The following post is reproduced from Zenhabits.NET with kind permission of Leo Babauta.
Getting Things Done – Part Three: Next Actions, Contexts, Projects
Next actions in GTD – what are they?
Basically, for any project (and a project is anything that takes more than 1 action), you need to ask yourself, “What is the very next physical action necessary to move this project forward?”
It is this “next action” that you put on your to-do list. The problem with many tasks that we put on our to-do lists is that they are not really something you can do, but a mini-project.
For example, “Write report” is a project where the next action might be “Look on Internet for three sources for report” or “Call Larry to get stats for report”.
I have too many next actions (or projects) — what should I do?
It’s true that having a long list of next actions can be overwhelming for many people. Note: this advice also applies to too many projects. There are a few ways to deal with this:
- Realize that you don’t need to do all of these next actions today or even over the next few days. It’s just good to know all of your commitments, instead of having them pop into your brain over and over at the wrong times.
- If this list cannot be accomplished this week, move the less urgent ones to your Someday/Maybe list and just leave the ones you intend to accomplish this week. Then, in your Weekly Review, move those tasks you can accomplish next week back up to the current context lists.
- Simplify — eliminate or delegate those tasks that aren’t really essential, or that no longer need to be done.
- Crank out as many of the smaller tasks as possible, to shorten the list. You’ll still never clear your list, but you can make it more manageable.
A few next actions seem to hang around on my lists. Suggestions?
If you have some stubborn next actions that stay on your lists for a long time, you should take a look at them in your Weekly Review. Why are these actions so hard to remove from your lists? Here are a few suggestions:
- Perhaps you don’t want to do them — in that case, do them first thing in the morning, before you check email, and don’t do anything until those tasks are done.
- Or perhaps you don’t need to do them — if they’ve been on your list a few weeks, they probably aren’t that urgent. See if you can eliminate them or delegate them.
- Perhaps they aren’t really next actions. Often there are projects on our list that are disguised as actions. See if the task actually involves more than one step (for example, “Call Larry” might actually be, “Call Nina to get Larry’s number”), and then put the real next action on your list instead.
- Perhaps the tasks are too intimidating. In that case, break them down to smaller tasks. “Write Report” could be “Write first paragraph of report” or “Outline report” or “Write report for 10 minutes”.
- If it turns out this is something you need to do, but perhaps not right now, move it to your Someday/Maybe list.
How granular should a next action be?
When a next action is intimidating, as I suggested in the previous question, you can break it down to a smaller level (“granularize it”). But how small do you break it down?
That’s really a personal preference — do you work better in 30 minute chunks, 2 hour chunks, or 10 minute chunks? Give it a little thought and experiment.
Some ideas to try:
- Do the next action — write the report until you are done, or until you need a break.
- Use a time chunk — again, the amount of the chunk depends on you, but it should be something you can do without taking a break. If you can work 2 hours without a break, in one burst, then that should be your level. If you can only work 10 minutes before needing a breather, that’s your level.
- Try a small unit — 5 pages, or 2 things on the outline, or 50 lines of code.
- Try a larger unit – a chapter of a novel, for example.
How many next actions for one project should be on my lists?
If you’ve got a project that consists of multiple physical actions, how many of those actions should you write on your list?
The answer is at least one — every active project should have at least one next action on an active context list. If you’d like to put more, that’s really up to you, but be aware that having all of your project’s actions on your context lists can be intimidating and overwhelming.
My recommendation is to go with one or two at the most. And if you have 2-3 next actions from a project listed on your context lists, be sure that each of them can be accomplished without something else being done first.
For example, don’t put “Mail letter” and “Buy stamps” on your list, as you cannot do the first without first doing the second.
The first action (“Mail letter”) is known as a dependent action — you can’t do it without doing something else first. Don’t list dependent actions on your context lists, as it wastes your time to look at actions you can’t actually do.
When you’ve completed a project’s next action, don’t just check it off. Be sure to write the project’s next “next action” on your list, so the project continues to move forward. If you forget, that’s OK — during your Weekly Review, one of the most important parts of the process is making sure that each project on your projects list has a next action listed on your context lists.
How do I handle every day or every week actions?
If you have tasks that recur every day or every week (let’s say laundry, or a daily report), there are a number of ways to handle this:
- Put it in your calendar or tickler file as a recurring task. Every day (or every week, or however often the task needs to be done), you should see it in your calendar, and note it on your list as something that needs to be done today.
- Today list — this is not actually a part of GTD, but if you want, you can have a Today list where you note the things that need to be done today — such as your daily report, or one of your Most Important Tasks (MITs). Don’t put anything that doesn’t absolutely need to be done today on your Today list, or it will become useless. I suggest only having three things on this list.
- Context list — you could just put the task at the top of the appropriate context list, and then every day, when you check your context list, you’ll see it there.
- Routines — this is also not explicitly a part of GTD, but you could create a separate list for Daily Routines and Weekly Routines where you make sure to check off items each day or each week. Actually, GTD allows for other lists, such as checklists, so this could technically be a part of GTD.
What contexts should I use?
This is a highly personal choice, and also takes experimentation to get it right. The main idea is to group your next actions so that when you look at a context list, you are only looking at tasks that can actually be done right now, in the location you’re in with the tools you have.
So if you look at your Home list, it should not contain items that can only be done from your work computer.
Similarly, your Work list should not contain your errands that can only be done on the road. You can further break down a context such as Work if there are different contexts at work.
For example, if you use different work locations, and some tasks can only be done at one of the locations. In that case, you should not be looking at those tasks if you’re in the other location where the tasks can’t be done.
If you start to notice that there are next actions on your context list that you cannot actually do right now, that is either because
1) your contexts need to be re-examined;
2) the task is not actually a next action but a dependent task or project; or
3) the next action belongs on your Someday/Maybe list.
“Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”
by David Allen is available from amazon.com.
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