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Bugs, Tickets, and Projects: Integrating GTD and Specialized Systems

A client at a recent workshop [1] asked in a follow-up email [2]:

> Here are a few questions I've run into the past week:
> 1. How would be implement a ticketing system outside of email? (I saw your tweet)
> 2. How do you integrate GTD with managing a large project? Does the project just become a bunch of smaller ones?

He's referring to a Twitter conversation [3] I had with @dshafik and @gcnovus, who had similar questions

  • anyone have any success syncing a #gtd app with their bug-tracker?
  • I have 2311 unread e-mails across 4 mailboxes right now :/ ... Most of my tasks come in via e-mail ... 90% of them are bug tracker, or support ticket e-mails.
Regarding the latter I pointed out that those bug tracker and ticket emails probably shouldn't be coming into email at all - the should be handled directly in their system as part of an integrated workflow. Email's such a huge problem, why fill the inbox unnecessarily?

Being a GTD [4] FAQ, so I thought I'd share what I tell clients. Let me know what you think.

Questions for you

  • Do you use a specialized application like this?
  • Which one(s)?
  • How do you integrate it with your workflow?

How would be implement a ticketing system outside of email?

Because the ticketing system is a specialized tool that wants its own workflow, I'd manage it separately from your regular GTD lists. Overall, when you're in "ticket processing mode," you'll be in that system working the tickets needing action. Like your Actions list, you'll use time, energy, and priority to decide which to take on next. Then you'll happily handle them one by one. Most people block out time during the day for ticket processing.

When you're not in meetings and not in the ticketing system, you'll work you GTD lists as we discussed. Again, you'll use your intuition and the factors above to decide which action to do next.

During the day you'll jump between your ticketing system and your GTD system. I recommend batching working your tickets, but your work demands and style will dictate this. Try it out to find your own rhythm.

Note: This approach means you have essentially a new Inbox: unprocessed tickets. You may also have a new Waiting For, but the back-and-forth with clients is usually built in to the system, including automatic follow-up emails. When doing a brain dump, you'll probably put new ticket/project-related "stuff" directly into the ticketing system. Alternatively, you might prefer creating actions like "Add ticket for __", which will kick you into that system when you get to them.

How do you integrate GTD with managing a large project?

Like the ticketing system, you'll probably be using a specialized project planning tool like Microsoft Project. In this case, you can work it like the ticketing approach, but you'll have to pull out actions based on the project path and whatever time horizon makes sense to you. For example, you might look a week ahead to decide what upcoming actions are related to where you need to be, and make them the next ones to choose from.

If it helps, you can pull them out into your regular GTD system by making one or more of them actions that you pick from among the others that are unrelated to the big project. You could do this too for ticketing method I outlined above, but because it probably moves faster it makes sense to keep not duplicate the tickets in your Actions list. I hope that's not confusing.

Regarding subdividing the big project, that will probably be part of the planning you do for it, i.e., creating separate paths for each sub-project. Again, if you'd like you can pull active sub-projects right into your Projects list, and then decide next action(s) to put on your Actions list.

As always, treat it as an experiment

In both the ticketing and project solutions, pick one approach to try as an experiment [4]. It will likely take a few iterations before you find a comfortable and efficient workflow that integrates everything. As always, keep the questions coming - I'm happy to help tweak them.


  • [1] See Reboot Your Work Productivity Seminar, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. It went very well. Indulge me in sharing a few comments:

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am stalled in my life because of the various projects that sit undone, not to mention tasks. I look forward to applying these techniques and will report back. One thing that really worked for me was getting up and walking around for exercises. Also, your engagement of the workshop participants was great. I noticed I talked a LOT more than usual.
    • Great. I would have been happy if it was an even longer day. What really worked for me was walking through the process several times (in slides, individually, and as a group) to clarify the process and make it stick.
    • Very helpful overview of GTD and how to be more efficient. You really helped me understand how GTD works and why each phase is useful. You helped make the wicked complicated concepts seem crystal clear. Overall, a great experience.

