Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

The Difference Between a To Do List and a Next Actions List

by Andre · 1 Comment

If there’s one distinguishing concept between GTD and other productivity systems that use a To Do list, it’s the deliberate split between defining a successful outcome and the very next action step toward accomplishing it. To Do lists tend not to make the distinction, which can mean the difference between the item being perceived as actionable or not actionable.

What you would like to accomplish today is a broader concept that what you would like to do now. We need to be able to shift our focus between the forest and the trees at will by referencing them differently. This is why having a project list that’s separate from a next actions list makes it easier to jump start your way toward an outcome.

What do I want to accomplish?

This is always a good grounding question to ask whenever you need to clear away any confusion. It allows to begin and continue with the end in mind without getting lost in minutiae. Recently I wrote about processing an inbox to zero base, and a commenter suggested that spending too much time processing email would lead to distraction.

It’s a valid concern, and a good reason for having an outcome focus from the outset. This is why I’m so pedantic about making the distinction between checking email and processing it. They’re two fundamentally different focuses that lead to two very different results. Checking email is looking through an inbox for potentially important messages, which can be done indefinitely. Since that process is necessarily selective, there’s no way to weigh the importance of each email against every other email, since you would have to see them all to make a relative assessment — so there’s always a sense that something else might be more important than what your attention is currently focused on. Processing email means systematically scanning each message to either act on, delete, delegate or defer any actions implicit in it, spending a maximum to two minutes per email.

What you’re trying to accomplish when you’re processing email is acheiving an empty inbox. With that outcome focus in mind, it’s no longer a treadmill activity, but a series of next actions leading to a very specific endpoint.

Asking the “What am I trying to accomplish?” question is a good wake-up call when you’re in the middle of an action that seems to lack momentum, even when you know intellectually that it needs to be done. I’m in the middle of writing a long post (not this one) that seems to be taking forever to write, since the information in it is pretty dense. Several times I’ve had to visualize the finished post to recover the motivation to finish it.

What’s the next action?

I also have to remind myself (by looking at the reminder on my action list, not doing it mentally) that my current task isn’t to “Write post X,” but to “Summarize Chapter 8,” making the next action as granular as possible. The next action on every project, no matter how large or abstract, needs to be reduced to a physical task that you can visualize yourself doing, otherwise it never gets translated from an idea into the physical universe.

These two questions, “What am I trying to accomplish?” and “What’s the next action?”, should making a mantra, allowing you to reduce the complex to the simple.

(Photo credit: Enoch!)

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