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Understanding "Next Actions"



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Lance

Posted: Sep 14, 2009
Score: 0



I have a slightly different perspective of just what a Next Action is. For me, its not what my focus is on that day, or week. I may be focused on one thing one day and several the next. Therefore, anytime I see the word focus in GTD lexicon, I naturally think "Areas of focus." This being the vertical 10K to 50K foot level of seeing everything. What I am speaking to here is below the 10K foot level area of focus and all horizontal in nature.

I think Merlin Mann at www.43folders.com sums it up best. Its just the "next physical action that gets you closer to completion. " That still sounds a bit ambiguous for some folks. Think of this as Outcome-Based thinking on steroids. Thats all the next action concept for me really is.

Lets go with what's on my mind right now as I type this. I need to set up a meeting to discuss areas of responsibility.

And this is where I love Merlins's humor: I need to $FOO because I want to $BAR

I need to (organize a meeting) because I want to (make clear everyone's responsibilities' regarding the new Fiscal Year). Therefore, here is my project: Clarify FY10 Personnel Expectations. From this will come my list of next actions (verb the noun with the object).

Block 1 hour on my calendar next week for the meeting, takes less than 2 minutes so I DO IT NOW.
Call XXX to reserve conference room for the meeting, also takes less than 2 minutes so I DO IT NOW.
Draft meeting agenda with expectations clearly defined. Obviously, this requires more than two minutes.
Email agenda to attendees. This is dependent on the draft.
Print XX copies of agenda. Ditto.

Looking at my list, I have a lot actions that I need to accomplish. For me, the next physical action that will bring this one step closer to completion is to draft the agenda. So I place this on my Next Actions list.

My next actions list is segregated/sorted by context. My contexts are @Home, @Office, @Phone, @Errands, @Computer-WK, @Computer-HM, @Agenda

Draft FY10 responsibilities agenda with expectations' for each attendee. This goes in my Projects – Work folder as a subtask of project Clarify FY10 Personnel Expectations.

As you can see, drafting the agenda is not my focus for the day or week. Its simply the next physical action for this project. Like David Allen says all the time, and Proximo has repeated here, you can not DO a project, you can only do the next physical action that will bring you one more step closer to project completion.


Ceasing negative imaging will always cause an increase in energy.
Avoiding action decisions is a recipe for stress.
Last minute requests from our leaders is the number one source of workplace stress.
Therefore, 20 minutes before the end of the next meeting, start asking "What's the next action?"
Then the next time someone complains, ask them what the next action is. Then force them to act!

Hope this helps.
IceHeartX

Posted: Sep 14, 2009
Score: 0



ok, and this may be more general a point than anyone intended.

As a knowledge worker, 90% of my work is either me sitting in front of a computer (14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week)

I have a lot of tasks, therefore, where the only physical component is me in front of a computer.

If the focus of GTD isn't on prerequisites (As someone said earlier in the thread - that's project management not GTD)

most of my actions take place in the same context (@work or @bandwidth)

I have many tasks that can all be done and will all move my "project" forwards

how do I end up with something other than a list of 100 next actions?

and if I have a whole lot of tasks but decide that only some of them should really be next actions, how do I make that decision?

if I have a project
"go to the mall"

with tasks
"buy shoes"
"buy perfume for my wife"

both of those tasks are next actions in that project, aren't they? why would someone pick one over the other to make one of those two tasks the next action?
Lance

Posted: Sep 15, 2009
Score: 0



IceHeartX, I think I understand where your coming from. Much of my day is also spent at my desk, and at my computer. However, I still have many personal projects that don't involve me sitting at a desk. Your contexts are what you make of them and what will work for you. There is no rule that says you have to have lots of contexts. You don't even have to have any if thats your preference. Its just that when its Saturday morning and I'm out running errands, I only want to see those Next Actions in that context. While at the mall I don't want to see that all the phone calls I have to make. And when I'm at my desk at work, I don't want to see all my errands that I have to do.

It also depends on how far into the weeds you want to get in your projects. In your example of shopping at the mall, I would ask you why are you buying perfume and shoes for your wife? In other words, whats the outcome of buying perfume and shoes? Perhaps your answer might be her birthday is coming up.

The real project then is the outcome or to organize a birthday party or dinner for your wife.

Project: Organize a birthday party/dinner for XXXX

Task: Go to the Mall with a context of @errands
In the notes section of the task you can list all of the items you need to buy at the mall: perfume
shoes
etc.

