Wunderlist and GTD: Projects vs. Areas of Focus

In my “vision of wild success,” as David Allen puts it, this would be just one post in my beautifully organized series on how I use the Getting Things Done methodology (GTD). In reality, I detest long comments on blogs and forums, so I wrote this post just to avoid that. Skip down if you’re just here for the answer.


Here’s some context for everyone else: I have mentioned a few times that I am using GTD to get my life together, with spectacular results. I started drafting a blog post about my GTD conversion in January of this year. My GTD implementation relies heavily on my use of the marvelous app Wunderlist. Since I started using Wunderlist last fall, there have been some huge improvements to the app, and I have refined my GTD implementation and use of Wunderlist, so that drafted post is still not ready to publish. #bloggerproblems

In the meantime, I have been following a support thread for Wunderlist to keep up with others who are using it for GTD. A fellow Wunderlist user asked a great question this week. I think I have a solution, but it took way too many words to explain in that support thread. So I wrote this post and linked to it. Problem(s) solved.

The Question

Jon P. writes:

How do you or anyone here treat projects that aren’t really projects[?] My interpretation of a project is something that can be completed at some point. I tend to have lifelong jobs that require action like “parenting” or “home improvements”. These lifelong jobs all have many smaller projects and actions associated. For instance in my parenting folder I might have “BMX Project with my son”, and one of the actions is to “buy a bike hook for garage to hang the bmx on”, another action might be to “research handlebars”. These projects exist as sub projects under their respective lifelong area. But it seems strange to put “parenting” as a project under “active projects” when really it’s something that’ll never be completed all the time I’m a Dad.

Key Terms

You can take my English classroom away, but I’ll always be a teacher. Definitions first!

A GTD term. A Project consists of two or more individual action items and a defined outcome. The Project is complete if and only if all the action items have been completed and the desired outcome has been reached.
A GTD term. A Project must have a defined outcome, i.e. how you know when the Project is complete. This can be an action item or a description of the situation after the last action is completed. “Publish a book” is the outcome for a Project also called “Publish a book”; there are several steps to take to reach that goal.
A core Wunderlist feature. A list is a group of tasks/items. The number of lists per user is unlimited.
A recent Wunderlist feature. Folders are groups of lists.
Next Action (NA)
A GTD term. A Next Action is a single, physical task you can complete in one sitting to move toward your Project’s desired outcome. If you need to do anything else before you can begin a task, it is not your Next Action. “Search my favorite magazine to find out if they accept submissions” is a Next Action for the “Publish a freelance article” Project.
Weekly Review
Part of the GTD process. The Weekly Review is a once-a-week, comprehensive read-through of everything in your GTD system and anything still in your head.

My Answer

“Projects that aren’t really projects” sound exactly like Areas of Focus (AoF). “Parenting” is a quintessential AoF.

Here’s how I set up Projects vs. AoF in Wunderlist:

I have a list called “Projects” that contains all of my defined outcomes, starting with action verbs. Projects, per GTD, can be completed: “Purge closet,” “Go see the musical,” and so on.

I have a separate folder called “Project Plans” that contains one list per Project. I sync this by hand with the”Projects list during my Weekly Review. Each list in Project Plans corresponds to one of the items in the Projects list and contains Next Actions, future action items, and reference URLs for that Project. These lists substitute for the files that GTD recommends keeping for Project Support Materials. I just don’t have many paper or electronic items for my projects.

I have another folder called “Areas of Focus” that has one list per AoF: Friends & Family, Household, Health, Dance, etc. These lists contain Next Actions related to each AoF, such as “Go grocery shopping” and “Watch this YouTube video on West Coast Swing anchors.” No Projects are included in these AoF lists.

