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Understanding "Next Actions"



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Proximo

Posted: Aug 28, 2009
Score: 0



@Claudio.

Excellent comments Claudio.

OK, I see where I could break down some of my single big task into multi-steps. This is a great suggestion and I will implement it immediately.

ie. Enter 300 parts on one task and finish the other 200 on the second run.

On my custom report example. I already have a format, I decide on the specs and do it on the fly. The only actual task I am doing is working in Query mode using MS Access. But the actual process of creating and running the query can take some time.

This is not always true. Sometimes I can finish this in 20 minutes, but other times it's more like 2 to 3 hours.

Although this is one task that may take high energy and focus to get done. I can see the error I have made. What I need to do is take this one complicated task and even if it only requires the creation of a Query. I could break it down so that I can decide how far along I am willing to get at a given time frame.

The details about the query where in my notes section, but your suggestion really opened my eyes.

One example of this:

1. Draw out all the data fields needed for the Query
2. Create the Query basic structure with all fields in place.
3. Run the Query to determine if the output is correct.
4. Print the report and check it for accuracy
5. Deliver the report to my boss.

I was doing everything above and had the details in my notes, but I did not break it down to smaller task. I simply saw it as one task. "Create a query for a report"

I guess one of the reasons I had this habit, is when I do the same task for certain reports and it takes only 20 minutes. When I do a more complicated one, it took more time, but I just never decided to break these down to smaller parts. Brilliant.

As for my Project. It's much more detailed and I did not add all the actual actions.

Yes, I have meetings, I run controlled test with a certain outcome for success, etc. I have the details for each task in my notes section and I am careful with how I break it down. For some reason, when the task is huge and takes multiple steps, I tend to really break them down carefully.

What I was not always doing is looking at a single task that may not have multiple steps, but based on how long it will take, I did not break it down to smaller achievable task. This I was not doing.

Your recommendations are awesome and I appreciate it. sorry that I did not list all the specifics, I was just trying to give a basic idea of the things I work on.

Next Actions

I really want you to help me understand the reasoning for calling all my single task "Next Actions". As I look at my setup, I can clearly see that if I simply renamed my folder from "Actions" to "Next Actions" and used the Star to signify priority. It falls in place with what the book is saying and what you are suggesting.

But why is this so important to follow exactly as the book labels it. I am just wondering because if I can see a good reason why, I will change it today.

I identify the task I will work on with the same flag I use to identify my Next Actions for Projects. It just made sense to me to also consider the Star flag as my Next Action for my Action List, but I did not see a reason to name the list "Next Actions".

Now that you understand what I am doing here, do you see anything wrong with what I was doing?

I have read the first book 3 times now and I believe I have a good grasp in most areas of GTD. This is not to say I am an expert by any means. I am always learning from others. GTD has built in flexibility, but I also want to always make sure the core concepts are understood and implemented to my best advantage.

I have not read the second book, so I automatically consider you more knowledgeable than me.

Any thoughts on this?

Jumping from one task to the other

I also want your thoughts on jumping from one task to another. I don't live in a perfect world and many of the task I am currently working on get derailed by a phone call that requires immediate action or something else happens that requires me to jump from one to the other.

I think this is normal and I still manage to keep a certain level of focus with achievable goals for the things I am working on. I just don't get to always finish the exact task I started.

Any thoughts on this?

Thanks again. Too bad there is no private message option. I hate to make this thread so long and get into too many specifics. I am sure others can always get a nugget here and there, but I just feel bad dragging this thread longer and longer. :-)


This message was edited Aug 28, 2009.
Claudio

Posted: Aug 28, 2009
Score: 0



Glad it helped. :)
I really want you to help me understand the reasoning for calling all my single task "Next Actions". As I look at my setup, I can clearly see that if I simply renamed my folder from "Actions" to "Next Actions" and used the Star to signify priority. It falls in place with what the book is saying and what you are suggesting.

By why is this so important to follow exactly as the book labels it. I am just wondering because if I can see a good reason why, I will change it today.
Well, so far, I haven't offered a better way of tracking your actions because your system seems to be working just fine.

