the list of categories without the individual tasks, then expand each category individually as needed.

        Hope this helps,



        • #5
          I'll try the double category idea. My initial thought is to name the category the same as the project, ^ and all. Then I just need to cut-and-paste for a quick creation.


          • #6
            Hello tjrandell,
            I don't know if this reply will qualify as an answer to your question about How to associate NA's to their parent projects, but my experience is: I don't. I was concerned with this problem as well, but over some time of my actual GTD implementation, I realized that I simply don't need to manually associate NA to project. I usualy know which project the NA belongs to from it's description, but even if I don't know it, I would just do the NA without knowing about the associated project.

            I have a suspicion that a lot of people are using context-based NA's lists as a to-do lists, and they put everything which should be done for a certain project into them. I don't work this way. NA lists are just that - lists for *NEXT* Actions. What should I do NEXT to move the project forward, so they are just "triggers" for getting things done. So my lists surely don't hold "hundreds of items". When I am going to work on stuff, I pick up NA for execution. Usually, when I am done with it, next to-do item for current project will naturaly emerge and I do it, then, next to-do will show up, and I just continue to work on the project. If the project is not yet finished and I do not have more time/energy/context to work on it futher, I will try to quickly determine the NA for it and put it into my GTD system. If I am not able to do it, I will put a short note about it, or just postpone everything for the next review.



            • #7
              I just started implementing GTD and at the present time, I am creating my system through the use of index cards. Here’s part of what I do.

              If I determine that something is a project during my inbox review, and not just a simple unassociated NA, I put it on my master “Project list” and assign it a number. I recycle through the numbers 1-99 for my projects.

              For example: Let’s say cleaning out the garage is one of my projects and I’ve listed it on my master project list as:

              (71) Garage cleaned out and organized

              another one might be…

              (72) Pain in shoulder completely gone

              Next, I pull out a “Project Sheet”. In the upper right hand corner, I have a place to write the project number, so I write (71). At the bottom of the Project Sheet, I write the Project outcome, “Garage cleaned out and organized”. In between, I have blank lines with the letters A-I next to them (no particular reason to stop at I, it’s just all I could fit on the page with a reasonable font size – it does serve another purpose for me which I’ll explain in a bit. On these lines, I write my Next Action(s).

              For example: One of the actions of cleaning out my garage might be to take all of the bags of old clothes we’ve collected for Goodwill. So, on Project Sheet (71) I add:

              A: Clothes dropped off at Goodwill

              The next one I put down on my Project sheet might be…

              B: New shelves assembled

              Now I end up adding “71A-Clothes dropped off at Goodwill” on my @Errands context card and I add my “71B-New shelves assembled” on my @Home context card.

              When I complete the tasks, I simply put a check next to them. Sometimes, I’ll quickly flip to the Project sheet to see the next tasks, “71C-Power tools put on shelves”, and write that down on the appropriate @Context card, or just wait for the weekly review.

              Often projects will have their own sub projects, for which I would create a separate project sheet. I found the lettering of tasks associated with a project A-I has a tendency to force me to break down projects into smaller sub-projects. If I have a project that is at 71I and I’m still not close to completing the Project, then it forces me to rethink the project and try and break it up into smaller sub-projects with their own project sheets and NAs listed.

              Hope this makes sense. It helps me quite a bit on the cross-referencing, but I'm still tweaking it.
              Last edited by DoubleDippin; 06-27-2005, 09:40 AM.


              • #8
                If you're committed to Outlook this may not help you, but I've been using Life Balance software to do GTD for a few weeks (available for PC, Mac, and Palm, and synchronizes smoothly across all three platforms), and it does exactly what you're talking about.

                An Action is viewed two ways, in a hierarchical "project" list and also in a "context" list. For each project, you can create any number of sub-tasks (or as we GTDers would say "Next Actions"), which can be sequential or not. If you specify that tasks be completed in order, then only the next next-action appears in its appropriate context list. As soon as you check it off, the following action appears in its appropriate context list.

                This is probably not the most coherent explanation, but visit for some very good online documentation and a free 30-day trial.

                Sorry if I sound like an ad, I am not affiliated with llamagraphics in any way. And the tool isn't perfect -- it's a little heavyweight sometimes when you just want to jot down a quick reminder. But I like it so far, enough that I paid for it after the 30-day trial was over.


                • #9
                  I like the "coding" idea DoubleDippin presented. Seems simple to maintain and I like the use of letters for the NAs. I am going to live with the multiple categories for 30 days and see what happens. My next step will be the coding method.

                  I agree with (and envy ) greyman that if you can keep it all straight in your head and easily associate your NAs and Projects and keep it "intuitive" you get a big speed increase in data entry and correlation. My problem is I have a leaky brain and really need it empty of all concrete actions. On top of that I have about 30 to 40 work and personal projects simultaneously in motion or short term hold that generate at least 100 or so NAs, leading me to 30 to 50 active NAs per day/week.

