What’s the Next Action?

Next actionI had lunch today with one of my dearest friends whom I respect and admire tremendously.  Our conversation turned to the list of 30 opportunities he had for the next phase of his career. I said I didn’t want to have lunch six months from now and for him to be in the same position.  So, I asked him to do me a favor and to take each one of those 30 opportunities and write out exactly what the next action was.

Later in the lunch, we reviewed what I had asked him to do and he said “figure out the next move on the list” and while close, I wanted to make sure he understood exactly what I  meant by “Next Action.”  Words mean things and when it comes to next actions, David Allen has a very specific definition that I think is critical to success in GTD. What is the very next physical action required to move the project forward?

One of the reasons that previous generations of time management and personal productivity systems have failed is because they do not embrace the concept of the next action. Even simple to-do lists suffer from this problem.  For example, if you have an abstract item on your to-do list like “paint the house”, you will never do it because every time you look at it, you will subconsciously realize there are many steps necessary to complete the task.  It is just too hard to mentally figure out what you need to do to actually check off “paint the house” from your to-do list.  You really need to figure out what needs to be done and what order to do it to actually complete “paint the house.”  That’s because “paint the house” is really a project.

Projects have many steps, and can be overwhelming in their complexity. The key to handling these projects is not to focus on everything hat has to be done – that’s a great way to freak yourself out.  Instead, just focus on the very next physical action you need to do to move the project forward. It may be looking up a piece of information, making a phone call, researching something on the web, scheduling an appointment or accomplishing a small task. Whatever it is, it’ll move you closer to completing the project, so don’t worry about everything else – focus only on what you can do right now.

By thinking about it now and writing it down as the next action you can take to bring this project to completion, you set yourself up for action.  You can do that next action automatically the next time you see it on your Next Action list instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do.  With a to-do list you have to make a decision about what action to do for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Action list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose to do the action now or not.  But by focusing on only the next action rather than all the actions, it’s not nearly as intimidating. This leads to action, which leads you one step closer to completing your project.

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

One Response to What’s the Next Action?

  1. Justin Davis says:

    I completely agree with you – each Thursday by 4pm my project managers are required to update the Next Step field across our 60+ active salesforce implementations. Previously we’d simply maintained a “status” field – but this is misleading. A great project manager knows what the next physical step towards progress is, rather than just report a status.

    Sometimes our PM’s try to sneak in “In Progress” or “Call client” as the next step, so I created validation rules that prevent them from saving the change when they try to populate the field with these options. I told them they need to reference one of the deliverables as their next step, something specific.

    Then, to keep them honest, on Fridays, the day after the update, our customer success manager emails each point of contact for each project exactly what was written in that Next Step field on the project record – she has specific instructions not to alter them in any way. It was the only way we could figure out how to get honest internal updates without micromanaging – we started holding them accountable for knowing the next step and then reporting that to our clients. The end result was a dramatic drop in classic complaints of miscommunication or lack of client understanding what was happening on projects.

    On a side note, 65% of the time the “next step” involves waiting on our clients for something – so our CSM calls instead of emails in those cases each Friday when the client will have whatever is we’re waiting for (such as data for importing or report requirements).

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