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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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?

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.

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.

Processing your “Stuff”

Now that you have completed your initial capture you should have lots of unprocessed items in your “- Unprocessed” notebook and now it is time to figure out what to do with all your stuff.  When processing start at the top and decide what to do with each unprocessed item until you have completely processed your stuff to zero.  In GTD this is called processing and your goal is to always process your unprocessed queues to zero.  This could be your inbox on your desk, your email inbox, your unprocessed items in Evernote, your RSS feeds or any other queue of unprocessed incoming inputs.

The first thing you need to do is to decide if it is actionable or not.  If it is not actionable you do one of three things: delete it, file it as reference in your Reference notebook or “tickle” it for possible later action in your Someday/Maybe notebook.  “Reference” and “Someday/Maybe” notebooks are for stuff that has no immediate next action.  Sometimes you will process items that do not have any immediate next actions but you want to keep them around for future reference.  Reference files are great for storing information you don’t have to act on right now but are not ready to delete or archive.  They can be physical folders for paper or digital items that you want to refer to on an ongoing basis.

Someday/Maybe lists are great for deferring ideas that you’d like to work on someday, but you’re not committing to right now.  I have ideas about fun new things do to every day – way more than I have time or energy for.  Sometimes you think of tasks you’re just not ready to do yet.  Maybe learning a new language – while an eventual goal – just doesn’t fit into your life right now.  There are many things that fit into this “I intend to do this someday” category.  Some examples: Go to Griffith Observatory, Build CIO Dashboard, Learn Spanish, Build a deck in back yard.

If it is actionable, decide if you can complete the task in less than two minutes then you just do it. This is called the “2 Minute Rule” because there is no need to categorize or further thinking about the item if you can accomplish the task in less than two minutes, just do it!  Writing down every little thing you have to do takes more time than it’s worth – if you need to send a 30-second reminder e-mail to someone, there’s no sense in taking 20 seconds to write it down and put in one of your notebooks when you could just get it done.  Your goal is to get things done, not to flawlessly capture each and every little thing in your perfectly designed system.

Apply the 2-minute rule to all aspects of your life

If it is actionable and it will take more than two minutes to complete then it is most likely a Project.  As IT professionals, we generally struggle with the GTD concept of a project.  We are conditioned to think of projects in the classic PERT or GANT CHART sense of big projects.  In GTD, “Projects” are desired outcomes that require more than one action to complete or said another way, projects are “stuff” that require more than one action to complete.

Almost everything you need to do is a Project.  Projects are nothing more than a series of actions necessary to be “done.”  The best way to avoid completing items on your to-do list is to make them vague.  Put a task like “Clean out office” on your to-do list and that is the last thing you’re going to actually begin working on.  In fact, “Clean out office” isn’t a task at all – it’s a Project.  Projects are not tasks; they are a collection of tasks – an important distinction.

So go thru all of the stuff you captured in your initial capture and do it if it takes less than two minutes to complete or make the items you captured projects.  When you describe the project it is important to define what done looks like.   When describing your projects include the desired outcome as the first word in projects.   Use the following words:  finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, and resolve.  Do this for everything on your initial capture list in your – Unprocessed notebook.