How to Prioritize your work using GTD

Posted 09/03/14 by James and filed under:

How you prioritize your work using the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology is often misunderstood and sometimes unfairly maligned.  It is a little different than most systems, which seems to cause some confusion as to how to do it effectively.  In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the differences between traditional productivity prioritization methods and GTD, specifically GTDNext.

The Traditional Method.

One of the traditional methods people were taught goes something like this.  It’s called the ABC method and here is what you do.

Create a new list each day of everything that you need to do.  Then go through your list and write A, B, or C next to each task for the day.  A = Vital,  B = Important,  and C = Nice to do.   Then go back through your list and number each item.

A1 is your most important task for the day.  A2 is second.  Attempt to only have 3 or 4 “A” tasks.  Restart the numbering with you B tasks.  B1, B2, etc.  Finally number your C tasks from 1 to N as well.

Your list will look something like the picture below.

ABC Planning method

The idea is that you start with A1 and work your way through the list until you are through all your C actions. In my experience with this system (long ago, with a paper planner) well before David Allen wrote his GTD book, it had some problems. It was better than not planning your day, but not ideal by any means.

For starters, I almost always seemed to write down more items for the day than I could possibly do. This always made be feel behind and like I wasn’t working hard enough. Then I’d have to re-write those task for the next day and reprioritize them again.  Only to not complete them all again and start the process over the next day.  Frustrating!

Another problem with the ABC method is that it doesn’t take into account your context.  What if I’m offline working somewhere and my A1 task requires access to the internet?  Or what if I need to make a call for my B1 task, but I’m working in an airplane at the moment?

Finally, the ABC system doesn’t take into account the very real issue of how much energy you have at the time and how long it is likely to take. What if I have low energy and only 10 minutes before my next meeting?  Doing my A1 item, which requires high energy and 30 minutes, is probably not a great choice.  This is why the GTD system of prioritization makes so much more sense.  It takes all of these factors into account.

The GTD Method of Prioritization

David Allen’s GTD Prioritization method is called the “Four-Criteria Model”, and it takes into account all of the above issues of the ABC method to create a system of prioritization that works in the real world.

Here is how it works.  Looking at your list of next actions, determine what actions are available for you to do right now based on the following four criteria.

  1. Context
  2. Time Available
  3. Energy Available
  4. Priority

Context – This refers to your where you are or what tools you have available.  You will likely want to group your tasks by context.  Depending on whether you are at home at your desk, waiting at a doctor’s office, or running some errands, you will likely want to tackle a very different set of tasks.  This is your Context.

Time Available –  It’s 9am in the morning and you have a 10am baseball game to take your child to.  You have about 2 hours of yard work to do.  It probably doesn’t make sense for you to tackle the yard work right now.  (Sorry Spouse!)  That’s Time Available.

Energy Available – It’s 8pm at night.  You are sitting at your home desk.  You have plenty of time available, but you are starting to feel tired.  Does it make sense to complete the report for your boss that is due in 3 days? Maybe not, if it takes a lot of high level thinking.  It might make more sense to do something fairly mindless, like pay the bills. That’s Energy Available.

Priority – It’s 10am, and you are at your desk with high energy and 2 hours available to work. Reviewing your tasks, you see 5 that meet that criteria.  Which do you do?  That’s Priority!  You determine which item is most important.  This is a key concept.  After you have done the other three “filters”, then you take a look at the relative importance of the task as compared to others.  Doing this step first is the main problem with most other prioritization systems.

It’s this process that is so important to determining what you should be working on.  However, since it takes a few steps, it sometimes get maligned by people who don’t take the time to understand it’s power.

To further explain the idea, listen to David Allen talk about prioritization in this video.

Implementing GTD Prioritization in GTDNext

GTDNext is a flexible program because different people will want to implement GTD style prioritization in different ways.  I’ll share with you how I do it, but don’t think it’s the only way.  There are other ways, so take some time to think through what works best for you.

My Basic Prioritization Process:

  • Filter My Next Action List for Context:  I first go to the next action list in GTDNext and filter the list by several things.  I usually filter by Area first, as I like to work on one area of “life” at a time.  I then filter by context.   Most of my context is “online”, so usually that’s pretty easy.  I then review what is left from a time and energy perspective.  I mark any items that I want to do during my next “working period” to appear on the focus list.

GTD four criteria model

  • Prioritize on my focus list:  I then switch over to my focus list (below picture) and manually drag items in the order that I want to complete them.


Getting Things Done (GTD) Prioritization

  • Do the work! The most important part!
  • Rinse and Repeat:  I do this process each time I sit down to work on “next actions” (a few times a day). I find that my energy or area that I want to work on changes frequently, so the 2 to 5 minutes I spend on re-doing the process is usually time well spent.


Overall, I find this method works very well for me.  To those who also follow GTD, I’m curious as to how your prioritization process differs.  Please let me know in the comments below!