For many of my contexts that involve errands, I use the notes section to list out all the items.

Like my example above:

Home Depot or Lowes @errands
In Notes:
Rollers, brushes, primer, drop-cloth, outlet covers, white caulk

When I'm on my way home from work or its Saturday morning and I'm out running errands, I can look at my @errands list and will see

Go to the mall (with items in notes)
Home Depot or Lowes (with items in notes)

You may want more detail in your system and list every single 'thing' as a task. That's fine but I caution that you run the risk of making it more complicated and thus not using it.
Claudio

Posted: Sep 17, 2009
Score: 1



Hi IceHeartX. I haven't posted anything over the past days but I have some comments for you now.

Rather than address your responses to my previous post, I think it's better if I start with your example:

if I have a project
"go to the mall"

with tasks
"buy shoes"
"buy perfume for my wife"

both of those tasks are next actions in that project, aren't they? why would someone pick one over the other to make one of those two tasks the next action?
First, "go to the mall" is not a project, unless there are several actions that you need to do to get to the mall. And, whether it is a project or single action, you will complete it as soon as you arrive at the mall. "Go to the mall". "I'm at the mall". Done.

"Buy shoes" could be the project, with going to the mall as the first action. Or, it could be a single action that takes place in the context "Shopping Mall" or "Errands". The problem with "buy shoes" as an action, though, is that it is not a specific physical action that will take place within a specific context.

Perhaps you buy only one type of shoe, and you always buy the shoes at the same store or at the same mall. But, chances are that you will visit several stores or even several malls before you find the shoes that you are looking for at the price that you are willing to pay. Perhaps you can save yourself some time by searching online or by calling some stores to find out about availability and price. In that case, "buy shoes" is a project and the next action is "Call XYZ store to get info about shoes".

Also, if I had it on my list, I would need to specify the type of shoe, because that will determine the stores that I go to. "Buy shoes for wedding reception". "Buy casual shoes". "Buy tennis shoes."
FWIW, for a basic shoe purchase, I would create a single-action task called something like: "Go to XYZ Mall to buy tennis shoes." Even though technically it's a project (because I might visit several stores and compare styles and prices), I can't be bothered with identifying, tracking, and checking off multiple tasks for something that is relatively simple and easy. If, however, it's a major purchase, then I create a project with several tasks, including phone calls and online research, perhaps even a structured comparison.

As for your question "why would someone pick one over the other to make one of those two tasks the next action?", there are two parts to the answer:

1. Because you always have to choose, even if you choose to do nothing.

2. It's better to evaluate once and choose once rather than constantly re-evaluate.

Yes, flexibility and adaptability are important. But more important is the ability to decide quickly and firmly, and then to take specific action as a result of the decision.

And, yes, there are many factors to take into account when deciding what to do here and now. But often choosing the "best" next action is simple. A complex, difficult, seemingly impossible project will almost always have a "next action" that is simple and relatively easy to complete. If there is no identifiable next action, then it's not really a project -- it's a wish or a dream or just useless.

If it appears that there are many next actions (not "many actions", but many "next actions"), then, the project details are not as clear as they could be. Which is fine, if it's fine for you. You can still move ahead and still achieve your desired outcome within your desired time frame and with minimal stress. If not, then there are things you can change.

I suggest that the starting point is identifying a single Next Action for every project. Then complete it, and repeat.

From David Allen's Making Things Work:
"No matter how long and how many times I have coached and taught about how critical specificity is in defining the physical action required to move things forward, it is a lesson that many people still avoid taking. Even for the thousands of people who have caught the vision of GTD and begun to implement its method, this one procedure of deciding and tracking the immediate next action remains elusive in practice. The most common cause of a list becoming listless and uninspiring is the lack of clarity about what to do about what's on it.
...
"The fundamental engagement question is, "What's the next action?" The answer creates the bridge from the invisible to the visible, from idea into reality, and (if you're not allergic to the term) from the spiritual to the physical."
Proximo

Posted: Sep 21, 2009
Score: 0



Claudio,

That was a fantastic post. You always go above and beyond in your explanations or example and we all appreciate it.
ian

Posted: Sep 21, 2009
Score: 0



I find it useful to distinguish "next actions" from "committed next actions". All my projects, and action list, have next actions identified (in Toodledo I use the "status" column to distinguish "next actions" and all of my committed next actions are highlighted with a star.