Here’s an example of how I decide what goes where:

I go see the outdoor summer musical in my town every year. I organize a group of friends to go with me. I don’t stop associating with my friends after the musical (not if I do it right!), but I only go see the musical once. “Go to the musical” is a Project. That goes on my Projects list. All the actions to make that happen (Pick a date, Invite people, Send reminder texts, etc.) go on the list called “Musical” in my Project Plans folder. Friends is an AoF, so it’s a totally separate list in my AoF folder. “Go to the musical” is not on my Friends list.

There’s currently no link between my Projects and the AoF’s they fall under, but that’s okay for me, for now. I could use tags for that, but I don’t. Resolving that disconnect is an item in my Personal Growth AoF!

I also don’t have a solution to scrolling through all your lists when you are organizing tasks on mobile. I usually use desktop for that! Click & drag is easy.


“Parenting” is not a Project at all. It’s an Area of Focus. Organize your Projects and Areas of Focus separately.

As you can see, GTD has helped me do things as simple as remembering what YouTube videos I want to watch and things as complex as making sure I get to see the Zilker musical with friends before it closes. Implementing GTD has truly changed my life for the better. I’ll post more soon.

Wunderlist and GTD: Organizing Next Actions into Projects and Areas of Focus

woman writing on a notepad

It’s time for another installment of my disorganized, ad hoc series on how I use Wunderlist with the Getting Things Done productivity methodology. In the meantime, I made a separate page with a handy list of key terms and definitions for you, since GTD has its own jargon. I am a teacher at heart, so I like to define things first.

Just like in my last GTD post, on Projects vs. Areas of Focus, I wrote this one in response to a post on the GTD thread in the Wunderlist Support Center.

The Question (edited for clarity)

Let’s say I have 3 Areas of Focus: health, work, self development. I would have one GTD list/folder and another folder for each AoF. My question, what do I put in every AoF folder in terms of additional lists? Do you implement the same lists as the main GTD per AoF? Or do you solely put in projects concerning that AoF and make sure all items are tagged properly and come together in one of the main GTD lists? (i.e. All scheduled/tickler actions come together in one list—so health/work comes together in one [list] but I would be able to filter this through using tags?)

My Answer (which I posted ages ago)

(Non-GTDers: This is where the abbreviations and jargon start to come flying at you.)

In Wunderlist, lists and folders are totally different concepts. A folder contains 1 or more lists. A list contains 1 or more tasks/NAs.

I’ve never found it useful to have one master NA list, although that is part of the GTD methodology. I find it much more helpful to sort my NAs by AoF or by Project. I have a folder called “Areas of Focus” with one list per AoF, and I have another folder called “Project Plans” with one list per Project.

Therefore, if I view my “Friends & Family” list, I see all the things I need to do regarding my friends and family. If I view my “Closet Purge” Project list, I see all the things I need to do to purge my closet.

I use very few tags, so my filtering is just by date. (What gets scheduled gets done.) Thus, I click on the Today smart list to see what NAs I have scheduled for today in each AoF and each Project. Since they’re separate lists in WL, they are visually labeled and separated within the Today smart list. I guess I could also tag my S/M list by AoF and future Project, but I don’t. One giant S/M list does work for me.

For a different perspective, Andreah at Frazz2Fab has a post about maintaining separate NA, S/M, etc. lists for each AoF that you might find useful.


Lists and folders are different things. The fewer of each you have, the better.

Wunderlist and GTD: Subtasks, Stars, and Prioritization

Here’s a little more about my GTD implementation: I use Wunderlist, but I don’t use subtasks or stars. I don’t generally find them useful. Your mileage may vary, but this is what works for me, at least for now.

Why I Don’t Use Subtasks

Most of the tasks for which I was using subtasks were really just checklists or poorly-defined Projects. Project planning is a part of GTD I’m still learning about. The Natural Planning Model makes sense, but I’m still working to apply it to my GTD implementation and my life.

How I used to use subtasks was by identifying something to do and then listing the steps needed to complete it. Those steps became subtasks. You can reorganize subtasks in WL, but you can’t add notes or due dates to them. (In the web app, there’s an automatic progress bar that visually displays completion status based on subtasks. It’s pretty.)

