"Next actions" are the cornerstone of Getting Things Done. In the same way that you can't have a great band with a shitty drummer, you'll never master GTD until you get yout next actions straightened out.
I’ve noticed that there are often items on my “next actions” list that hang around a lot longer than they should. I scan and rescan and sort and add and delete, but there’s always a few stragglers who hang out there for a week or more. Eventually this starts to vex me, and I try to debug why things aren’t getting done.
For myself, I’ve discovered that most of the items are just in the wrong place, or, if you prefer, in the wrong time or context. It can be instructive to pull each straggler out of line and try to figure out whether he really belongs someplace else. Here’s my usual suspects, ordered by how often each is the culprit behind my unintentional slack.
- It is not a single, atomic activity - This is the biggest one for me, by far. Maybe 80% of the time, a small project is masquerading as a single TODO. Acknowledging the multiple steps and identifying the logical next action usually does the trick for me. Change: move to “Projects” and generate true next action
- It is not a physical action - “Think about proposal for Bob” seems like a next action because it’s tied to a commitment I’ve made, but imagine how much easier this would go as “Draft five or six ideas for Bob’s proposal.” Now I’m writing instead of just staring at a wall thinking about the notion of proposals. Change: Reword it as a physical activity, preferably yielding a physical artifact or new next action.
- It is not really the very next action I need to take - I can frequently find at least one action that needs to take place before the one I have on the list. Bear with me here, but even “Return library books” can linger for weeks and months if you first need to find the one missing book that mentally keeps you from proceeding. This is a thorny one, since a legitimate future action can seem like the next action, even when it really is not. Change: walk backwards through your steps until you can derive the true next physical action.
- It is not something I’ve actually committed to - “Learn Regular Expressions” is something I’m really interested in, but, in addition to actually being a potential Project (not a next action), it’s not something about which I have a stake in the ground. Until I’m ready to make it part of my immediate actions, it’s just guilt-inducing cruft. Change: move to “Someday/Maybe/On-Hold” or “@Tech”
- It is poorly defined or just badly worded - This is a catch-all for stragglers that may be addressed by many of the fixes above, but I draw it out separately here for a good reason: changing the way you define or word something also changes the way you think about it. Try always beginning your next actions with a physical verb. “Email,” “Call,” “Google,” “Recode,” “Visit,” and “Buy” all encompass physical actions, and often context. Change: try re-phrasing your next action as a specific contextual activity
- It is nothing I can act on now - This is usually the result of lazy or infrequent reviews. If an item on your list is something that has a dependency with another person or just takes time until follow-up, get it out of there. Alternatively, rephrase it as your physical followup that you want to perform as soon as possible (“Call Jean to check progress on perl script”). Change: move to “Waiting On” or reshape it as a true next action for yourself
- I have no idea what this means - The downside of the Hipster PDA is that you end up scribbling lots of nonsense in dark bars. If you have mystery meat items floating around your list, move them to a parking lot until your memory gets jogged or give yourself a next action to call someone who might help you decipher what it means. Change: move to “Someday/Maybe/On-Hold” until you can remember what it means, or generate a followup next action.
How do you deal with your stragglers? Who are your worst culprits?