My point was perhaps more philosophical than practical. I just wanted to emphasize the importance of identifying something as a "Next Action". Of course, you can label your folders however you want.

Wondering, though, if you used "Next Action" the way that David Allen does, could you work with a list called "Actions" or, as you put it, would "your head explode"? :D
Proximo

Posted: Aug 28, 2009
Score: 0



@Claudio.

Thanks for the quick reply. I did edit my original post with some more questions. Sorry about that.

My head would not explode by simply naming my folder "Next Actions". It's just that in my mind, they are individual actions and become Next Actions when I set the priority of the one I will do next. :-)

Renaming it will not alter my system one bit.

Because of your great feedback. I will now rename my "Actions" folder to "Next Actions" in honor of Claudio. :-)

I am serious.......

Anyway. If you have any thoughts on my other question at the bottom. Let me know.

Thanks again.
Claudio

Posted: Aug 28, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by Proximo:
I have not read the second book, so I automatically consider you more knowledgeable than me.
Well, "Knowledge is power", but "Actions speak louder than words".

I've also heard: "If it ain't broke ... break it!"

I don't have much else to add, and, seriously, it's clear that you're doing just fine.
I also want your thoughts on jumping from one task to another.
...
I think this is normal and I still manage to keep a certain level of focus with achievable goals for the things I am working on. I just don't get to always finish the exact task I started.
You mean ... that you are not ... PERFECT??!!! Hang your head in shame! :D

I think you've already figured out the answer: Your daily and weekly reviews. As long as you're getting most of your tasks done and as long as very little is "slipping through the cracks", then you're doing fine. One more thing: As long as you are in the process of achieving what you want to achieve.

Sorry, this is sounding like some lame attempt at Buddhist wisdom. :|
I am sure others can always get a nugget here and there, but I just feel bad dragging this thread longer and longer. :-)
Hey, one of the wonders of a public message board is that it offers the opportunity to find nuggets in the most unlikely places. You've presented a few of your own.


This message was edited Aug 28, 2009.
Proximo

Posted: Aug 28, 2009
Score: 0



Claudio thanks for everything and for the great conversation on "Next Actions".

I did learn from your observations and will adopt several new things.

Jarery, you also had some great input and made me think of my approach. I want to thank you as well.

It's been great. I just ordered the 2nd book.


This message was edited Aug 28, 2009.
Proximo

Posted: Aug 29, 2009
Score: 0



I know we beat this to death already, but here is yet another GTD app/plug-in that has the same setup as I do. "Actions" section, not "Next Actions".

No big deal. Just saying... :-)

http://www.gtdtimes.com/files/2009/08/outlookaddin.jpg
jquark

Posted: Aug 30, 2009
Score: 0



Hello All,

Great thread here. Proximo, let me first thank you again for your GTD setup thread. So I see each of you (Claudio and Proximo's) points with regards to "next action". Something always bothered me about having so many "next actions"- Proximo's approach seems like a nice fix. However, I also realize it may/may not be exactly "correct" under the GTD next action definition. My question is this- I almost always work under projects with many subtasks. Claudio, you mentioned how Proximo could break some of his "tasks" into small projects. I see the power in this- that you literally break things down until you just have to DO them rather than think about what comes next. I also see a problem with this power- at what level do you stop breaking up actions? For instance, if I had an action called "write letter to grandma" I could easily break this down into:
1) Get pen, paper, and envelope
2) Write message
3) Seal envelope and attach stamp
4) Address envelope
5) Mail letter

The problem I see with this is that I could spend a good deal of my day breaking down my tasks- in fact having hundreds and hundreds of small projects that might become overwhelming and harder to manage. Do any of you have some good guidelines for when to stop breaking down tasks? Thanks!
Claudio

Posted: Aug 30, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by jquark:
Do any of you have some good guidelines for when to stop breaking down tasks? Thanks!
Hi jquark.