As I started to apply GTD in a more by-the-book fashion, I realized that I needed to add due dates to my subtasks. A major task like “Clean the house” had some subtasks that could be (or had to be) completed sooner than others. Even now, I sometimes don’t get around to mopping the kitchen floor until the day after I’ve swept it. (My roommates can walk on a recently swept floor, but not on a wet one.) That was my first clue that subtasks were not the way to go.

So I needed due dates, and that meant I just couldn’t use subtasks. The vast majority of my non-Someday/Maybe tasks have due dates. Not having dates just doesn’t work for me. What gets scheduled gets done.

I Use Lists Instead of Subtasks

I chose not to whine to Wunderlist about subtasks not having due dates but instead to turn my subtasks into tasks and use more lists.

Some of my major-tasks-that-needed-subtasks are ongoing or repeating: the aforementioned house cleaning, steps for recurring blog posts, and a few others. I turned those “major tasks” into full-blown lists in WL. Blog post checklists are amazing! Each task in the checklist has the its own due date and repeats on my desired schedule (every 2 weeks for the steps to write and schedule my ATX Catholic post before it gets published, every 2 weeks on the day the post goes live for publicity, etc.) That way, I can see what steps are overdue and when I should have done them without leaving the whole task incomplete and feeling like I haven’t cleaned the house at all, for example. GTD is as much about eliminating mental clutter and anxiety as it is about checking things off a to-do list.

For Projects, I keep a master Projects list and a separate list for each Project with tasks for that Project only. I don’t put dates on the tasks in each Project until I’m ready to schedule them (unless they are date-specific), but I do have a Next Action and a desired outcome identified for each Project Plan. (I use tags for that: #NA and #outcomes.) Like I said, I’m still working on project planning.

Wunderlist introduced folders after I created this system, so then I was able to group my checklists into a “Checklists” folder and Project Plans into a “Project Plans” folder. It makes my organizing heart happy.

Why I Don’t Use Stars

vintage photo of child playing with stars on a curtain

I tried using stars for a while, but I was just kidding myself. I’m not a predetermined prioritization kind of girl. Even David Allen himself is not a fan of prioritization. He recommends this prioritization system: don’t prioritize; but if you have to, do things first based on context, then time, energy, and priority (in that order). I’m not into assigning contexts, but I think that is the best prioritization scheme going.

Users throw a lot of shade at WL for not having complex prioritization tools. There’s only one built in: the star. Tasks can be starred or unstarred. There is a smart list for starred items. That’s it.

Honestly, I like that WL doesn’t have prioritization tools built in! When an app offers you 3, 5, or 7 priority levels (sometimes numbers, sometimes colors), it’s easy to waste time deciding what priority a task gets instead of actually getting anything done. Personally, my priorities change rapidly and unpredictably. I don’t want to waste time re-prioritizing my stuff. Context, time, and energy are much easier to assess as they change through the day.

Ages ago, I stopped using stars because they suffered the curse of familiar blindness. I don’t know if there’s a real technical term for that (there probably is), but the phenomenon I’m talking about is when you don’t notice something anymore because you see it all the time. This happens in my office frequently. We have cubby-style boxes in the mailroom with labels sorted vertically by last name. When people enter and leave the office (or the company), we shift the labels so there are no gaps. Just when I’ve gotten used to seeing mine on the bottom row, it moves up to the top. (I’m a W; I tend to be at the end of everything.) Sometimes I don’t notice for a day, but when I stop and look closely, I see it perfectly.

Therefore, although I used stars, I stopped actually seeing them. So they stopped working, and then I stopped using them. My priorities were shifting too often for them to be useful.

I Use the Today List Instead of Stars

GTD does not officially contain a daily review step, but almost every GTD-er I’ve encountered does one anyway. Once you get used to the Weekly Review, you realize that you need a less comprehensive review, too. So I review my list for each day first thing, last thing, and throughout the day. GTD says to look at your NA list. I use the Today list like that.

