Culture & Competency

What the Next Action List is Not, Dec 6

In my pursuit of higher productivity, I have embraced the ideas of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. The concept of maintaining a list of projects and next actions is key, central, and top-of-mind for many in the GTD community. However, I’ve observed that my next action lists often get stuck and even die on the branch, and I’ve finally figured out why. I want to share in this post that it’s vitally important to remember what the next action list is not.

The Next Action List is Not a Project Management System
One of the stumbling blocks that I constantly trip up on is the thought that the next action list is a project planning system for a specifically identified goal. That is, all of the activities and tasks that are required to complete that project should be reflected in toto on the next action list. Nada. Wrong. No way. David writes and says this frequently, but I often forget. For example, when David says “most people have 80-100 projects, and 100-150 next actions” that’s clear evidence that the next action list is not intended to be a complete project plan (how many “projects” have only 1-2 actions in total?). That level of detail has to go somewhere else … eg, in the mindmap for the project, on a piece of paper filed in the project file, or for larger things in a traditional project plan.

Coming back to my visual approach of a tiered quarter circle for top-down planning, and assuming that you do the weekly review weekly, then my conclusion is that next actions should only be the 1-2 things per project that you are committed to doing within the next week (ie, the immediately forseeable future). This naturally reduces the number of items on one’s next action list from an overwhelming number of hundreds and hundreds down to something that you feel good about getting done during the upcoming week. Things that you could do, or things that you might do in the future go someone else … on the project plan, in a tickler file, in your calendar … somewhere else where you will see them at the right time, but not on your next action list.

You Still Need to Make Project Plans
I am not arguing that you don’t need to make project plans, with a complete list of activities and tasks. You do, and you should at least sketch out or mind-map out the respective components of every project. For larger projects that span multiple months and require input from multiple people, a mind-map probably won’t suffice by itself; you may need a project plan, a project manager, and a license for Microsoft Project. I am arguing strongly, however, that these thoughts and ideas do not belong on the next action list. What does go on the next action list is the specific, tangible, physical things that you determine need to be done within the next week in order to move the project forward.

The Language of a Next Action is Different from a Project Task
The language you use to describe your next actions on your next action list is normally different from the language you use to describe an activity or task on the project plan. The project plan will include language like “complete proposal by December 10th” (a task or activity), whereas the language on your next actions list for the week will be something like “mind-map proposal and write the first draft”. Whilst they are related they are not the same thing. Don’t just put “complete proposal by December 10th” on your next action list … it’s not a next action! The next action is the tangible thing that you do to move toward completion of the project task or activity.

A Good Way to Think about Next Actions
Being interrupted in the middle of a writing project is painful, because it takes time to get back into the flow of where you were. One of the ideas that I really like is to stop whatever you are writing in the middle of a word. That is, rather than trying to finish the sentence before giving the person who has requested your time your full and undivided attention, stop in the middle of a word. For example, if someone interrupts you while you are working on writing “middle”, leave it as “midd”, put down your pencil/pen/fingers, deal effectively with the person, and then come back to your writing. By stopping mid-word, it is easier to get back into the flow of where you are. Apparently, the brain is better able to return to its previous place of thought and analysis because of the uncompleted word.

I recount that anecdote because it is similar to the way a next action is framed. If I’m working on a project, have to stop and get on with other things, then my next action should reflect where I was currently at in the flow of the project and what I need to do next when I return. I had a plan, I had some work that I was doing, and now that I have to step away, how to I get back to that work in the most elegant way when I return? Perhaps we could call next actions of this type “next action mental triggers”. For example, I was writing a chapter of my forthcoming book earlier today and the time came to move on to something else. I wrote a “next action mental trigger” on my actions list that I need to “research wireless networks and applications” when I return (hopefully tomorrow!).

You Don’t Have to Retain a List of Completed Next Actions
One of the questions that I’ve seen asked frequently is whether you need to retain a list of your completed next actions. My take is “no”. Because the next action is merely (!) a reminder to do something on a specific project at a specific time or in a specific period of time, that low level of detail lacks ongoing insight or value. By all means retain the project plan and mind-map associated with the work, but the fact that you “called Sue”, “emailed Bob”, or “drafted the proposal” is generally only project noise beyond the completion of the project (the exception I’m thinking of is where you take an active approach to looking back over how you completed your project so that you can refine a template for future action).

How’s your next action list going? What ideas do you follow to ensure that it works well for you? I’d love to hear your experiences …

I have a new way of doing things that is making life a lot easier

Categories: Culture & Competency

4 replies »

  1. Your post was just what I needed today. My tendency is to make a list of next actions and overwhelm myself. Your reminder of the number of next actions to projects was helpful.

  2. WOW. I have been looking for something like this article for MONTHS. I started GTD about a year ago and, while I love its concept, I was constantly getting tied up on this exact issue. THANK you for breaking it down so well. I’m excited to tackle my projects again, now armed with this practical advice. Whew!

  3. Very good distinction made Michael, thank you so much!
    I had this very specific problem of listing all my project tasks (with various due dates and dependable tasks) all on my Next Actions list — with overwhelmed me and weren’t specific enough to move through easily. My key takeaways are the 1-2 weeks time window for a Next Action and also how Next Action should be written in very behavioral terms that will trigger action.
    Thanks again, you have a regular reader!