My committed next actions are the next actions that I have committed to (surprise, surprise!) (either to myself, or to other people eg to meet a deadline). At my weekly review I identify both categories and categorise accordingly. I find that using these two categories gives greater flexibility and allows more meaningful planning - especially for projects that may be of lower priority - the next action is identified but does not appear on my daily planning horizon and Toodledo lists until it is a committed action and receives a star.
IceHeartX

Posted: Sep 22, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by Claudio:
Hi IceHeartX. I haven't posted anything over the past days but I have some comments for you now.

Rather than address your responses to my previous post, I think it's better if I start with your example


ok, I think it's down to definitions, but here goes

First, "go to the mall" is not a project, unless there are several actions that you need to do to get to the mall. And, whether it is a project or single action, you will complete it as soon as you arrive at the mall. "Go to the mall". "I'm at the mall". Done.


Go to the mall is a perpetual project for me, there's always some things that I should be picking up at the mall. I actually use Shopping as a context (when I'm not trying to write simple test cases and general examples)

Because I am consistently adding and removing tasks from my list (usually with more detail than "buy shoes") I want each action on my go to the mall list to be separate,
If I have "buy saran-wrap" as an item on a list for "things to buy at the drug store" then I won't see it if I happen to be at the corner store buying milk, but I could reasonably get saran wrap there also. This is why I am not sure about having a single project per shopping excursion - i worry that being too rigid and entering too much into a single task will occlude part of a list I should be seeing.
(see proximo's comments about separating lists by store)



As for your question "why would someone pick one over the other to make one of those two tasks the next action?", there are two parts to the answer:

1. Because you always have to choose, even if you choose to do nothing.

2. It's better to evaluate once and choose once rather than constantly re-evaluate.



these two are in direct opposition for me. when I add an item to my to do list and process it out of my inbox, I have done 2. and evaluated the item. From then on I shouldn't have to choose, I should be able to work from my lists without having to make further choices, isn't that the point?

if 2. is processed I should never see it again except in two circumstances :
1) I'm ready to do the task
2) I'm reviewing tasks undone

so, the way I work it is, anything that could *conceivably be done* (ie. i have enough info, I know what is required, I just have to DO it) is marked as a next action and I just do whatever tasks come up when i run one of my filters. I *don't* have to choose, that's the whole point of evaluating in the first place!

now, when you only have a single next action per project, when you mark that action complete, now you have to go re-evaluate every task left in the project and decide what's next, don't you?


You make a call list and when you have time to make calls you pull the top call off the stack 'cause you trust your system and your trust your method. that's how I understand it working. You don't make a call list with one item highlighted for arbitrary reasons, that's making a next action just for the hell of it, no?


Yes, flexibility and adaptability are important. But more important is the ability to decide quickly and firmly, and then to take specific action as a result of the decision.


agreed. I don't see this contradicting anything I've said.


And, yes, there are many factors to take into account when deciding what to do here and now. But often choosing the "best" next action is simple. A complex, difficult, seemingly impossible project will almost always have a "next action" that is simple and relatively easy to complete. If there is no identifiable next action, then it's not really a project -- it's a wish or a dream or just useless.


I spend 99% of my day either home or at work. (I live 5 mins walk from the office)
the vast majority of my work has a single next physical action :
sit down and write code.

currently I am using folders as "site areas" (ie, "login screen", "member info page", etc) then tasks as concrete features in those sections (add a button to the member info page) then subtasks for any specific information gathering or design work. the tasks are marked active, the subtasks are marked next action, if they can be completed without anything other than just sitting down and doing it. if a subtask can't be completed due to lack of X then I clone that subtask, set that status to waiting and build out the clone to have enough detail that it could be a next action (repeat ad nausea).


If it appears that there are many next actions (not "many actions", but many "next actions"), then, the project details are not as clear as they could be. Which is fine, if it's fine for you. You can still move ahead and still achieve your desired outcome within your desired time frame and with minimal stress. If not, then there are things you can change.

I suggest that the starting point is identifying a single Next Action for every project. Then complete it, and repeat.


I have many subtasks currently marked as "next action" because any or all of them can be done by me, or anyone that I delegate them to, in any order. Which means that I've successfully unloaded them from inside my head. So next time I have 10 minutes in the "@phone" context I see every task that I can do with that phone right now without anything else.