As mentioned, I schedule almost everything, so the Today smart list is my best friend. I spend most of my day looking at that list. Because it’s a smart list, it pulls together everything that is due today (or overdue) and sorts it all by list.

When I look at my Today list, I see items from my checklists, my Project lists, my Areas of Focus, and my Waiting For list. Everything is neatly sorted, and I even use emoji to pretty it up a little.

In actual practice, when I’m looking for something to do, I go to my Today list. First thing in the morning, I scan through the whole list to find what needs to be done today. I check off what I’ve already done. I reschedule what I know won’t be done today. (Sometimes I just remove the due date.) I’m reminded of things I planned to do today. It’s all right there.

My goal is to have nothing due or overdue by the time I head to bed. That doesn’t always happen, but at least I know.

“The only way you can feel peace about what you’re not doing is to know what you’re not doing.” —David Allen

For more about Wunderlist and GTD, come join us at the GTD thread in the Wunderlist Support Center.

“GTD with Wunderlist – Part I” Is Available Here!

The Internet is a vast and fleeting resource. As I often say, “the Internet never forgets.” That is, until it does.

If you’re just here for the plain-text archive of “GTD with Wunderlist – Part I,” click here! Otherwise, read on for the story.

As I keep mentioning in my ad-hoc WL + GTD series, I love the Getting Things Done productivity methodology (GTD) and Wunderlist (WL). I think Wunderlist is a great tool for GTD. With very few up-to-date resources, I built a GTD implementation in Wunderlist that works for me. I hear praise for GTD all the time and for various apps to use for GTD, but no one ever mentioned WL. I couldn’t be the only one. On a whim, I searched the Wunderlist Support Center to see if there were other aficionados hiding in a space not indexed by Google.

Lo and behold, I found my people! So many of the other threads are full of angry Internet personas (nothing makes people complain quite like not getting as much free stuff as they want), but we were actually cordial.

Our original thread's header in the Wunderlist Support Center.

Sadly, we had such a long and lively discussion that we discovered the Community Forum’s technical limits the hard way. After we had contributed the maximum 100 posts to our thread, I found myself mysteriously unable to post to it. The posts aren’t numbered, so there was no real way we could even know how many we’d made. I had to contact WL Support myself to find out there was a limit in the first place. There were no other references to that limit, so that was an unpleasant surprise.

I was, however, encouraged when a Support staffer created a new thread and added a (non-clickable, as usual) link to the old one in its first post. Hooray! Problem solved.

Until it wasn’t. After “a period of inactivity,” the thread was automatically deleted and unrecoverable. It only went inactive because we reached a limit we hadn’t even known about! That was extremely upsetting. After WL’s three-day sync debacle, I started seriously considering changing apps.

Happily, our original poster, Youssef E.B., saved us! Like a good GTD-er (and a good Internet researcher, really), he kept a PDF of the entire thread for Part I. He sent it to me, I extracted the text, and I am posting it here at Lindsay Loves.

Click here for the archived, plain-text version of the Wunderlist Community Forum thread “GTD with Wunderlist – Part I.”

I have the original PDF, but the file is too huge for me to host publicly. The Support Center only allows plain-text posts anyway, so that plain-text version is as close to mint as possible. The text is completely unedited. I copied, pasted, removed the upvote/downvote text, and did nothing else.

If you’re interested in Wunderlist and GTD, come join us on the Part II thread. Update 5/22/18: The Part II thread is no longer available. No registration required. Also feel free to leave comments here or use my contact form; I’m just an ordinary user, but I do like to help people. Enjoy!

Wunderlist and GTD: My Weekly Review

A sad time has come, dear readers: I have to find a new app for my to-do list.

