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Transitions: A secret ingredient to Getting Things Done?

A key aspect of making David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology work is remembering to look at the deferred actions - Calendar entries and Next Actions - as often as necessary. (See the Defer It box at the bottom of Allen's workflow diagram.) Forming this habit is crucial - in order for my mind to trust the system I must keep my deferred actions up-to-date and check them when I'm ready to do something.

Until recently I didn't have a good idea of how to trigger looking at these actions, other than trying to apply traditional habit-forming ideas [1]. However, while reading Marilyn Paul's book It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys I had an insight - In the Time Management section she says to be aware of transition time, and ask:
  • Where am I?
  • What did I just experience?
  • What's next?
  • What do I need right now to be present with this situation?
With respect to my GTD practice, I've adapted this to mean be aware of environmental changes [2] (either mental or physical), because they often indicate changes in context. Here are some example transitions:
  • Leaving the house - Is there anything I need to take, based on where I'm going?
  • Leaving the driveway - Is there anything on @Errands I can pick up?
  • Entering the office - What contexts are available? @Phone? @Computer?
  • Finishing an action - What's my context/time/energy/priority like? Should I activate another action from an associated project?
  • Finishing a phone call - do I have time to make other calls from @Phone? (a )
And so on.

Of course the ticking of the clock is another transition (time is passing), albeit a continuous one, and requires us to be constantly vigilant of time and appointments. This is where a digital calendar can be so useful, with its ability to set alarms for meetings. (I'm a paper planner type [3], and this feature makes me envious!)

I've found that training myself to be aware of my physical and mental transitions has allowed me to more reliably check my deferred actions, and has made GTD work more smoothly. What transitions keep your GTD system flowing?


[1] For advice on forming habits I like Installing a new habit and breaking an old one.
[2] A tip of the hat to Josh Hornick for discussing his ideas on environmental design with me.
[3] I describe my paper-based GTD implementation in Fare thee well Hipster PDA - I barely knew ye. Also, you can find some planner tips in Four Planner Hacks for Paper-Based Productivity.

Reader Comments (11)

I keep all of my Next actions in my big list of stuff in Excel. I search the list for "Next Action" when I want to look at my next action list. When I complete a Next Action, I edit the item, changing "Next Action" to "Done" and append the date of completion. A quick search provides a list of completed NA without much extra work.


December 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Good post.

One of the things I rely on to help me with transitions is a little notepad I keep in my pocket at all times (which replaced a hipster pda). If I have something that needs to be done sooner than later or a tricky task that requires me remembering to do something when I am in a particular context (for example, if I am trying to remember to take the book I borrowed from Mark with me, but only if I'm going to see him) I put it on there since it will have such a low half-life, and I try to refer to it whenever I'm transitioning.

December 18, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Thanks for the good idea, Jason.

December 18, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Now that I think about it, it might be helpful to create a whole new context, @transitional, to help with those tasks that require you to be in the right mind at the right time and place.

December 20, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Interesting, Jason. I was thinking about transitions as a way to be aware of what context I'm in, not as a context themselves...

December 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Check out a book called THE POWER OF FULL ENGAGEMENT, whre the authors posit that managing energy should be considered over managing time. It's pitched at a corporate audience, and leads to the usual define your purpose" type of statements.

But they do emphasize creating rituals to transition yourself from one state of energy to another. For exmaple, stopping to sit in a park on the way home from work, so you can get that antic work energy out of your system and not inflict it on your family.

Makes me think about meditiation, etc and other rituals that one can salt throughout the day to keep one floating on top of the stream instead of pulled underneath.

January 13, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterbrownstudy

Thanks for the pointer, Mike. I had tried reading the book (THE POWER OF FULL ENGAGEMENT) but didn't make much progress. I'll revisit it, though; the idea of first managing energy seems like a useful perspective. And I love the idea of creating rituals to transition!

January 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I keep short checklists of the things to do when I transition. Post from two years ago [ here | http://virtuallyshocking.com/2007/01/17/gtd-the-importance-of-daily-checklists/ ].

My starting-work checklists include going over my @WaitingFor context and my calendar, so those deferred items that you mention are covered.

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

Just went back to read that post I linked to and noticed this quote in a comment I made: "Key are the transitions, the times you might forget your wallet, or in my case, handkerchief or iPod."

Emphasis added.

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

Aaand clearly you've already read that post, based on your comment at the end. Sorry to spam your comments with my thought process here. :)

April 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

From your post: They’re each broken down into key time periods, such as early morning, arrival at work, departure from work, arrival home, and bedtime.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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