  • [2] Habit changes like adopting what I teach are hard, but I want them to stick. Right now I give participants a range of options for keeping the work going, from 15 minutes to implementing the entire thing over two full days. Additionally I provide follow-up phone calls and email. I'm very open to your suggestions around improving this.
  • [3] Yes I'm still experimenting with it; I'm @matthewcornell. Related: my Twitter-related posts.
  • [4] To be clear, while Allen's book has been a major influence, I have no association with The David Allen Company, and I don't use copyrighted materials in my business. Additionally, all my knowledge has been gained the hard way - reading, studying many competing systems, applying it to different domains, teaching, and collaborating. I continue to modify and extend GTD as I address its limitations, research the method's influences and origins, and encounter other great ideas such as daily planning. That said, GTD ties these together in a tight system that an ex-NASA engineer/technical geek can love. It's one of the best ones I've found.
  • [5] For more on my developing life-as-experiment philosophy check out my experiment-related posts. In addition I'm excited about the roll-out next week of of the Think, Try, Learn platform: Think, Try, Learn: A scientific method for discovering happiness, and our Twitter account @thinktrylearn. More as it develops!

Reader Comments (6)

Excellent post, Matt! I've realized the same issue ensues for processing specific items out of the Inbox that need additional, front-end care:

Writing Projects


Some of these things need their own special application (e.g. Scrivener, OmniPlan, Curio, Bookends X, Nisus Writer Pro, etc.). Nothing compares to Scrivener for the initial stages of big writing projects. Bookends is a great database for tracking books and grabbing their bibliographical data from the web.

So some of these things need specialized programs, but others need a way of tracking them on the front-end when processing the Inbox. Purchases, for example, often clutter one's GTD system because people tend to put all of these onto "@ Errands". The problem is that many of these are wishlist items, not things that need to be purchased now. And there are many variables for purchases that are useful to know (e.g. cost, priority, category, place to buy, etc.). Being able to define these immediately and track them in a single place is extremely useful. A good place to track things like these is in a custom-made outline with a program like OmniOutliner.

This is why I'm adding the ability for my [ Ready-Set-Do! | http://homepage.mac.com/toddvasquez/Ready-Set-Do!/FileSharing80.html ] program to interact with OmniOutliner so users can create their own Outlines with their own column headings. When processing one's inbox, RSD automatically interacts with that personal OmniOutliner document to add content to that outline using the column headings as a guide. This way users can customize things exactly the way they want (e.g. track quotes, books, purchases, job searches, etc.), everything is defined on the front-end when it should be, and the GTD system doesn't get clogged with things that should be tracked separately. It may take awhile for GTDers to realize this, but it is absolutely critical to keeping one's system "squeaky clean" and streamlined. The cleaner and less clogged the inventory, the easier it is to focus and act. Great post!

January 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTodd V

I have have very good luck with using Cerberus for a ticket system (http://www.cerberusweb.com). It lets people interact with you for support using email, while keeping your email inbox free of clutter. For a small number of users the product is free.

I use this with my assistant. If I need something done I email our Cerberus installation. She gets an email notification, but still has a single place where either of us can login and see everything that needs done.

January 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMark - Prodcutivity501

Thanks - that's a clean solution. I'll put that into the client MUS bin (Might Be Useful :-)

January 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Great post Matt!

One of the biggest things that helped me when I was managing a QA team and responsible for reporting/tracking defects was having a clear, simple prioritization system and getting everyone to buy into it (this was an internal facing solution... external would be more difficult to get buy in).

This system included very concrete descriptions of what each priority meant (simplified, it was along the lines of - High: can no longer get my work done, Medium: work flow is being disrupted, but a work around exists, Low: annoyance or cosmetic).

While this doesn't directly tie into a GTD system, what it did was; through the use of filters, reduce the inbox I reviewed to all High priorities and all others that had not been assigned to anyone within 1 day of being reported (as per our service level agreement with the staff). This made for a drastic reduction in what I had to concern myself with.

The rest: delegated to the team.

January 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

> Excellent post, Matt!

Thanks very much. I like your insights, Todd, and I had forgotten how cool the programs you mentioned are. Links:

> Ready-Set-Do! to interact with OmniOutliner

This is a great idea. You know how highly I value collecting, categorizing (just enough), and retrieving ideas, and how much the disconnect in the OS between related things bothers me. Integration like yours seems a natural. I've seen hacks in programs like Outlook to do this (I think creating a Contact to hold project plans is one - others?)

Keep us informed.

January 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks, Doug. Good to hear from you

> having a clear, simple prioritization system and getting everyone to buy into it

Very good point. This goes to how much attention to give to personal and organizational systems.

> filters reduce inbox...

I love it. Thanks a lot for the summary.

January 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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