org-mode, GTD, and the advantages of merged lists (i.e., context)

2 minute read

David Allen (DA) in Getting Things Done (GTD) talks about the necessity of the separation of projects and next actions.

It’s a good point well made. In the past I have struggled with project pages in a Dayrunner which had merged project plans, meeting notes and next actions. To understand what next action I had to do for that project meant looking in the pages for that project and picking out the NA. Even if coded with an NA in the margin, picking out the appropriate next action from dozens of projects was difficult.

The downside of doing this is that when you have performed your next action, you may want/need to look at the project to determine the next action. Separate project lists and action lists mean that you have to switch contexts - for example between a list of projects in a computer database and a PDA, or a project folder and a Hipster card.

One of the advantages of emacs org-mode is therefore that you *can* merge your projects and actions in one place, but you can also pull out the next actions easily.

In org-mode, all of my projects are a three-star heading:

* Projects
** A
** B
** S
*** Standards Committee XXX
**** notes of meeting held on March 1st 2009
Present: Mike, Pete, Jim
Agreed xxx xxxx
Blah blah blah.
***** WAITING Mike to review
***** NEXT organise next meeting of committee :Laptop:
Send email from committee site to members asking for availability for meeting.

The advantage of this is that when I go to deal with a next action, there is *context* available to me relating to that action - I can see what I’ve done, with whom, etc, and take that into consideration.

It also means that when I complete the action, I am in the right location to decide the next ‘next action’ - again - I have context available to me to help me make an informed decision.

In my view, this still meets DA’s requirements of separation - org-mode can easily produce lists of Next Actions I need to do at my laptop, or all of my ‘WAITING for’ items, but because managing separate lists means switching contexts, it is a smoother, more fluid, process.

Now I do understand that what I am creating here is a data silo in my laptop, which I am unlikely to have with me when I am out and about. I haven’t clarified my thinking on that yet - I also use a Nokia N810 which may be the solution. However, my requirement for context specific lists for things I need to to when away from my laptop (:DIY:, :Shopping: etc) is small enough that I usually generate the list on the laptop before I leave the house and write it down or print out the buffer.

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