Microsoft acquired Wunderlist (WL) in late 2015. Nothing much had changed since then besides an Outlook integration. But last week, MS and WL announced the preview of the new app, which is called To-Do. The name and current bare-bones functionality leave much to be desired. I have to face the reality that my beloved, life-changing task management app will be shut down in the next few months.

I used Sunrise, too, and I ran away as soon as Microsoft announced its sunset (pun intended), so I am doing the same with Wunderlist. I always had a second-choice app in mind, so it’s time to make the move.

In the meantime, I’ve had the draft of this post ready to go for a while, so it’s also time to press “publish.” The concept of applying GTD principles to specific apps remains relevant even if my specific app will soon be no more.

I like to have an elevator pitch ready for my life-changers, so of course I have one for Getting Things Done (GTD). It sounds like this:

GTD is a productivity methodology popularized by David Allen in his book of the same name. It’s based on three principles: ubiquitous capture, the two-minute rule, and the Weekly Review. When you think of something you need to do, you capture it. Write it down immediately—unless it can be done in less than two minutes. In that case, you do it immediately. Once a week, you review everything you’ve written down.

The part that thwarts even GTD black belts is the Weekly Review. In my opinion, if you’re not doing the Weekly Review, you’re not doing GTD. Period. Once you build the Weekly Review (WR) habit, you will wonder how you ever maintained a to-do list before.

Do I always do my WR? No—but when I skip it, I feel the pain. When I was home with my family for Christmas 2015, I fell out of all my usual routines. I skipped my WR for two weeks straight and was horrified at the result. But I recovered, and now I make the WR a priority.

Tips for Actually Doing Your Weekly Review

  • Pick your best day and time. I do my reviews on Tuesday. The middle of the week is when my life slows down a little bit. I started out by scheduling it for Sunday. I never did it until Tuesday anyway, so I finally just changed the schedule. The best productivity method is the one that works for you!

  • Move quickly. It’s a review, not a retreat. It is easy to get bogged down in your Projects list or to get distracted by items you capture along the way. Just keep going. Project planning is a separate process.

  • Finish your review every time. It is best to complete the WR all in one go, but that’s not strictly necessary. A WR checklist is a checklist for a reason: if you need to stop before you’re finished, you can pick up where you left off. The point is to do a complete review once per week. Starting on Friday afternoon and finishing Saturday morning is okay. I start mine on Tuesday morning… or afternoon… and sometimes finish on Thursday. That works for me.

My Weekly Review Checklist

Screenshot of my Weekly Review.

Click for full-size.

I adapted this from the official checklist (scroll down at that link), and I have modified it since then as my needs have changed. I keep my checklists right in Wunderlist (WL) so I can check them off as I go. They are set to repeat weekly (duh), so they regenerate right away, which gets the checklist ready for next time.

As you can see, my actual checklist starts with step 00. Wunderlist will sort that to the top alphabetically, so I use it. Step 00 is processing my physical inbox. That doesn’t always happen at the same time I do the rest of my review. It’s limited to a place (my room) and time (when I’m at home), whereas everything else can happen online from anywhere.
The rest of my Weekly Review goes like this:

  1. Process Inbox list. Almost everything I put into WL goes to the Inbox smart list first. Here, I do the second and third steps of the GTD workflow: clarify what I’ve captured, and organize it into my other WL lists.

  2. Review Completed list and past week on calendar and write entry in Done Journal. This is the “get current” part of the official checklist, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the WR. My Done Journal is not part of GTD, and I do not keep it in WL. It deserves its own post. (Update: Read that post here!) For now, suffice it to say that I go through the Completed smart list in WL and look back on my calendar (from the time since my last review to “today”). Anything that triggers a new thought gets captured. I move over to the Inbox list, type, hit Enter, and go back to reviewing. Don’t stop to clarify!

  3. Delete completed tasks. WL keeps every task you mark as complete. Every single one. That, to me, is clutter. I don’t need that kind of clutter in my system, so I delete them at this point in my WR.

