Next Actions Done Right

Next Actions Done Right
This post was previously published. It has been updated.

David Allen in Getting Things Done* recommends that you break your tasks down into Next Actions (see the Wikipedia article on GTD* for more detail). I think that this recommendation is a double-edged sword that can hurt and help.

Next actions are defined as “the very next physical action required to move the situation forward” according to Getting Things Done*. But this all depends on your definition of “forward”.

Next Actions Can Prevent Work

We can often think we are moving forward, when actually we are just jogging in place. Like Marty the Zebra on his treadmill in Madagascar, you may think you’re going somewhere, but you’re still in the same place.

Instead of writing the article you’ve been putting off, you spend a half hour researching one more site, or calling a friend for an opinion. These may feel like necessary things to do, but are they moving the project forward?

And what about considering what to do when there are loads of options? There could be many physical actions to move something forward, and you don’t know which one is the best. So do you just pick one and go? Or do you spend the time trying to figure out which one is the best? The excuse of looking for the next thing to do can eat up time that you could actually be doing things.

Next Actions Can Give Clarity

If you are truly stuck on something and resisting moving forward, breaking down a task into its next actions can make a task appear less daunting and make it easy to move forward. Many people would not be able to tackle a task item of “write novel”, but “get out paper” is very do-able and can get you started. This is the value of a next action: it takes the un-doable and makes it manageable

Perhaps you are having trouble completing a task because some part of you knows that you don’t have everything you need to complete it. In this case, next actions can clarify what you need to do and get the process started.

Next Actions Done Right

In order to make sure that a next action really is helpful, ask yourself not just what is, the next physical action to move this project forward, but also what you expect the outcome to be. A next action should move you significantly along, not just keep you in place. If your contemplated next action doesn’t really get you further along your path, then pick another one.

This second level of questioning can help you decide between many possibilities, as well as determine when something really isn’t necessary.