The difference between a Project and a Next Action

Many people who are new to GTD struggle to understand the difference between a Project and a Next Action. Next actions seem to be pretty straightforward for most people but projects really seem to blow their minds. This is especially true in information technology because projects are typically associated with big, complex, tasks and projects in GTD can be much smaller.

Let’s start with the easy one – the next action. It’s so all about the next action. In my journey with GTD, my best takeaway has been the idea of the next action. Learning to identify the absolute next physical action that will keep a project moving has been a godsend to the way I think about, plan, and execute my work. When things get hectic, it’s affirming to know that all I need to do is one, single thing—the next thing—to get closer to completion.

Turning “to-dos” into a list of atomic activities has benefits that go beyond gains in productivity and “effectiveness.” You can also lower stress and start to reclaim control of runaway projects just by looking in front of your nose. Any time I start to feel swept away by work, I try to see whether I’ve accurately identified the things I can do right now (as well as everything else I don’t need to do right now) to bring that project one step closer to completion.

For me, the next action has been the linchpin for making Getting Things Done work. Full stop. Now on to the more difficult GTD concept – the Project. In GTD, Projects are nothing more than multi-task commitments to a desirable outcome that has more than one physical action that can be described in a way that I know exactly when it is “done.”

A project can be as “small” as a two step project with a discernible completion. For example, many people might put “get mom a Mother’s Day gift” on their Next Action list when it really should be on their Projects List. There are several implied tasks in “get mom a Mother’s Day gift” – what should I get her? What size is she? Does she already have what I am thinking about? Do I need to call or email her to see what she wants? Once I decide what to get her where should I buy it? Should I ship it to her or deliver it myself? Should I have it wrapped or wrap it myself? Etc.

So, I would put “Get mom a Mother’s Day” gift on my Projects list and “call mom to she what she wants” on my Next Action list. Then when I was scanning my Next Actions list I would have a simple task that could easily be completed that will move me one step closer to completing my project. Once I called her and found out she wanted a specific book, I would put “buy The Pillars of the Earth on Amazon” on my Next Action list. Once I completed this I would delete the Project because it was completed.

While this might seem like a silly example, it illustrates a common mistake people make. Putting “get mom a Mother’s Day gift” on your Next Action list makes that list a mixture of discrete next actions and multi-step actions that dilutes the power of the Next Action list. It is really a project and it should sit on my Project List right next to a “big” project like “implement a new HR system.”

It’s something to which I’ve made some kind of commitment—either a public commitment to others or even just a mental obligation I’ve made with myself. This is something in the world that I agree deserves my time and attention to the exclusion of other things. I love the idea that, at the heart of it, a project is really just an agreement on what I want to be true. Then I break it down into next actions. I’m here, and I want to be there, so what steps do I need to be take to move things further in that direction?

But, the component of personal commitment is my favorite lesson from GTD project planning. It means I’ve knowingly agreed to let this thing become an acceptable interruption in my life. It means that other things might have to wait because of this, and that’s okay. Maybe most importantly though, commitment is the glue that binds my daily activities to my “higher altitudes”—it’s how I can make sure my values and my priorities in life are reflected in what I do every day.

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About Michael Keithley
Digital Transformation CIO and Public Speaker. Previously, CIO at Creative Artists Agency

2 Responses to The difference between a Project and a Next Action

  1. Pingback: The Three Reasons You Can’t Stick to Your Plans

  2. Pingback: What to do about Next Actions that are hanging around « GTD for CIOs

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