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.

The Daily Review – How to Feel Great When You Leave Work

TodayIf you follow GTD and have your trusted system up to date it is easy to leave work every day and feel like you accomplished exactly what you needed to do for that day.  This allows you to drive home and decompress by tuning out and watching TV, reading a book, or whatever activity you like to do to relax and refresh.  The ability to forget all the things you didn’t do that are still on your plate is essential to relieving stress.

Successful task management is really agreement management. At the end of the day, how good you feel about what you did (and what you didn’t do) is proportional to how well you think you kept agreements with yourself.  Did you do what you told yourself to do? What you agreed to do?  Did you accomplish what you think should have been accomplished?  Wasting time only means that you think you should have been doing something other than what you were doing. Sleep is not a waste of time if you think you need it. Taking a walk instead of rewriting your strategic plan is not a waste of time as long as you think taking a walk is the thing to do at that moment. It’s when you wind up not having done that which you’ve agreed with yourself should be done that the trouble begins.

Here is how I do this.  At the beginning of each day I reserve 15 minutes for a “Daily Review” where I look at the calendar for the day to get a sense of what my day looks like.  Then I scan my “Next Actions” notebook in Evernote and decide what I want to accomplish that day and I tag them with “Today.”  Then I filter those items with the Today tag so I only have the items I have decided I want to accomplish that day.  Then during the course of the day I delete them as I accomplish those items.  Once I have completed all the agreements I have with myself I can go home and zone out, refresh, and recharge my batteries for tomorrow.

I believe in outcomes and results not time worked or effort.  Once I have completed all the items on my Today list I can go home feeling good about myself no matter what time that is.  It is a wonderful feeling knowing I accomplished all the agreements I made with myself.

Stop Making To-Do Lists

to-doPlease stop making to-do lists.  You are simply setting yourself up for failure and frustration.

Instead, create a Next Action list that has the very next action you can do to move one step closer to completing the task.  What’s the difference?  A lot.  Typical to-do lists have a mixture of atomic next actions and much larger projects and possibly someday/maybe items that you are not really committed to doing.  The result of this is you are repelled by looking at your to-do list because you subconsciously know you have items on your list that you really don’t or won’t do.  Every time you scan your list your subconscious gives you negative feedback.

When you have a list of things that take 10 minutes, 10 hours and 10 days to do, you will invariably focus on the the shorter ones so you can get the psychological payoff and subsequent dopamine release that comes from completing an item off your list.  This leads to the longer ones staying on your list and the subsequent negative feedback.

In addition to the problem of a mixture of next actions and projects, to-do lists lack the context necessary to help you determine what you should do.  how long will the item take?  What tools do you need to complete it?  Where must it be done?  Contexts like this should be “pre-thought” so you don’t have to think about these things every time you scan your list.  What good does it do you to see “paint the living room” or “return the book you borrowed from mom” or “buy tomatoes” when you are at work?

The better approach is to put the very next action necessary to complete the task or to move it closer to completion on separate lists like “Home”, “Work”, “Errands”, “calls” etc. so that you can scan the appropriate list in the appropriate context.  This drives action which drive positive feedback and that nice dopamine squirt once you cross that item off your list.

The Weekly Review – How to maintain “Mind Like Water”

At this time of the year many people want to get back on the GTD bandwagon because they are in a reflective mode of self improvement.  They know it works and know the stress reduction it can provide.  They know when practiced diligently it can provide what David Allen calls “Mind Like Water.”  When you are in this state you can feel great about where you are, what you are doing and what you are not doing.  For anyone who has experienced this feeling it is amazing and they want to get back there.

So many people ask me how they can “really do GTD right this time?”  Like a diet or a new year’s resolution, they really want to be successful, but deep down fear they will fail over the long term.  The want a magic bullet or trick that will help them to succeed with GTD over the long term.

Fortunately, there is one way to succeed with GTD over the long term and that is to do a weekly review every week.  This is the single most important thing to success or failure over the long term.  If you really want to succeed you need to commit to spending one hour a week doing a weekly review – without fail, no exceptions.

Think about the payback – one hour a week to improved productivity and reduced stress.  A bargain in my book.  Here is how I break down the hour:

1 – Review Projects (40 min)

If you do nothing else in the hour you need to review your projects.  Start at the top of your list and move down one by one and do the following:

Is the project written in a way that it can be checked off as “done” when the description is true?  If not, describe the project to denote “what does done look like?” and be sure to include the desired outcome as the first word in the Evernote title description of the project.  Use words like draft, finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, resolve, think about.  Not all projects need to define a completed task.  It is okay to have projects that say things like “Draft three ideas…” or “Think about…”

Once you are comfortable with the description of the project, you need to break down the project into the tasks needed to complete the project.  I use the notes section of the Evernote note to do this.  I am not a stickler for breaking down every project into it’s related tasks.  I usually ask  “Do I have the bandwidth and resources to do this project?”  If not, I tend to go on to the next one.

For the ones I do have the bandwidth and resources to pursue I ask “What do I want to accomplish this to move this project closer to completion?” and “When do I need to accomplish it by?” I add any items that come to  mind in a more or less free form manor with each task or idea on a separate line.  Do not worry about formatting as that will only slow you down during this critical process.