Simple answer is: If your description describes the action enough that you know which physical actions to take to accomplish what you want to do, then the description and breakdown is adequate and any additional breakdown will be counterproductive.

You write down the task or project rather than keep it in your head so that you can put it into a reliable system that you trust. This frees up your mind to work on the most important things and complete those things quickly, effectively, and in line with your bigger picture.

You identify the "Next Action" to clarify the task so that you can move ahead with the project. Also, the action is something that you can complete in "one sitting".

To clarify, in your example, I see two possible actions:
1. Write the letter.
2. Mail the letter.

Chances are that you don't have a mail box right next to your desk, and that, assuming you don't, you probably are not going to write the letter and then immediately go out to mail it. You could, and if that is your intention, then "Write letter to Grandma" is sufficient. But, if you intend to write it today and mail it tomorrow, then break down the task into two actions.

But -- and this is where the power of Next Action comes into play -- let's say that you want to include some photos of a recent birthday party, but you haven't yet selected, edited, and compiled those photos, and you know that you are not going to send the letter without those photos. Or, to make things more complicated (but, I think, realistic), let's say that you need some of those photos from your parents or your siblings. What could very well happen is that you keep putting off the letter to grandma because you know that you can't complete it without the photos. So, your next action is not "Write letter" but "Collect photos" (which could, in some circumstances, be a major project on its own) or "Call Mary to get photos".

Of course, you could decide that it's better to just write the letter and send it without the photos. Fine, as long as that's what you want to do.

Anyway, the key seems to be to get those things done that are important to you. As long as you are doing that with relatively little stress, then I don't see any reason for additional fine-tuning.

Hope that helps.
mmladousa

Posted: Aug 30, 2009
Score: 0



Agreed. I tend to break it down by actions that I would complete in one location or sitting. So while the action of "Pay Rent" could be broken down as:

1) Get envelope
2) Get checkbook
3) Write check
4) Put check in envelope and seal
5) Stamp envelope
6) Place in mailbox

Everything I need to do the Send Rent action (envelope, checkbook, stamps) is sitting near my workstation. So to complete the Send Rent action, I don't need to get up except to go and place the envelope in my mailbox.

As always, its whatever works in your system. If you try a task as a more general action and don't like the results, then break it down into further actions. If your actions seem counterproductive and hard to manage, try building it up into a larger action and performing that one. Find a sense of harmony within your own system.
Claudio

Posted: Aug 30, 2009
Score: 0



Good points, mmladousa.

Also, I think that it's not always necessary to list all the actions that need to be done before starting the project. A general idea is fine, but often the "next, next action" will change depending on the outcome of the "previous next action".

One more quote from Making It All Work:

The best criteria to determine whether or not you've actually thought something through sufficiently to act upon it is how clearly you can answer these three questions:

What has to happen first?
What does doing look like?
Where does it happen?

If you can't answer all three specifically, you still have work to do.
...
I am restating and reinforcing the principle again in this chapter and in this context because, of all the best practices I have uncovered across the years of my work in this field of personal and interactive productivity, this one is perhaps the most profound in its ramifications. By asking myself, "What's the next action on this?" I have generated more creative thinking, tough decision-making, critical conversations, innovative ideas, clarity, and motivation than by using any other specific technique I'm aware of.


This message was edited Aug 30, 2009.
Rory

Posted: Aug 31, 2009
Score: 0



I'm a bit late to the party here, I know.

I'm pretty strict with making sure that all of my projects have next actions, and that all of my single actions are next actions (since that's what I believe they are by definition).

Like proximo, I use stars to denote this state, but I also heavily use tags to really quickly narrow down the massive list of next actions to those that I can work on in any situation.

This works well for me since I use the iPhone app to determine what to do a lot of the time. As I'm sitting at work waiting for yet another compile to complete, it's really easy for me to quickly fit in a small task if I can.
Proximo

Posted: Aug 31, 2009
Score: 0



Claudio has some great input here.

I went over my current "Next Actions" list. You see Claudio, I did that just for you. :-)

After looking closer at them, I found 3 that could have been broken down as small projects with more clarity on the Next Action to move it forward.