From David Allen's Making Things Work:
"No matter how long and how many times I have coached and taught about how critical specificity is in defining the physical action required to move things forward, it is a lesson that many people still avoid taking. Even for the thousands of people who have caught the vision of GTD and begun to implement its method, this one procedure of deciding and tracking the immediate next action remains elusive in practice. The most common cause of a list becoming listless and uninspiring is the lack of clarity about what to do about what's on it.
...
"The fundamental engagement question is, "What's the next action?" The answer creates the bridge from the invisible to the visible, from idea into reality, and (if you're not allergic to the term) from the spiritual to the physical."


I don't think that I have a lack of specificity. I have a distinct feature list and a clarified next steps for every one of them. I just have a couple hundred things on there at a time. I understand the motivation behind wanting a surmountable slice of your next actions as a psychological goad but I handle that by changing my searches rather than by not setting a status that can be useful.
Claudio

Posted: Sep 22, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by IceHeartX:
I don't think that I have a lack of specificity. I have a distinct feature list and a clarified next steps for every one of them. I just have a couple hundred things on there at a time. I understand the motivation behind wanting a surmountable slice of your next actions as a psychological goad but I handle that by changing my searches rather than by not setting a status that can be useful.
Seems like you have things under control, then.

Cheers.
Steve

Posted: Oct 14, 2009
Score: 0



I'm totally with you, IceHeartX. From my perspective, a single project can have multiple next actions. I would think most of them do! Your example of tasks within a project that will take different times to complete is pertinent. You want to see them both when you're looking at all your next actions so you can decide then, based on how much time you have, which one to do. And multiple tasks could be in different contexts. You do whichever one is pertinent to your current context, and any of them could move the project forward. Omnifocus even gives you this capability. Tasks within a project can be serial or parallel. If they're parallel (and ready to action) you get to see them all and choose which to do.

I think a single next action makes sense if you continually look at ALL the actions in a project to decide what to do next. You will pick the best one. But in a software context, where you have picked next actions in advance of actually doing them, maybe at a weekly review, it just doesn't make sense to me.

Edit to make my point a bit clearer (I hope). As I read it, the book says you'll have project "files" with the associated tasks mapped out. You'll choose a next action to put on your next action list, which should be broken down by context. If you do this in advance, say at the beginning of the day or at a weekly review, you have no idea what contexts you might find yourself in, or how much time you'll have. If you had multiple ready-to-go tasks in that project that would all move it forward, you might well miss out on doing something if you only choose one next action to put on your list.

If, on the other hand, you only look at the tasks in your project at the time you are looking for something to do, it's fine. But then we have no such thing as a next action list. What am I missing in the process?


This message was edited Oct 15, 2009.
Steve

Posted: Oct 16, 2009
Score: 0



Further edit: Page 76 of the gtd book says:

"If the project has multiple components, each of them should be assessed appropriately by asking, "Is there something that anyone could be doing on this right now?" You could be coordinating speakers for the conference, for instance, at the same time that you're finding the appropriate site.

In some cases there will be only one aspect that can be activated, and everything else will depend on the results of that. So there my be only one action, which will be the linchpin for all the rest."

Certainly seems to indicate that multiple next actions for a project are to be expected.
Proximo

Posted: Oct 16, 2009
Score: 0



Posted by Steve:
Certainly seems to indicate that multiple next actions for a project are to be expected.


I agree. This to me is just common sense. You can work on a Next Action while delegating another to someone else for example.

If you look at large complex projects that require multiple people to accomplish, you will soon find out that GTD is not ideal for this. This is what Microsoft Project is for.

I use MS Project when I know I am working on something large with many individuals involved. Multiple things need to happen at the same time, but you are still doing the very "Next Action" that you are responsible for. Tracking such a large project is not ideal in GTD.

Use the right tool for the right job.


This message was edited Oct 16, 2009.
lukembarton

Posted: Feb 16, 2010
Score: 0



I have a personal project which involves reading several books. The order these books are read is irrelevant.

Logically, I need to perform these tasks, they aren't waiting for anything, they can be completed 'Next'. The order however, is my choice. I don't really want them hidden away in a project and an empty 'Next Actions' list.

Is this a feature likely to come? If not I think i'll have to consider Omnifocus, even if it means using my Mac again. Only downside is I use Windows at work so I'd be relying on my iPhone.


This message was edited Feb 16, 2010.
PeterW 

Posted: Feb 16, 2010
Score: 0



Posted by lukembarton:
Is this a feature likely to come? If not I think i'll have to consider Omnifocus, even if it means using my Mac again. Only downside is I use Windows at work so I'd be relying on my iPhone.


Sounds like they might belong on your "Someday" list. Given there are only a few books, you could perhaps just make them individual tasks rather than a project.
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