Finally, and this is critical, move the next action to move the project closer to completion to the next actions list.

2 – Review Your Calendar (5 min)

It is important to understand what you have ahead of you to set the context for how much available time you will have to work on projects and next actions in the future.  Start with looking at your calendar in month view and look at the big picture.  All Day events like birthdays, vacations, trips and holidays will pop out at you.  This gives you  a sense of is this a “normal month” or not and alert you to any big items on the horizon.  Review the next three months.

After you have looked at the big picture by month, you need to focus on the week view to get a sense of is this a “normal week” or not.  As Peter Drucker stated the week is the unit of measure to connect daily tasks to their strategic priorities.  Review the next two to three weeks to get a sense of what is immediately ahead of you.

3 – Review Waiting For items (5 min)

Do a quick scan of your  Waiting For items to see if you can move any into Projects or Next Actions because you are no longer blocked or waiting for someone or something.

4 – Review Areas of Focus (5 min)

Do a quick review of areas of focus to keep them fresh in my mind.  Often this review will spur new projects that you will add to your projects list.

5 – Review Someday/Maybe items (5 min)

Do a quick scan of your someday/maybe items to determine if any items need to become active projects and if they do then change the Evernote notebook to the projects notebook.  If you determine that you really are never going to do and item because it is no longer of interest then delete it.

Work – Life Balance

Many people profess to be seek a “balance” between work and life.   What they really mean is they want to strike a balance between work and family.  Well I have bad news…  There is no such thing as a Work – Life balance.  That’s right – there’s no “balance.” If you’re trying to achieve balance, you’re going to fail. Balance isn’t the answer. The best you can hope for is “dynamic tension” between the two.  But, there is a way to be at peace about the work and family struggle.

In today’s alway on, always connected world it there is no longer a “work time” and a “personal time.”  Just acknowledge it and get over it.  In the era before Blackberrys, iPhones, instant messaging, social networks, and blogs, we all had relatively predictable days. Now we all have unpredictable random work streams that come at us constantly 7×24.  We all feel the need to always be on in order to keep up.  The reality is everyone else is NOT doing it better than you, and you’re NOT the only one feeling stressed and worried about everything, and feeling like you’re almost failing at both.
Here is what to do:
At the beginning of each day look at your calendar to see what hard commitments you have and how much discretionary time you have.  Then look at your Next Actions list and decide what you realistically want to accomplish today before you go home.
I stress the realistic part of this.  Assign a “Today” tag to the next actions you want to accomplish today.  Then filter your next actions on TODAY so you only see those items you decided you want to accomplish today.  Then once you can check off or delete all those things that you set out to accomplish in the morning, GO HOME. Feel good about accomplishing what you set out to accomplish and go home to be with your loved ones.

Once your home be fully engaged with your family.  No multitasking. Sure, maybe a little email after the kids go to bed, but that’s all.

What’s the Next Action?

After the Weekly Review, one of the most important concepts in GTD is the Next 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 is because “paint the house” is 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.

How does GTD differ from “To-Do Lists?”

To-do2The biggest difference between GTD and keeping a “To-Do List” is defining what being “done” looks like. Most of the tasks people keep on their to-do lists are “amorphous blobs of undoability” – commitments without any clear vision of what being “done” looks like. That’s a huge problem – your brain is naturally designed to help you figure out how to do things, but only if you know what the end point looks like.  Everything you’re working on should have a very clear stopping point – a point where you know you’re done and where you can check it off or delete it.  If you don’t know what that point looks like, you’ll find it very difficult to make any progress at all.  It is critical that you clarify what being done looks like.

Most people that have tried to-do lists combine several different types of items on those lists.  They include things that are specific – get hamburger from Ralphs, clean garage, email Fred about proposal, with things that are not specific – lose weight, Grandma’s situation, staff meeting presentation, get healthy, improve work/life balance, etc.  When tasks are grouped this way it is impossible to complete some of these things and therefore they are never crossed off or deleted.  This causes procrastination and ultimately a loss of interest in the to-do list.

GTD forces you to break down your “to-do list” into the appropriate next actions to complete the tasks and check them off or delete them.  It also defines the context of how, when, and where you will perform the next action.  For example, tasks on your “Home” list are next actions that physically must happen at home or calls are tasks that need to be performed when you have a few minutes available and access to your phone.

While there is no difference between “work stuff” and “home stuff” in GTD, some next actions can only be accomplished at your home.  These are things that physically must happen at home.  Some examples: Replace lights in backyard, install baby proof fixtures in living room, Dispose of hazardous waste in the garage at Sun Valley disposal center Saturdays 10-3, Paint kitchen with Dunn Edwards eggshell white paint.

Another example of GTD’s context is your calls list.  Do you have a few minutes and access to a phone or your cell phone?  If so, just check your calls list and you can start processing your calls and delete them once you successfully connect with the person you need to talk with.  This “pre-thinking” about  the  context of when and where you need to do your stuff allows you to easily complete your tasks when your in that context.