Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Seven Problems with a Someday/Maybe List — and Ways to Correct Them

by Andre · 18 Comments

ParaguayGTD is more of an internal, cognitive process of clarification than a regimen of making lists to create gratuitous obligations. If an action list doesn’t accurately reflect the user’s intentionality, it needs to be pared down or built up until it does. If the written list is incomplete, some potentially important items are left in the mind to manage, reducing the motivation to consult the list when reflecting on what to do next, or determining what can wait.

A bigger problem with users of more thorough tasks management systems is dealing with overpopulated lists. The simplest strategy for dealing with a crowded list is to simply cancel some of the items on it. Sometimes that’s the best choice, but it doesn’t always lead to permanent relief. A recurring thought, acted on or not, is mental pollution.

That’s where the Someday/Maybe list comes in. The Someday/Maybe list contains all projects that the user has decided not to commit to at present. Just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean it needs to be followed through on with action.

Why track things that aren’t being acted on?

As I stated originally, GTD is really designed to track and clarify a person’s internal process. There are plenty of things that don’t need to be tracked, simply because they don’t consume any attention. I’d like to visit Paraguay, but it’s not something that’s on my mind regularly, or even infrequently. I certainly won’t be thinking about a missed vacation to Paraguay on my deathbed. So I don’t have “Visit Paraguay” on my Someday/Maybe list.

On the other hand, there might be a class that I want to take that I don’t have the budget for at the moment. Or I have a time consuming project (or a different class) that, when completed, will free up enough hours to consider taking the class. These desires sit in the background of our mind, and occasionally seep into the foreground while we’re trying to focus on something more relevant. By writing them down on a list that gets reviewed once a week, the brain can stop holding it in a virtual list.

Someday/Maybe problems

I’m a big fan of the Someday/Maybe list, and I’m always surprised at how often people express reservations about using one. Let’s look at some of the problems people have with the Someday/Maybe list, or the reasons the might resist implementing one in the first place.

1. It’s a procrastination list. A myth. Anyone in the 21st Century will be exposed to more compelling opportunities than he or she could possibly fulfill in three lifetimes. Hence the need to prioritize. Some projects will have more personal impact if done now, others won’t. Even if you eliminate every unworthy project you can think of (which should be done anyway), you’ll still have more to do than you can do now. So instead of constantly thinking about the things you defer, track them externally, giving them a brief review each week to see if they’re still relevant. It only takes one or two minutes. Recover your thinking time for things you’re actually working on.

2. It’s too long. If your Someday/Maybe list has 90 items, there’s a good chance that you’ll resist reviewing it. It’s definitely worth reviewing the list carefully enough each week to see what can be deleted from it. If I don’t get rid of at least one or two items during a weekly review, I’m probably glossing over the list rather than reading it. That’s keeping a system for the sake of keeping a system.

A good trick in reviewing the list is to scan it with the question in mind, “What can I get rid of?” Even if you don’t get rid of anything some weeks, you’ll find that you pay more attention to the process. You might want to create a next action to edit the list as thoroughly as possible. Consider putting some items that you’ll still think about occasionally but not every week in a less frequent queue, either on your calendar or your tickler file.

3. It’s teeming with fantasies. Possibly against the GTD canon, I do not put fantasies on my Someday/Maybe list; otherwise I wouldn’t take it seriously. If I know my chances of climbing Mount Everest are close to zero, it becomes an additional thing to wade through or winnow out on my list. Unless the fantasy is galvanizing enough for me to exert significant effort to accomplish against the odds, it stays off my list. I think of the Someday/Maybe list as a “temp file” for projects in the pipeline, but left in reserve as a matter of good triage.

4. It’s not used for practical issues. This is really an extension, or the flip side, of the previous problem. The Someday/Maybe list can and should be used for very earthbound projects that have dependencies that need to be reconciled first. Someone might be anxious to buy a home, but realizes that it’s not the fiscally responsible thing to do at this stage. So she puts, “Buy home” on her Someday/Maybe list, and decides to make “Build emergency fund” or “Eliminate consumer debt” an active project.

Some things on my list will become active projects in a week or two. If a resolved dependency makes a potential project actionable before my next weekly review, I set a reminder for the appropriate date on my calendar.

5. It’s filled with many things in a few categories. Consumer products are typical examples. As great as the Someday/Maybe list is for avoiding impulse purchases, having every book you want to read or DVD you want to watch on it would get out of hand. Turn these into checklists. Pretty much collection of items that begins with the same phrase (“Travel to . . .”) should be kept on a separate list. If there’s something that falls into one of these categories that you sense you’ll act on sooner than later (you’re a paycheck away from the DVD you plan to get next week), go ahead and keep it on Someday/Maybe.

