Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Why Lack of Clarity Matters More Than Lack of Time

by Andre · 3 Comments

Unclear View

When people try to keep or manage their commitments in their heads, instead of on paper or some other external medium, they usually have an exaggerated sense of everything they have to do. They’ll often respond reflexively to even simple requests with something like, “But I have so much to do,” or “I just don’t have time right now.”

In emergencies, even people who manage their time in a healthy fashion will lack time. But if lacking time is a daily, systemic pattern, that scarcity probably reflects a deeper issue. Even recognizing an overcommitted schedule, in itself, won’t fix the problem.

You Can Never Get Enough of What You Don’t Need

Any agreement with yourself or others — a commitment — has at least one, but often two fundamental components: outcomes and actions. In some cases the action and the outcome are synonymous. “Call Angela to wish her a Happy Birthday,” “Get new shoes,” or “Install security update” don’t have a superobjective; you do the action and you’ve achieved the objective.

Other commitments have more than one action step. That doesn’t necessarily make them more complex, but without having the outcomes and actions being identified separately, the lack of clarity that ensues will often keep these items undone. If the specific action remains undefined, then any action will emotionally substitute and seem like forward progress. “Doing something,” busyness, becomes an end in itself. This is the main difference between having a to do list, on the one hand, and having a set of parallel lists: one for projects (outcomes) and one or more (more if context lists are used) for their next actions.

How next actions are different than daily to dos

On a to do list, a person might write down “Learn Excel.” This captures the outcome, but the physical action required to manifest the outcome remains implicit. Because the physical action step remains implicit, further thinking is required each time this person looks at “Learn Excel” on his to do list. What specifically does this person need to do in order to start learning Excel? Since the concrete aspect of the action step is absent, the essence of the action itself remains abstract; therefore it’s impossible to get a sense of how much time is needed to complete the outcome.

A next action list, on the other hand, is a reality check. As a rule, only physical, visible actions are listed. There’s no way to visualize “learning Excel” unless a physical action is isolated. What would we see this person doing if he were learning the software? He could be reading a book on it. Does he have the book? If not, we could see him finding the appropriate book to start with. Where would he do this? We could see him browsing for the right book in a bookstore, in this library, or at his computer — at an online retailer.

So instead of the to do listing, “Learn Excel,” he writes this down as an outcome on his project list, then writes the next physical action on an action list (I use “action list” and “next action list” interchangeably). Assuming he already had the right book on his bookshelf, and assuming he used contexts, he would write, “Read Chapter 1 of Excel tutorial” on his action list. If he didn’t already have the book, assuming he was inclined to order it online, he would write, “Browse for beginning book on Excel.” Despite what appears to be a lengthy description, the actual process of determining and writing down the outcome and action steps should only take a few seconds.

What this person has done is reduce the complex to the simple. Once the outcome and next action are written down, he only needs to look at his action list when it’s time to act, and there’s no need to rethink what needs to be done until the written action has been checked off. The goal is to remove the requirement to think about what needs to be done at the moment it needs to be done. You do your thinking ahead of time, and your action list holds the results of that thinking.

Once outcomes and actions are clarified for every single thing that consumes attention, the result is a short set of finite lists. Instead of thinking “I have so much to do!” when you’re sitting in front of your computer, so look at your @Computer list and see that you have a list of 13 things to do at the computer. The subjective experience between “so much” and 13 is quite different. At any moment, you’re only picking out the one action from the list that has the most impact, and you’re simultaneously deciding that the other 12 things can wait. Because you can see your options right in front of you, rather than holding them in your head, you don’t have to waste time thinking about whether there’s something else you should be working on. It’s easier to know what you’re not doing than wonder what you’re not doing.

Prune arbitrary time assignments

By clarifying what needs to be done, you’re also clarifying what doesn’t need to be done. By clarifying whether or not an action needs to be done by or at a certain time, you don’t walk around with the neurotic sense that everything needs to be done now. You don’t assign arbitrary times and dates to actions that don’t actually have time dependencies. Things that are genuinely time dependent are calendar entries, not action listings. Since a calendar used in this way is uncluttered with things that could be done at other times with no change in consequences, the few things that remain on the calendar that are time dependent get the full attention they require. The best practice is to review your calendar first, to prevent external commitments from falling through the cracks, then use the whitespace to work from your action lists.

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • VeredNo Gravatar // Aug 5, 2008 at 3:56 am

    “By clarifying what needs to be done, you’re also clarifying what doesn’t need to be done. By clarifying whether or not an action needs to be done by or at a certain time, you don’t walk around with the neurotic sense that everything needs to be done now.”

    Brilliant. Stumbled!

  • Francis WadeNo Gravatar // Aug 5, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Oh this is so true.

    Sometimes I happen upon an item in my calendar that only describes the thing to do and I can’t remember why I am even interested in doing it.

    In Outlook, there is actually enough program flexibility to include the Outcome of the action in either the body of the Action, or in the line describing the action itself.

    I have changed “organized bills” to “organized bills for peace of mind” for example and it’s helped me to get going when the time comes.

    Having the outcome present definitely helps.

    I do something different with Action Lists myself — I schedule the item directly into my calendar, which helps to clarify the next step for some reason.

    I think that this has something to do with having to set the start and end time — the action becomes clear when actual time is involved (as you say) rather than imagined time.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 5, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    @Vered: Thanks for the Stumble
    @Francis: The word “for” followed by an action’s outcome is a good way to keep track of the link between outcome and action. I find that a little but of this goes a long way, and try to keep linking phrases to a minimum. I like dumbed-down list of naked actions, since I’ve already thought of why I’m doing the action, and generally don’t need to revisit that thinking between weekly reviews.
    Interesting perspective on allocating time — i.e. distinguishing between actual and imagined time. I find that my estimate of how long something is usually naive, so I’d rather just start working, and keep working until I finish. In cases where I don’t finish in one sitting, I at least have some experiential data to gauge how much longer the activity is going to take.