Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Anatomy of a Next Action

by Andre · 2 Comments

Listas de Próximas Ações  (Next Actions) e Projetos no pda [12] Idleness often stems more from a lack of clarity than a lack of willpower. Taking action on a vague intention always seems to take more effort than a clearly stated task. It’s best to have the task clearly stated, either to another person, on paper or on a computer, than to have it “understood” strictly in mind. Writing down an intention is the first step to manifesting it in the physical world — not in a “Law of Attraction” sense, but for concrete planning. Contractors work from blueprints, not from an architect’s description.

The reduced effort behind a clarified next action comes from eliminating the need to define the action while trying to do it. If the action is defined beforehand, the overhead of thinking about the action is offloaded. That doesn’t necessarily mean that no thinking is involved in an action. Programmers think while writing code, but not about what the particular block of code they’re writing is designed to accomplish. As I write this paragraph, I don’t know the exact wording of the next sentence, but I know thought this paragraph is intended to express. The words are just detail.

Efficiency is doing things once, not doing things fast

When a next action is clearly defined, it’s possible to do a mediocre job of executing it and still be more efficient than the ready-fire-aim approach characterized by Type-A workers. Risk scenarios aside, making fast mistakes never saves time. A few extra seconds of asking and answering “What’s the next action?” can save minutes or even hours of correcting fast mistakes made by prioritizing doing before thinking. But what makes a good next action? When in doubt, there are a few questions that can be asked about a next action it ensure that it’s well-formed.

Can I check it off? It might seem obvious that a next action is something that can be successfully crossed off a list when completed, but sometimes the specific threshold for doing so is unclear. “Look for a job” is an example of a task that lacks a defined end point, beyond actually getting hired. Those looking for a job today need a way of knowing that they’ve “looked for a job,” otherwise it remains an open loop that persists after stopping the search.

What condition needs to be satisfied in order for “Look for a job” to be checked off? The time management approach would be to block a specific amount of time on the calendar. At the end of that time, the task has been completed. Another approach would be to clarify what looking for a job accomplishes — it enables someone to send out resumes or, if possible, make calls. Once it’s possible to send out resumes, the first cycle of looking up job listing is complete.

Can I visualize it being done? Next actions are physical, visible actions. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to take action in the real world on tasks that lack a physical component. “Look for a job” is too vague to qualify as a next action. The ways of looking for a job can be visualized — calling colleagues for leads, reviewing a specific job-related website, reviewing classified ads in the newspaper — and those are next actions; but “Look for a job” is an intention for which there are next actions. When it’s time to work from our action list, we don’t want to spend additional time deciding which action is best suited to the intention. We want to already have decided it and already have it on the list so that no further thinking needs to be done.

Is it a Next Action or a To Do? A good Next Action list only contains physical, visible actions with no dependencies. “Call Sally” only appears on the list if Sally’s phone number is immediately available. Otherwise the action that would enable call to Sally would be the next action, which would either be written down — “Call Michael: get Sally’s phone number” — or done immediately if it can be done in under a couple of minutes.

To Do lists, making no distinction between actions and projects, typically have items like “Look for a job.” The problem with generalized action descriptions is that they create a cognitive dissonance when it’s time to act from them. The brain sees “Look for a job” as the very next thing to do, but still has to choose the very next thing to do (“Review admin jobs on Craigslist”) in order to act on it. Since the disparity is implicit rather than explicit, the internal conflict goes unidentified, and the next thing to do seems harder than it actually is. It becomes easier to put off thinking about it than to revise what’s been written, sowing the seeds of procrastination.

Where does the action take place? One of the advantages of organizing next actions by context is that it compels the user to make them physical and visible. “Draft ‘Anatomy of a Next Action’” doesn’t specify where or how the action will be taken. I have several options for how it gets done. I can type it out on my laptop, write it on a legal pad, or even jot it out on my Notetaker Wallet. When the time comes to write, I want to spend my time writing, not deciding how to write. I put “Draft ‘Anatomy of a Next Action’” on my @Computer list, so that when I’m at a computer, I have a physical trigger for the actions I need to do there.

Clarifying the context for next actions does not require using context lists to organize those actions. Context lists simply batch tasks to resources for added efficiency (e.g. making all phone calls in one sitting). Defining the context for a next action simply binds it to the physical and visible, ensuring that it’s actionable. Be on the looking for “unbounded” words like “contact,” “find,” “ask,” “decide” or “plan.” Those words are pointers to more concrete actions like “email,” “google,” “call,” “review” or “outline” that are tied to specific tools or locations.

(Photo credit: Enoch!)

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  • Tim CollinsNo Gravatar // Dec 16, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Found your web site thanks to your interview on the @Context podcast. This is a really good article. I struggle with coming up with good next actions and had not realized until I read this that I’m still coming up with “to do’s”, not next actions. The “light bulb” went off! Thanks for posting this.

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