6. It sounds noncommittal. A number of people simply don’t like the wording of the “Someday/Maybe” list, another reservation that makes the list seem geared for procrastination. So change the wording to something that makes internal sense. Some people use just “Someday” or “Maybe,” but not both; or they may use both words individually, but as separate categories with different connotations. “Deferred” and “Incubate” are other options. Be creative.

7. It contains unresearched projects. As I pointed out in Somedays, Research and Edgework, we sometimes avoid deciding to commit to a project because we lack sufficient information. For items that are important it’s more effective to initiate a research project to get the information than let it the decision sit indefinitely.

Instead of putting “Start a home based messenger service” on a Someday/Maybe list, you might recognize that what’s holding you back is not knowing the startup cost. So you can put “Determine start-up cost of messenger service” on your active project list, then put “Call owner of ACME messenger service to request interview” on your next action list. Once you’ve gotten the information you needed, you can still put the business idea on Someday/Maybe, but at least you’ll be making an informed decision.

(Photo credit: Alex-S)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • VeredNo Gravatar // Aug 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    “1. It’s a procrastination list. A myth. Anyone in the 21st Century will be exposed to more compelling opportunities than he or she could possibly fulfill in three lifetimes. Hence the need to prioritize.”

    Very true. I never realized how LIBERATING it would be to have a someday list. It really does free me from having to store that list in my brain. But I only review the list once a month or so, instead of weekly.

  • TabsNo Gravatar // Aug 24, 2008 at 12:04 am

    I find keeping my someday list in one book of to do lists, gives me a chance to remember that the items still need to be taken care of. I try to consolidate everything I need into two books one personal and one professional.

    While I agree with the seven things you have listed at least I know my procrastination history can be viewed in one comprehensive someday/maybe book.


  • ScottNo Gravatar // Aug 25, 2008 at 1:21 pm


    These are great ideas on how to keep your eye on your Someday/Maybe list. I tend to put items on there that I won’t be able to get to until I retire!


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  • EMMNo Gravatar // Aug 25, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    90 is the limit? You have got to be kidding, a routine week for me has over a hundred next actions on over 50 projects, My someday/maybe list is huge and that’s perfectly fine. The point is to get everything out of your head and some place where you can review it regularly. I’ve never actually counted all the projects on the someday/maybe list but it’s 13 pages 2 col and for most things a single line is a whole project. Even so a weekly review of them only takes a half an hour and that’s including moving things off and on as they become active or inactive.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 25, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    90 was an example what I would consider unwieldy, not a limit. If you can scan a large list with full attention to its content, then there’s no problem. I believe David Allen mentioned have “over 100″ items on his list. Excess is relative.

    There’s a difference between getting everything out of your head and keeping everything after you’ve consciously decided that some items were momentary preoccupations, and won’t resurface again. Taking an obsolete consideration off of a list doesn’t redeposit it in your head. If it’s likely to be thought of again in the future, it’s better to keep it on the list; if not, it’s just clutter.

    Reviewing a 13-page list would be my idea of hell. You’re a better person than I am.

  • moiociNo Gravatar // Aug 26, 2008 at 1:20 am

    I have a list called Back Burner for projects that are halfway between dormant and fully active. Most often it’s because I want to mull over how to do something or whether it’s really a good idea. This means that my Someday/Maybe list , being truly dormant, can sefely be ignored for weeks on end without creating brain-drag.

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  • EMMNo Gravatar // Aug 27, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    How do you handle dependent projects or ones with next actions separated in time by years or decades?

    Part of why my someday maybe list is so huge is there are bunches of projects that can’t be started until some other project is done and also ones whose next actions will happen over the course of years or decades not days or weeks.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 27, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I’d file away the details of the subsequent project in a project support folder, then create calendar entry to review it at the designated time. I only review long-term projects on either a quarterly or as-needed basis (when new information may require a change of plan), rather than weekly. I also don’t put next actions on my Someday/Maybe list; only outcomes. I generally only plan out the details of a project when it’s active, or I’ll put the top-of-mind details on a thumbnail project plan, which I either file away or add to a Google Notebook.

  • EMMNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I find if I don’t put the next actions on the list when I think of them that I spend a lot of time working and defining them again. Especially for really long term items, the next actions may be complex or require specific characteristics. If I’ve spent the time to think about it I need to capture that thought or I’ll have to do it again. And when the completion of a next action can take years I need all the info about what I was doing and looking for available

    Which plays into the fact that there are hardly any true maybe projects on my someday maybe list. They are pretty much all projects I am committed to doing or finishing or moving along but they are also ones that will take a long time or I haven’t got all the pieces yet.

