GTD Notes: Chapter 09 – How to Engage

This is a series of posts with reading notes of the book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

Chapter 09 – Engaging: Making the Best Action Choices

This chapter is all about deciding what to do at any given moment. It examines on what was presented in Chapter 02 in terms of the 3 primary frameworks for decision-making:

  1. The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

  2. The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work

  3. The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

1. The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment

This is about what we have available at the moment and what can we do about it.


I think context is what mostly differentiates GTD from other productivity systems in terms of how to organize our tasks. The principle here is that it’s easier to have lists already sorted out to act on: “what could you possibly do, where you are, with the tools you have?”.

I find this works pretty well to organize the next actions list and avoid looking at a super long list. This is the first criteria to decide what to do next: what do you have available right now?

I mainly use the basic contexts suggested by the book (at home, computer, errands, anywhere, etc.) but we can also be more creative and have lists tailored to how we work. It could be a “quick win” list with actions that are easy to complete, or “surfing the web” or “before trip”.

Another important note is that the contexts can change over time, and it’s okay to create new ones and delete old ones. They are very flexible, contexts can be anything that suits the way we want to look at our lists. But it’s also important to keep it simple. If we need to think too much to input something in our systems, we end up not doing it at all.

Time Available

Another useful criteria is how much time we have available to complete a task. Having a “Quick win” list can be helpful when we have 10 minutes before a meeting. David Allen mentions that sometimes we need to rest from a long and intensive task, and we can “snack” on our action list for those easy wins.

Some apps (like Nirvana) have the option to add the estimated duration of a task. I sometimes add the duration, but at the end of the day I never really filter my tasks using this parameter. I find it better to have a “quick & easy” context (for short actions, up to 10 minutes), and everything else I consider longer tasks.

Energy Available

The suggestion here is to match productive activity with vitality level. Such as having a list of things that require very little mental or creative horsepower, so we can act on them when we are out of energy.

Again, I used to tag the energy level on Nirvana, but I rarely ever filter using this parameter. For me, having the “quick & easy” list is enough.


Priority has to do with deciding what is most important at the moment with the tools, time and energy available. The book mentions that this understanding is easier if we look at the Higher Horizons or the Six-Level Model for Reviewing Work (more on that below).

2. The Threefold Model for Identifying Daily Work

David describes 3 different modes of activities we can be engaged in day to day:

It was beneficial for me to understand these 3 modes. Until recently I thought that “defining my work” was a waste of time, that I was not being productive. It also helped me to be less irritated when I had to do “something that showed up” and I had to put out a fire.

After accepting that these 3 types of activities will be part of my day, I felt less stressed with interruptions and dealt with emergencies more gracefully. I learned that taking time to plan and define my work makes me more focused to perform predefined work.

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work

This is GTD advanced. It took me maybe a year or so to really understand all these levels. We usually start taking care of the Ground and Horizon 1 levels. Going up means having more clarity about our responsibilities and goals, which will make prioritizing easier.

The way I found to connect the horizons and make them more visible for me was to create a GTD Dashboard ( I wrote about it here).

This book really doesn’t go too deep on the higher horizons. For more on this subject, I suggest reading his other book, “Making It All Work”. The next chapter covers project planning.

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By Noisy Deadlines Minimalist in progress, nerdy, introvert, skeptic. I don't leave without my e-reader.