I am glad others got something out of this thread. For a while there it was just Claudio and I bouncing ideas back and forth. I am a little stubborn and still believe that calling my entire Action list Next Actions does not make sense, but in the end I realized that I was basically doing things like the book suggested and my "Star" was more like a priority indicator for the task I wanted to do next.

So I gave in and renamed my "Actions" folder to "Next Actions". Outside of that, nothing has actually changed in the way I was doing things. Claudio just pressured me to the point where I gave in. lol

Just kidding Claudio.
Claudio

Posted: Aug 31, 2009
Score: 0



Hmmm ... seems that I've somehow conveyed something different from what I intended.

Previously, I said this:
Proximo, I'm not disagreeing with the way that you've structured your lists. I'm just pointing out that "Next Action" is a core GTD concept and it seems to me that you are underestimating the importance of David Allen's formulation of the concept.
And, I followed up with this:
I should have simply said that I am emphasizing the importance of David Allen's formulation of "Next Action".
I wasn't recommending that you change the name of your list.

I was just pointing out that, in GTD terminology, a "Next Action" is not the next thing that you intend to do from your list of all possible actions for all projects and single-action tasks, but that, instead, it is the next thing that you need to do to move forward on a particular project.

My quotes from David Allen's Making It All Work provided evidence of the importance that Allen places on Next Actions.

FWIW, I agree with you that a Star is a priority indicator. It's simple and quick.

Hope that helps.


This message was edited Aug 31, 2009.
Proximo

Posted: Aug 31, 2009
Score: 0



@Claudio,

Understood.

I was just teasing, but I will say this.

I have learned greatly from your input and have made some minor but important changes to the way I was looking at things.

It may have taken me a little while, but I fully understand what you where trying to tell me and I did find a flaw in how I listed some single task actions when they should have been small projects.

I look at everything I add to my list differently, based on your input. So I a grateful for you sharing and I wanted to let you know that.
Claudio

Posted: Aug 31, 2009
Score: 0



Glad I could help. :)

And, thank you for your comments and your insights.
IceHeartX

Posted: Sep 11, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by Proximo:

I can't focus on a list of Actions that contain 100 task and simply say they are all Next Actions. This is just my Action List, my Actionable items. By marking the ones I will focus on that day to move them forward toward completion, I am using Next Actions to my advantage. Not just calling everything in my Actions List a Next Action.

David almost always mentions Next Actions from the perspective of a Project. There is only one Next Action for a Project. Once that action is completed, you can move to the next one on the list.

So why would I call all 100 task in my Action List "Next Actions". To me this goes against that very principle. This will be the equivalent of saying that everything in my Action list needs to be done all at the same time.


I'd like some clarification of your points here. I'm new to GTD so bear with me, i can't quote the books off the top of my head.

I am under the impression that

1) any action that's actionable right now is a next action.

2) just because it's a next action doesn't mean it has a priority - just that it can be done with no precursors or additional set-up.
"take the car for a scheduled tune up 2 days from now" is to me a next action, I've already scheduled the tuneup all I have to do is show up

3) a project may have many possible next actions
my "clean up the office" project has tasks for "move the printer", "dust behind the monitor" and "have a piece of cake" (what, i like cake)
none of those items has a prerequisite (assuming I have a cake to eat) so I have them all marked as next actions on my lists.

my "to do list" contains both actionable items and non. anything non-actionable is in my inbox for processing as per making it work (I generally have

I worry that if I adopt your method, tasks that I could be doing in the 10 minutes - while I'm waiting for the bus, won't occur to me - because while there's nothing stopping me from doing those tasks (my definition of a next action) they might be hidden by my focus (you suggest only a single next action per project)

In a professional capacity, I've got one meta project (the piece of software I write - I use "context" for this) with several projects ( representing areas of functionality inside the software ) and each has one or more tasks. Each task may in fact have sub tasks as I flesh items out, the original item from my inbox is a container for any tasks that arise from that original task, if they don't impact any other task.

for instance

[software] (context)
[accounting reports] (project)
[new feature a] (task)
[ implementation details ] (subtask)
[new feature b] (task)
[ implementation details ] (subtask)

if a and b are unrelated features being implemented into the same location in the application, they could be order independent, and both be next actions.
say that a and b have significantly different timeframes, one will take 10 mins and another an hour. if that hour is demarced as the next action won't you miss chances to take care of the 10 minute task?

