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?