“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?

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.

Why A-B-C priorities don’t work in “to-do” lists

ABCI was just coaching someone who was unfamiliar with GTD and he was convinced that prioritizing tasks with an A-B-C priority was the best way to determine what was the most important task to do first. I have tried this and it does not work.

A-B-C priority codes don’t work

Similarly, listing the top dozen things you need to do in order 1-12, doesn’t work either.

There are several reasons for this. The reality is our priorities change over time. You’ll have a different priority set at 9:00 tonight than you will at 9:00 this morning. This is especially true when you acknowledge the reality that over the course of the day “stuff happens” and you can easily become “overtaken by events” that are unplanned and just happen to us.

Additionally, there is also the wasted time of scanning your tasks to see if they need to be re-prioritized or re-written. This wasted energy will eventually repel you to your system and you will stop using it. On a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, there is no algorithm or formula that is sustainable in some written or coded system.

The only way to effectively prioritize the stuff you have to do is to break down your to-dos down into the very next action necessary to achieve completion of the overall goal or task. Then this next action needs to be parked in the appropriate context – what can you do where you physically are.

Then once you have determined the next action and context, they become actionable and you are ready to act on your tasks.

What criteria do you use to decide what to do?

Why “to-do lists” do not work

HBR

I read a great article called “To-Do Lists Don’t Work” in the Harvard Business Review that reminded me of one of the most common mistakes people make about GTD. Often when people get exposed to GTD, they equate to-do lists with Getting Things Done. This is misses the subtlety of David’s system as the only thing they have in common is lists. In the article Daniel Markovitz make several great points.

  1. The Paradox of Choice – “…our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose. Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.”
  2. Heterogeneous complexity – “When your list contains some tasks that are three minutes long and some that are 33 minutes, you’ll invariably focus on the shorter one for the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes from crossing an item off your list.”
  3. Heterogeneous priority – “When your list comprises items of varying priorities, you tend to take care of the “A” priorities and let the “C” priorities lie fallow…until it becomes an “A” priority itself. But would you rather take care of your car maintenance when it’s a “C” priority, or when it’s an “A” priority: when your car breaks down at 3 AM outside the Mojave Desert, 175 miles from home?”
  4. Lack of context – “To-do lists don’t provide sufficient context for the tasks to help you determine what you should work on. How long will each task take? And how much time do you have available? If you can’t answer these questions, you can’t intelligently decide what you should be working on.”

These four things are really David Allen 101. It is critical to do the thinking about your “stuff” before you actually do your stuff. Items need to be broken down into next actions that are parked on lists that are in the right context to be able to be done when you have the time and energy to do them.

Have you ever had a to-do list that worked for you long-term?

The GTD Elevator Pitch

Elevator PitchLike many professionals, I work in a high-rise building and spend a lot of time riding elevators. Inevitability, people know that I am “into GTD” and they ask me “what is GTD?”

What they really want to know is “GTD for Dummies”

Many people ask me what is the gist of GTD. They want to know the Cliff Notes version of GTD before they decide if they are going to invest the time and effort in reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress Free Productivity” or not.

I struggle to convey the basics of GTD as I want to elaborate on all of the goodness of the system and its benefits. This forced me to really think how I would describe the basics of what GTD is in its simplest form.

Here is my GTD Elevator Pitch:

GTD consists of three basic concepts.

  1. Outcome-Based Thinking – Articulating in the most specific terms possible what a successful outcome looks like for any give use of your time.  Another way to think about it is “How will I know when I’m done with this?” or “When will I be able to mark it done or complete?”
  2. What is the Next Action? – You don’t need to track everything you could conceivable do about a Project but rather you just need to know the next physical action that would get you closer to completion. Ask “What is the next action?”
  3. The Weekly Review – Accepting that the heart of the Trusted System that lets you move through a day with a high tolerance for ambiguity is the knowledge that eventually everything you’re doing gets looked at once a week without fail.

What is your GTD Elevator Pitch?

The Basics of GTD

BasicsMany people want me to give them the basics of GTD. They want to know what is the gist of GTD? Well, if you want it boiled down to the basics, here’s it is:

1) Create a Trusted System – just like your contacts or calendar, you need to create a Trusted System where your brain will know you can trust to check to see what you have to do in your life so you can get it out of your head.

2) Outcome-Based Thinking – Articulating in the most specific terms possible what specifically a successful outcome looks like for any give use of your time. Another way to think about it is “How will I know when I’m done with this?”

3) Define the Next Action – Knowing that you don’t need to track everything you could conceivable do about a Project but just the next action to move it forward. You just need to know the next physical action that would get you closer to completion.

4) The Weekly Review – Accepting that the heart of the Trusted System that lets you move through a day with a high tolerance for ambiguity is the knowledge that eventually everything you’re doing gets looked at once a week without fail.

That’s it. I can’t boil it down to anything simpler than those four steps.

What is your minimal version of GTD?

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.