A guaranteed way to leave work and feel a sense of accomplishment every day

Finish LineUsing a 10-minute Daily Review is a sure-fire way to leave work every day and feel a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, you will enjoy the corresponding decrease in stress that comes with knowing you completed everything you wanted to get done for the day.

If you follow GTD and keep your trusted system up to date with specific Next Actions for your Projects, then it is easy to do this by performing a 10-minute Daily Review every morning. A Daily Review consists of two things – 1) review your calendar for available time that day 2) scan your Next Action lists and decide what you want to complete before going home from work. It’s that simple and usually doesn’t even take 10 minutes.

For me, it is as simple as carving out 10 minutes first thing every morning to look at my calendar to get a sense of what my day looks like. Then, once I know how much available time I have and what the blocks of time look like (large contiguous chunks or small fragmented ones) I have the appropriate context to decide what I want to tackle for the day. I simply scan my Next Actions and mark those items with a “Today” tag.

Finally, I filter those items with the Today tag so I only have the items I have decided I want to accomplish that day. Since Evernote works on my Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad and Galaxy Edge, I have my Today list on each of the devices I use. I leave this Today list up on all my devices and during the course of the day as I accomplish items on the list I delete them.

As soon as I have an empty Today list, I know I have completed all the agreements I have with myself for the day.

By doing a Daily Review each morning and deciding exactly what I intend to accomplish that day, I effectively create a “finishing line” at the end of each workday. Once I cross that imaginary line, I can start to put the workday behind me and start shifting my attitude, heart, and mind towards the next part of my day — whether that’s social, exercise, recreation, or family time.

I can’t tell you what a great feeling it is to look at that empty Today list and know that I have accomplished everything I set out to do for the day. This knowledge allows me to drive home and decompress by tuning out by watching TV, reading a book, talking to my wife and kids or whatever. I’m in the mood to relax and refresh knowing I had a productive day.

Performing a Daily Review allows you to clarify your thoughts, collect yourself, refresh and renew, by setting yourself up for having a feeling of accomplishment. Equally important, is the ability to forget all the things I didn’t do because I consciously choose not to do them but are still on my 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 didn’t do correlates to how well you think you kept agreements with yourself. Did you actually do what you told yourself you would do?

I believe in outcomes and results, not time worked or effort exerted. 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 – sometimes it’s late at night and sometimes it’s early in the evening. In those situations, I can feel good about going home earlier than normal. It is a wonderful feeling knowing I accomplished all the agreements I made with myself.

Since I have started this practice, I am far less distracted when I arrive home. I feel more in control, and have a feeling of clarity about what I have accomplished towards completing my priorities. Most importantly, it enables me to “switch off” from work when I’m at home and engage fully with the people I love most.

Crossing your finish line each day is something that not only leaves you feeling satisfied and fulfilled, but motivates you to finish well and decreases your stress.

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“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?