The Two Most Under-Used GTD Tools: The Someday/Maybe List and the Trashcan

This post was written by Brett Kelly of Cranking Widgets Blog (feed). Brett is an excellent student of Getting Things Done, and his blog is an excellent read for anyone wanting to improve their organizational skills with our favorite little productivity method: GTD. I’m honored to have Brett share his insights on productivity with LifeDev’s readers.

The Two Most Under-Used GTD Tools: The Someday/Maybe List and the TrashcanI have to admit, though I have a fair bit of trouble doing it regularly, I really enjoy my weekly review. I especially enjoy sitting down with a stack of blank index cards and thoroughly emptying my head of any and all ‘stuff’. That feeling that “it’s all recorded somewhere” is a satisfying one, indeed. But lately I’ve been starting to notice something about my project list – the 20% or so that was never disappearing and would stare back at me mockingly from the pages of my Moleskine. Let me give you an example of what I mean…

One thing I recall vividly when doing my very first mental sweep after first reading GTD was writing ‘Learn to speak/read Latin’ on an index card and lobbing it gently into my new in-basket. I don’t really know why, but I’ve always wanted to learn to speak a different language, and most of the usual High School fare didn’t hold much fascination for me. I was happy as punch to add it to my project list, decide on a Next Action (in this case, Google for free Latin resources online). But every day or two I’d glance down at my NA lists and see that particular action, sitting quietly undone. I’d never really feel like doing it or I wouldn’t have time – there’d always be a reason to not take that first step. It started to bug me.

Then, during the weekly review, I’d be going through my project list and, sure as shootin’, I’d come across ‘Learn to speak/read Latin’. Without even really thinking about it, I’d get a slight tinge of depression at the knowledge that I’d done nothing to move the project forward. So, after about a month of this, I made an executive decision: I no longer have any immediate plans to learn to speak/read Latin. The project enjoyed a short stay on my Someday/Maybe list before getting it’s walking papers and several swift strikeout lines.

Let’s face it – everybody gets a bit zealous when they first start out doing GTD. Project lists often include the climbing of mountains, the loss of 50 pounds or the leaping of tall buildings in a single bound. It’s one thing to get all of these things out of your head and onto a piece of paper, but it’s quite another to actually see the projects through to completion. You have to really be honest with yourself and understand that, while the project may hold some sort of whimsical fancy in your mind, it simply isn’t something you have the time (or the inclination) to complete.

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying as some sort of a slam on having dreams or lofty ambitions – that’s not what I mean, at all. I just think that we have the tendency to overload our project lists with thoughts that make us smile; daydream-type things. Notions we like to entertain, but know full well will take more time and energy than we can currently expend on them.

If you really want to climb Mt. Everest, by all means, be my guest. But don’t let “Climb Mt. Everest” sit idly on your project list reminding you that you really don’t want to do this thing. A few projects like that will really start to bring you down. Being honest and realistic with yourself is, I believe, an absolute requirement for success with GTD (as well as life in general, come to think of it). It parallels David Allen’s point about limiting your incoming commitments, as well a line from the immortal Top Gun: “Your mouth is writing checks your butt can’t cash”. Don’t sign yourself up for commitments for which you’re not truly ready.

Bottom Line: he Someday/Maybe list and the garbage can are two of the most basic tools in the GTD toolbox – use them both liberally, especially the latter.

Leave a Comment

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • alberto March 15, 2007, 8:16 pm

    I guess that what you are explaining is similar to the HHG2G’s guy that started seeking for the final meaning to life and ended happily making ‘perfectlynormalbeasts’ sandwitches.

    I understand that we normally start difficult quests with such an idealism that is similar to the idea of achieving huge goals. But when in contact with what matters every day and we see that it was not such an impossible task, we use to find ourselves happy doing just simple things…

    Besides, I find that learning latin is something that should be done with a group. As I learned it, I had to analize every phrase and then try to verbally reproduce it’s gramatical structure. That sort of action requires some other participants in order to not get bored with it. It is like counting in binary :) .

  • Sigurdur Armannsson March 11, 2007, 3:49 pm

    I have several projects of this kind and I already put few of them on the Someday/Maybe list in kGTD. But when I really think I am willing to make these into projects I start with splitting down and making a list of the things I need to go there/realize it.
    Example: I am going to take Adobe Certified Exams for Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign next winter. It’s been on my todo list for more than two years. I need to study a lot for the exams and I plan to go to London to take a five days boot camp in those apps.
    I list all the things I need to have and need to do to reach this goal. that includes:
    Get CIB books @MacOnline
    Check cost of Boot Camp @Mail
    Check cost of hotel in London @MacOnline
    Book a hotel in London @Maconline
    Will work pay some parts? Ask @Mail
    When should I do the Boot Camp @Research
    Get CD’s with tutorials @MacOnline
    etc. (many more small steps)

    Some of those things are easy to finish and I try to finish each item untill only studying is left and a list of lesson I have to finish is the only thing left to strike out.

    For me this helps me to get closer to the finishing line instead of staying in Someday/Maybe as an overwhelming almost impossible project to do.

  • glen March 8, 2007, 7:01 pm


    You’d only put that on the someday/maybe if you knew you weren’t going to do it right away.

    I think Brett started out with every intention of doing it right away. He made next actions for it and everything…

  • Jason Kratz March 8, 2007, 11:14 am

    Just curious why, after reading the book, you’d put that item on your projects list and not your Someday/Maybe list in the first place (or the other examples you quote). It seemed pretty clear (to me at least) after reading the book that Someday/Maybe is *exactly* where those things belong.


  • Stephen March 8, 2007, 6:51 am

    “Learn Latin” is on my Someday/Maybe also! I have wanted to do this for a long time, and yes, I too felt a twinge last week when I did my monthly review. After reading this post, I have made the decision to add “Learn Latin” to my @1-2 years context. I have Tickled a series of reminders to do the research and budget for the best language tapes and books. In six months I will make the purchase and Get this Thing Done!

  • Richard Watson March 8, 2007, 2:17 am

    …so maybe we need a “will not do” list, so our well-watered minds know not to bring it up again?