                  I was using NoteStudio ( to implement GTD and that worked great. It's a personal, self-contained wiki for those that are not familiar with it and has perfect synchronization between PC and Palm. All I had to do was link to a project for an NA and et voila. Then my company outlawed Palm devices for security concerns with synchronization and the software does not support storage of data on removable cards, so I was faced with a PC only solution and I could not live with that.

                  I also use note cards and love the Hipster PDA and D*I*Y*Planner movements but I have way too much to keep on cards along with the ton of reference data I need to associate with projects. So, Outlook and my Crackberry are the latest incarnation of me re-commitment to GTD.


                  • #10
                    Oh, I see. Anyway, what do you mean be "active NA's"? Do you have two types of NA's? (Just curious)


                    • #11
                      Here is how I would handle the project in the original example. As soon as I realized I was going to be planning this trip, I would create a new task (either in Outlook or on my Palm) that says:
                      +London trip has been planned
                      That is my outcome, starting with a noun up front. The plus sign is a symbol I put between the action and the outcome. Whenever I see a plus sign as the very first thing, it means I have not defined an action.

                      From here on out, EVERYTHING about that project is going to be handled from that one task. It will not be checked off until I conclude that my outcome has been achieved.

                      Next, I am going to start listing all of the actions that come to mind in a note attached to that task (rental car reservations, hotel reservations, tourist attractions, etc,). My very first action is going to go in the subject line:
                      Avis-800-987-6543-reserve car+London trip has been planned

                      All info I gather along the way (like whatever confirmation number Avis gives me) is going to go in that same attached note. Every time I complete an action, I am going to erase that action, go to the note, and cut & paste the next action into the subject line.

                      I may find that I am changing the category from time to time. Calling Avis is going to be "Calls." If I have to leave a message for them to call me back, I change the category to "Delegated." At some point, the next action might involve an Errand, like purchasing new luggage.

                      If I need to put my hands on any of the info associated with the London trip, I can do a search on Outlook or the Palm for "+London". If I need a manilla folder to house paperwork associated with this trip, it's going to be "London Trip." (That's one reason I like outcomes with the noun up front. It maked it easier to decide how to label supporting files.)

                      The downside (if there is one) is that I am only going to have one next action for any givedn outcome at any given time. However, when I am at my best, I am going to stay with one project and take it through many steps in one sitting. It's only when I reach a point where I can't go any further (because now I have to wait on a phone call, I have an appointment, I need a break from that particular activity, etc.) that a need a "bookmark" to let me know where to pick up with that project.



                      • #12
                        Originally posted by greyman
                        Oh, I see. Anyway, what do you mean be "active NA's"? Do you have two types of NA's? (Just curious)
                        For most of my projects I try to list out all the individual NAs I can think of at that time in the "Notes" section of the outlook task. Then I copy the next NA I think I can do that day or week and create a new task with that as the subject (say in @Calls for a car reservation). When I complete it, I mark that task completed and move the line item in the project from the NA list to the CA (Completed Actions) list to show I did it already.

                        Since I have several projects in motion (sometimes 15 or more at once) I have a lot of NAs on the my lists, plus several NAs with no project association. My challenge is to distinguish which NAs are moving projects forward so I know to update the project accordingly when I complete that task.

                        Ultimately the task entry for the project is the complete record of the project's life cycle.


                        • #13
                          paper-based NA+Project Solution?

                          So far, I've got my NAs in their respective contexts, but other than coding each NA with a number related to each Project, does anyone have a format that you're using successfully with a paper-based (blank notebook or HPDA) system?


                          • #14
                            NAs to Project links.

                            Recently I thought about the issue of linking NAs to Projects. It seems to be a "recurring problem" on this forum. I think it is raised by people who are entering the GTD world and thinking how to make the implementation perfect and how to make the GTD system run by itself. I mean without the human being interaction. In my opinion it is a misinterpretation of the GTD idea.
                            GTD allows you to achieve the "mind like water" state.
                            But "mind like water" does not mean that after preparing your NA lists you turn off your mind or erase it completely. You use it during the NA "doing" to make corrections based on the NA "doing" results. And if you are really focused on the Projects you decided to activate you surely can easily remember the links between NAs and Projects.


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by TesTeq
                              Recently I thought about the issue of linking NAs to Projects. It seems to be a "recurring problem" on this forum. I think it is raised by people who are entering the GTD world and thinking how to make the implementation perfect and how to make the GTD system run by itself.
                              As I see it, from replies in this thread, the main reason is that people confuse NA's lists with TODO lists, in other words, they are trying to use NA lists as TODO lists.

                              Originally posted by TesTeq
                              And if you are really focused on the Projects you decided to activate you surely can easily remember the links between NAs and Projects.
                              I agree. For me, NA is just a short sentence, which helps me to (re)activate the project in my mind, so I can continue to work on it, to gain focus on it. Then I just work, and usually the next steps naturally unfolds, and most of the time I just use notes I made during brainstorming&planning the project. I don't need to have everything, which should be done in the project, to be formulated as NA. If I am in the right context and know what to do next, I don't need to bother with NA's lists at all.

                              To sum it up, I look into GTD only when I don't know what to do next or when I need to find some information in the references.