If I've decided on a rule about only one next action per project am I not essentially exploding the number of needed projects?

and how do you actually end up with a smaller list without hiding things that you could be doing?


This message was edited Sep 11, 2009.
Claudio

Posted: Sep 11, 2009
Score: 0



IceHeartX, there are many ways that "Next Action" can be interpreted. I realize that you are asking Proximo but I'll offer my thoughts.

For me, a "Next Action" is the next physical action that I need to do to move towards a desired outcome or goal.

I'll address your three points.
"1) any action that's actionable right now is a next action."

Not quite. Just because it is actionable, doesn't mean that it is the next action. It could be actionable but it won't move towards the actual desired result, although often it will move towards another (somewhat desirable) result.

"2) just because it's a next action doesn't mean it has a priority - just that it can be done with no precursors or additional set-up.
'take the car for a scheduled tune up 2 days from now' is to me a next action, I've already scheduled the tuneup all I have to do is show up."

A Next Action is "Next" only in relation to a Project, not in relation to other actions for other projects. In that sense, it is the highest priority of all actions that are part of that Project, but it is even more than that. It's the single most important physical action that will move towards the completion of a desired outcome. It might even be the only thing. The idea of precursors is useful but it's more related to project management than it is to GTD.

"3) a project may have many possible next actions
my 'clean up the office' project has tasks for 'move the printer', 'dust behind the monitor' and 'have a piece of cake' (what, i like cake)
none of those items has a prerequisite (assuming I have a cake to eat) so I have them all marked as next actions on my lists."

A project can have many possible actions but only one "Next Action". This is true practically by definition. There's only one thing that is "Next". Everything else will come afterwards.
You have to start with something, with one thing. It's nice to think that you have options but you have to choose. Without a "Next Action" you won't do anything.

Now, I don't think that the Next Action has to be explictly stated in the list of possible actions. There's the risk of spending too much time classifying and tracking, and not enough time doing. It's the idea of Next Action that is useful -- the idea of identifying and then doing that action that will move the project forward.

"If I've decided on a rule about only one next action per project am I not essentially exploding the number of needed projects?"

I don't get the connection between the number of Next Actions and the number of projects.

Also, I don't get what you mean about "a smaller list without hiding things that you could be doing". Any sublist (or filtered list) will be shorter than the whole list. The idea is to be viewing those actions that are do-able here and now.

Sorry. I hope that you'll find some of my points useful.


This message was edited Sep 11, 2009.
IceHeartX

Posted: Sep 11, 2009
Score: 0



Argh. I have a whole reply typed out that won't submit because the forum thinks there's a swear word in it. But I can't find one and now it's driving me crazy. is there a list of disallowed words anywhere?

This message was edited Sep 11, 2009.
IceHeartX

Posted: Sep 12, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by Claudio:

IceHeartX, there are many ways that "Next Action" can be interpreted. I realize that you are asking Proximo but I'll offer my thoughts.


I was asking all of the people who were already engaged in a conversation I was finding interesting reading. While some of my points were addressed more towards proximo's take on things I was addressing everyone or I'd have sent a private message ;)

I'm not aiming to challenge anyone's process, I'm aiming to improve mine, by understanding why other people's work for them. Make sense?

