What to do about Next Actions that are hanging around

Next Actions are the cornerstone of Getting Things Done and if you don’t have the “hard edges” that David Allen talks about on your next action list, your system will break down. Sometimes, I find I have items that stay on my next action list for more than a week or two. I’ve discovered that most of the items are just in the wrong place or, more accurately in the wrong context.  This mixing action and non-actionable items is the problem with most  “To-Do lists.”

Look at your Next Actions list and pull each straggler that has been hanging around for a while and try to figure out whether it really belongs someplace else. Here’s my usual suspects, ordered by how often each is the culprit behind my unintentional slack.

It is not a single, atomic activity – This is the biggest one for me, by far. Maybe 80% of the time, it is really a small “Project” is masquerading as a Next Action. Acknowledging the multiple steps and identifying the logical Next Action resolves this. Move the item to “Projects” and generate true Next Action.

It is not a physical action – “Give Sarah a proposal for new product” seems like a next action because it’s tied to a commitment I’ve made to Sarah but it is really a project and is not the next physical action. In reality the next physical action would be something like, “Draft three or four ideas for Sarah’s proposal.” Rewording it as a physical activity, “draft three or four ideas” yields a physical artifact and is truly the next action.

It is poorly defined – This is generally due to poor wording of the item. Changing the way I define or word something also changes the way I think about it. Next actions should always start with a physical verb and have a specific contextual activity.

It is not really the very next action I need to take – Sometimes there is at least one action that needs to take place before the one I have on the list. Hence, it is a action but not really the NEXT action. Something like “Dispose of hazardous materials in the garage” can linger for weeks or months if I first need to find out where I can drop off hazardous materials that mentally keeps me from proceeding. This is a tricky one, since a legitimate future action can seem like the next action, even when it really is not. To address these, walk backwards through your steps until you can derive the true next physical action.

It is not something I’m really committed to do – Sometimes I put next actions on my list but when I really look at it in my Weekly Review I realize it is not something I’m totally committed to do right now. I need to change these to “Someday/Maybe” until I’m ready to make it part of my immediate actions.

It is not actionable – This is usually the result of a dependency with another person or is not longer relevant. If it is dependent on someone or something, move it to “Waiting for” and if is no longer relevant just delete it.

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

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