GTD 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.
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)