Intentional GTD Titles

- 3 min -
Joe Buhlig

When I started with GTD five years ago, I was certain it was the missing piece to my mental overwhelm puzzle. It was the five-step framework that would keep me from procrastinating and give me the motivation to accomplish everything to which I kept saying yes.

And although these are possible outcomes, they are far from implicit. GTD can help you stay on task and give you the means to work on the right next action, but not without your discipline and persistence. And then it only works if you do all of the thinking about a task or project when it is initially processed. Take these projects for example:

Wife’s birthday

  • Cake
  • Present
  • Plates and silverware
  • Invite friends

  • Complete web design
  • Decide on host
  • Email?
  • Launch date?
  • Commerce section

New product

  • Photos for website
  • Quality across lines
  • Market?
  • Retailers
  • Press release

At first glance, these may seem fine. I have a list of projects and a list of tasks that go with each project. But you may see a glaring issue here; there’s still some interpretation necessary to decide what each requires you to do. Is “plates and silverware” a reminder to set the table or is it part of your shopping list? Are you asking about the addition of email addresses to the website or the set up for an email newsletter? Does “press release” mean you need to write it, publish it, or review it? Granted, some of the detail missing here may be implied depending on the context assigned to each. If “plates and silverware” has the @Errands context, you have your answer.

But the projects themselves leave you in question as well. Do you have a shopping list for your wife’s birthday or a list of setup that needs to happen on the day itself? Are you writing the code for the website or overseeing the project? Are you exploring the addition of a new product for your company or is it a new thing you’re exploring personally? Again, some of this may be implied through the metadata you assigned but the title itself is still lacking. This set of projects leaves a lot of questions and requires you to decode a series of assumptions before you can take action.

Part of the why of GTD is to eliminate the need to hold information in our minds since we are terrible at recalling it when we need it. But we inevitably develop a need to remember our intent for these projects and tasks if we treat them as nothing more than a list of triggers. We’ve left ourselves with only half of the thinking completed and retain the other half in our minds, which defeats the goal we originally set out to achieve. We better serve ourselves if we finish the process and put all of the data we need or have for the item in the name.

That naturally begs the question, “how should you name them?”” The answer is simple in principle and challenging in practice. These titles should tell you exactly what needs to be done without the need to augment it with information you are still trying to remember. From a tactical standpoint, that means starting with a verb and giving so much detail that you can wake up in the middle of the night and still know what to do when you read it.

  • Wife’s birthday → Celebrate wife’s birthday at home
  • → Build for client xyz
  • New product → Launch new line of sweatshirts

By renaming these projects, you instantly see an increase in clarity and you know what done is just by reading the title. It takes more work up front to give this level of definition, but I can tell you from experience that those extra few seconds will save you the time and hassle of rethinking them each time in the future.

  • Cake → Call Deli re: custom cake for wife’s birthday party
  • Email? → Email client xyz re: how many email accounts are needed prior to launch?
  • Press release → Write first draft of online press release for new line of sweatshirts

It’s no small task to spell out this much detail, but the benefits are invaluable. Instead of seeing a few words that require interpretation (which becomes a task itself), I see an action to be taken. Eliminating that miniscule amount of resistance can be the difference between productive work and procrastination. Don’t let a desire to save time up front create an excuse to do nothing later.