    Also a lot of projects are weather based so the right conditions may happen almost any time but also not happen for several years, hence the need to review them regularly.

    And a further group of projects have next actions that will take months or years to complete and the next action on my todo list under that context is actually spend x amount of time doing y. I have one project that has been active and working for 11 years now. One single next action took 6 years to complete working on it at least monthly and most of the time weekly. Another I am working on now I’ve been working on the next action for it for 4 years so far and figure I’ve got a few more years to go before I’ll be done. The whole project is probably going to be a 20 year project before it’s done.

  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Personally, I use a paper journal for these types of things. I think it’s just the way my mind works, as I’m a writer.

    Rather than crossing things off/deleting, I just read back through the journal and the seeds of ideas from time to time. Sometimes, full projects grow from these seeds, sometimes not, but I have them available to me, should I decide to return to them later.

    Jen M.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I find if I don’t put the next actions on the list when I think of them that I spend a lot of time working and defining them again. Especially for really long term items, the next actions may be complex or require specific characteristics. If I’ve spent the time to think about it I need to capture that thought or I’ll have to do it again. And when the completion of a next action can take years I need all the info about what I was doing and looking for available

    Your long-term projects are apparently just that — long-term projects, rather them Someday/Maybes. In GTD parlance, these would be 30,000-ft. or 40,000-ft. perspectives, spanning years rather than months. Assuming your project was to start a vineyard, you might have “Monitor climate change for conditions XYZ,” then migrate everything else to a 40,000-ft. list. I keep a separate, short list of these projects on lists with those elevations has headings, rather than on my weekly-reviewed project list. I review these long-term goals quarterly, or on an as-needed basis.

    You’re working out the right level of detail necessary to get the project off your mind. Many projects can be unstuck by working out the very next action; some require a little more brainstorming and coordination, like a mind map or an outline; a few are complex enough to require rigorous advance planning, with heavyweight tools like PERT or Gantt charts. The degree of planning needs to scale with the complexity of the project, so it sounds like you’re on the right path.

  • EMMNo Gravatar // Aug 29, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I generally have problems with the timeframe descriptions for the various levels in GTD. I combine visions and life purpose as one level. I have a personal statement of purpose that is really the life portion or 50K level that I review on the solstices and equinoxes. I also have well defined goals some of which are multiple decades long. The time lines of what the various levels are do not work well for me because I have projects that will take decades or even more than one lifetime and next actions that can take years. Because they are active I need to review them and also keep in mind the big picture of where that action falls in the overall scheme of things.

    Below the goals level are the areas of responsibility. For me they are the logical divisions under which projects happen. I group mine in ways that make sense to me but may not follow GTD perfectly. I have focus areas of health, house, each species of animal, each major hobby and so on.

    Projects are things under that and then next actions move projects along.

    My big someday maybe list is grouped by areas of focus with all the projects for that area underneath and then a lot of those have my next actions defined. Projects themselves may not be very complex, just long or dependent on other actions or projects.

    A current example is a goal of making historically accurate garments for myself. A project under that is make a Moy gown, but projects under that one are things like weave the fabric (which has to start after I learn to weave on the new loom bought because it can do the type of fabric I want where my older loom could not) but I can’t weave until I spin the yarn and I can’t spin the yarn until I find the fleeces that match the archeological records. I’ve been checking wool for several years and it’s only this year that I finally am getting enough of the right type to be able to sell what I need too for my customers and still have some left over for me.

    So it’s not a complicated pert or gantt chart type project just a long term one. My current next action is to find 15 pounds of wool that meets the specific requirements for that item. I’ve got 3 pounds located and every year I check the wool as I skirt fleeces to find more.

    A similar project I am in the middle of took 6 years to weave the fabric. Now I’m getting the courage up to cut it and start sewing. :-) I figure I’ve got another year or 2 on that one as I decided that I need to make a test case of the item out of commercial fabric before I cut into my handmade stuff so I added a whole ‘nother project in front of it that I wasn’t originally planning on.

    That happens a lot to me so I just document the original project on the someday maybe list and move the new one to active and go on. And that’s also why I review the whole list weekly, to be sure I’ve got everything and am keeping the perspective I need about why I am doing this particular project now. Also I can more easily see that if I do project A that I hadn’t thought of doing now it will teach me a skill I need or set me up for projects H, I and J which in turn will make it a lot easier to do project M and N. They may not be strictly dependent projects in the traditional project management sense but they are related and linked projects.

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