“Hard Edges” – Is it really a next action?

Hard EdgesNext 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. Co-GTDer David Freedman and I were discussing the “ah-ha” moment we had when we truly understood these “hard edges” and their critical nature in our systems.

Sometimes, I find I have items that stay on my next action list for several weeks. 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.”

Next actionLook 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. I have found it beneficial to ask yourself:

Is it a single, atomic activity? – This is the biggest one for me, by far. Most of the time, it is really a small “Project” is masquerading as a Next Action. Acknowledging the multiple steps and identifying the very next logical action resolves this. Redefine the action into a project, move the item to “Projects” and generate true Next Action.

Is it a physical action? – “Give Steve a proposal for new product” seems like a next action because it’s tied to a commitment I’ve made to Steve 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 Steve’s  proposal.” Rewording it as a physical activity, “draft three or four ideas” yields a physical artifact and is truly the next action.

Is it clearly 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.

Is it 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 an 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.

Is it 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.

Is it 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.

How do you tell if items that linger on your next action list are truly next actions?

About Michael Keithley

One Response to “Hard Edges” – Is it really a next action?

  1. David Freedman says:

    As you mentioned in your post, in addition to project masquerading as next actions, clarifying context has recently been huge for me. Up until a few weeks ago, I had a tough time deciding if a next action belonged in home or computer for example because I wasn’t thinking about context in a deterministic way. My self talk around next actions used to by “where can I get this done?” which sometimes yielded more than one answer. Now I ask myself “where MUST I be in order to get this done?” so while I may have a personal thing that I could do at home on the computer or at work on the computer, the correct context is “computer” because that is the minimum requirement for completion…duh:) This seemed so obvious once I got it that I can’t imagine anyone else experienced the same confusion!

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