  4. Review upcoming week on calendar. I capture anything that comes up as I look over the next week or two. This step frequently reminds me of things I forgot about! GTD is designed to let you forget about things until you need them, so it helps you set up a reminder system. This is one of the reminder phases.

  5. Review #monthlygoals. I don’t use stars or subtasks, but I do use limited tags. This is one of them. I currently have just one monthly goal, but this step reminds me that I should be making progress on that one goal every week. My monthly goal is also part of a Project. This part of my system is still messier than I’d like, but it works for now.

  6. Review Week list. WL makes a smart list of everything that has a due date for the next seven days, sorted by day. I look through it and reorganize as needed. Using WL for web, I drag-and-drop items from one day to another. In the web app, I can also remove due dates completely or change them to today or tomorrow with the right-click context menu. I capture anything that emerges in the process. I also compare my scheduled tasks for each day to my calendar. If I’m not going to be home until 9 p.m., there’s no use pretending I’ll get much done that has to happen at home. And yes, a lot of things are scheduled. For me, what gets scheduled gets done.

    Screenshot of my Projects and Project Plans.

    Click for full-size. Blurred for privacy. Yes, that says 2016; I’ve been working on this draft for a while.

  7. Review Projects list and plans for #NA or #waitingfor and #outcomes and log completed projects. I keep one Projects list and a separate Project Plans folder in WL. For this step, I sort the Project list alphabetically and add or remove due dates where applicable. I make sure I have the same number of lists in my Project Plans folder as items on my Projects list. For example, if I have 15 Projects and 16 Project Plans, then I’ve finished a Project and I need to delete the now-empty Project Plan list.
    Then, I click the tag (which is a clickable link because it’s written into this step on my WR checklist; see WR screenshot) to search for each Project’s Next Actions (NAs). The search results are sorted by list, so I count to make sure the number of lists with NAs matches my number of Projects. If not, one or more of them needs a Next Action, or it has something I’m waiting for that keeps me from taking any action right now. I click the “outcomes” tag and do the same thing. I do not review my Project Plans here! That’s how you get stuck doing a three-hour WR.

    Screenshot of my AoF list and items from my Dance AoF.

    Click for full-size. These are my real AoFs, by the way.

  8. Review Areas of Focus. I keep most of my tasks sorted by Area of Focus, so this is an important step, and it usually takes the longest. I actually read/skim through every single item. I sort each list by due date and review what’s in there—especially items I added in Step 1 of this WR.

  9. Review Waiting list. I follow up on anything that’s been here for a while, adding dates for hard and soft deadlines. Throughout WL, I use due dates as an electronic version of my physical tickler file. I’m okay with just remembering the difference between hard deadlines and soft ones.

  10. Review Someday/Maybe list. I skim this. I save the hard work of digging in and deleting things for my monthly review (which also deserves a separate post).

  11. Review Trigger list. I customized a version of the official list that I copied-and-pasted from 43folders. It doesn’t always jog my memory, but sometimes it does!

  12. Review Goals, Vision, and Mission. These are separate lists I keep for the “higher horizons” of GTD. GTD is not great for managing the higher horizons (long-term goals), but it’s useful to remind myself on a weekly basis why I do what I do.

  13. Download Wunderlist backup to hard drive. Just in case. Considering how much I rely on this app, I should probably back up more than once a week. I could probably recover if I lost a few days, though.

And that’s it! Everything I’ve captured during my Weekly Review is now waiting in my Inbox list, where I will process it. If I somehow miss processing for a whole week (like that Christmas), those items will be processed during Step 1 of my next Weekly Review.

The Weekly Review is just an overview. Finish it so you can get back to doing.

Additional Resources

Leo Babauta offers some tips for getting your Weekly Review done in under an hour. Tip #6 is my favorite.

If you’re an audio person, the rebooted GTD podcast has an episode that walks you through your Weekly review. You can download it and play it every week, if that helps you. It’s like having a free, non-personalized coach!

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