I'm going to quote you out of order


For me, a "Next Action" is the next physical action that I need to do to move towards a desired outcome or goal.
"1) any action that's actionable right now is a next action."
Not quite. Just because it is actionable, doesn't mean that it is the next action. It could be actionable but it won't move towards the actual desired result, although often it will move towards another (somewhat desirable) result.


ok, this is a modification of my earlier example with a little more meat on its bones. so we can discuss

( work ) (context)
( new accounting report ) (due: 2 days) (project/folder)
( add a conversion to euro column ) (estimate:40 mins, context:work) (task)
( look up unicode character for euro ) (status:next action, context:bandwidth) (subtask)
( change the hover color of the row hi-lite to "alice blue" ) (estimate:10 mins, context:work) (task)
( make sure that the text contrasts properly with the new blue ) (status:next action, context:work)(subtask)

am I categorizing things in some fashion that will come back to bite me here?

here I have a project with two next actions (no?), equally valid (@work does not exclude @bandwidth in my universe)

say I change the status on the color change so that the "lookup unicode" is the only next action.
Say I have 20 minutes at work waiting for my wife to show up, that's enough to do that 10 minute task, but if it's not on my next action list, when I check my lists to see what I should do - the 40 minute task won't fit - so I'm missing a chance to move the project along.


A Next Action is "Next" only in relation to a Project, not in relation to other actions for other projects. In that sense, it is the highest priority of all actions that are part of that Project, but it is even more than that. It's the single most important physical action that will move towards the completion of a desired outcome. It might even be the only thing. The idea of precursors is useful but it's more related to project management than it is to GTD.


ok, gtd, fundamentally, I'm supposed to get everything on paper as I think of it, right?
then, I process them and turn them into tasks, projects, goals, etc.

item a from my inbox turns into project a with task a and task b
task a is something that I can't do until I do task c so I add that too.
task b is not tied directly to task a, but still furthers project a

I'd classify a & c as next actions, because I could be doing either one as soon as I am in the correct context. but this breaks according to the following statement

A project can have many possible actions but only one "Next Action". This is true practically by definition. There's only one thing that is "Next". Everything else will come afterwards.
You have to start with something, with one thing. It's nice to think that you have options but you have to choose. Without a "Next Action" you won't do anything.


"If I've decided on a rule about only one next action per project am I not essentially exploding the number of needed projects?"

I don't get the connection between the number of Next Actions and the number of projects.


In response to the concept that each project should only have one next action, I extrapolated backwards from the large number of next actions that I currently have under my current definition. assume I have 5 next actions per project. If the number of next actions is correct and I should have one next action per project that means I have only 1/5th the number of projects that I should have. I may be misinterpreting.

A project can have many possible actions but only one "Next Action". This is true practically by definition. There's only one thing that is "Next".


I have a todo list here of about 350 items. my inbox is empty. I've got all my tickets divvied up into the right contexts, what I consider to be reasonable granularity of time measurement and projects which have specific concrete goals. Many of these items are all simultaneously possible because physically they all require the same thing : me in front of a computer. I guess what I don't understand is how a project can have only one next action when a project is any multi-step task.

Also, I don't get what you mean about "a smaller list without hiding things that you could be doing". Any sublist (or filtered list) will be shorter than the whole list. The idea is to be viewing those actions that are do-able here and now.


I don't understand how you can have a comprehensive list of things you could be doing here and now if you're only marking one next action per project, but the project has many moving parts.

Sorry. I hope that you'll find some of my points useful.


Sorry? viewpoints are valueable. why discount yours?


This message was edited Sep 12, 2009.
Proximo

Posted: Sep 14, 2009
Score: 0



@iceHeartX

I will need to read your post when I have more time but I wanted to mention something now.

Claudio and I had a great conversation that got us both thinking and that is the power of sharing.

I will say that in the end, if you read the post carefully. Claudio and I where doing things in a very similar fashion but some of the discussion was caught up in the wording.

In the end, I realized that Claudio was talking about the importance of the Next Action and not so much if it should be called a Next Action or not.

So I agreed with Claudio in the end and picked up some nuggets for myself.

I hope that our discussion here can continue to bring ideas forward and help everyone.

I look forward in reading your post in details later and hope to give some of my thoughts.

I am not far from Claudio's perspective on this and I actually believe Claudio has a better understanding of it than myself. The reason I say this is because Claudio was able to help me identify some areas where I really needed to tweak or at least approach differently.
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