How to Defer an Action (GTD)

One of the central principles in David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is that you use your inbox (whether physical or digital) only as a collection bucket. Things (whether papers, mail, magazines, objects, emails, bits of information, file attachments, etc ) flow into your inbox where they need to be processed. Once processed, they move out of the inbox. (If practiced assiduously, this can lead to Inbox Zero, a blissful state now legendary among productivity enthusiasts).

Processing your inbox, in GTD terms, means going through each item and figuring out whether it requires an action or not. If it doesn’t, then it can be discarded or filed. If it does require an action, then you have to choose one of the three Ds:

  • Do it (if you can do the required action in 2 minutes or less)
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it

For many people, a large number of actionable items will wind up being deferred. To defer an action does not mean doing some of these things I have occasionally been known to do:

  • leaving the email in your inbox until you feel like dealing with it
  • putting the opened envelope back in the pile of mail
  • creating a “miscellaneous” folder for a document
  • marking the message as unread even though you did read it.

(The impulse to avert one’s eyes and try to ignore something in the inbox can be very strong. GTD gives you structures and methods for overcoming such impulses, which is one of the things I find most helpful about Allen’s system.)

To defer an action is a choice. It needs to be made deliberately. When you decide to defer an action, it’s helpful to consider:

  • how long will it take me to complete the next action?
  • is there a deadline or other defined timeframe?
  • is there something else I need to do first?
  • is there something else I need to learn?
  • is there something I need to decide?

Only after quickly reviewing those questions can you really be sure that what you thought was your next action is really the next step to take. Then you can choose when would be a good time for you to do it. Finally, you can transfer the relevant information to your to-do list, your calendar, or your reminder system, and remove the item from your inbox.
What do you find most helpful about GTD? let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user khrawlings]

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