Next actions

Many people starting to implement the Getting Things Done methodology start processing their inboxes full of energy. The first result is usually obtained within a few days: an empty inbox! Everything has been evaluated, using the well know flow chart, and stored in reference files, someday/maybe actions, next actions… Small tasks (2–minute rule!) have been finished immediately, and a lot of junk has been thrown away. Great!

Once the big mess is out of the way, you only need to maintain it. Process arriving items as soon as possible, and start working your way through the Next Action list. You even do your first weekly review, to see whether there are any open loops left. You feel that you are getting grip on your workflow.

But usually after two or three weeks, the doubts come up. The processing goes all right, but you have the feeling that actions come in faster than you can finish them. Your N/A list is growing and growing, and looking at your N/A list gives you the same feeling you had before when you opened your inbox. You don’t know where to start or how you can set your priorities. You’ve lost control.

At this point many people throw GTD out of the window, reasoning that if they spend less time organizing their time, they will have more time for actually doing things. This might be true for some people, but in many cases you simply need to adjust your system to fix the problem. If I have a question about GTD, I always first go to the source. The problem I described here appears on David Allen’s site in the FAQ section. David’s answer is: If it’s ‘too long’ either you need to get used to a big list of still-undone things […] or you need to make fewer commitments.

Of course this is very true if you implemented the system correctly. But in many cases, the problem is not the amount of commitments, but rather the way these commitments have been entered into the system. Before starting to use GTD, most people work with some kind of to-do list. New GTD users treat their N/A list in exactly the same way as their old list, only now they specify the context of the action. This is wrong, since a task is not the same as a Next Action. Anne Gennett explained it in an excellent way in The power of the real next action. In her example, the client needs new glasses. So he creates a N/A ‘Get new glasses’. But getting new glasses is not an action! Getting glasses is something you can’t do. The real N/A is to email someone for the name of an optometrist, so this is what he should have put in his list.

If you look at a long list that contains items like ‘Get new glasses’, you get the feeling that you will never be able to finish the list. But if you put real next actions, your list contains easy to perform steps, and you will see that you can process your next actions more efficiently. The next action is the very first thing you need to do to move on that item.

Jeroen Sangers @jeroensangers