One of the things I like about Getting Things Done by David Allen is the emphasis on always being clear on the next action you need to take to complete a project.
What’s the Next Action? This is the critical question for anything you’ve collected; if you answer it appropriately, you’ll have the key substantive thing to organize. The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion. … [Next actions] are all real physical activities that need to happen. Reminders of these will become the primary grist for the mill of your personal productivity-management system.
David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Emphasis in the original.
If you’re not familiar with GTD, a task is any action that will produce a desired outcome by itself. A project is any desired outcome that requires more than one action to accomplish.
A lot of the “tasks” we have on our to-do lists are actually projects. Sometimes that’s fine, but it can create a mental resistance to ever starting the task. We think we know what we need to do, but we really don’t. Our subconscious fights back and we put up mental barriers around the task-project so we don’t have to deal with it.
The better approach is to list out every action you need to take for a project. Even if you can’t define all the tasks in a project up front, there are still benefits to knowing at least the next action to take.
- You know what the next step is. How many times have you put off working on something because you didn’t even know where to begin?
- The project doesn’t seem as intimidating. When a project is just an amorphous blob of stuff to do, it’s overwhelming. You have no idea what to do, so there’s no way you can make a dent, let alone any real progress.
- You can often just knock out the next action. The next action (especially the first action) on a project can frequently be knocked out in under two minutes. Send an email to request the information you need.
- You can delegate. Maybe you aren’t the right person to do the next action. Or the fourth action. Or the ninth. Get the tasks to the right person and get on with what only you can do.
- You can see problems coming. The more steps you can define for a project, the sooner you’ll see problems developing. Adjust course before leisurely Quadrant 2 work becomes a Quadrant 1 crisis.
- You have a clearer view of the work ahead of you. As the amorphous blob takes form, you’ll get a better idea of what still needs to be done. If it’s less than you thought, great! You’re almost done! If it’s more work than you thought, then it’s doubly good that you planned it out. You’d better get started, delegate what you can, and let others know it will take longer than you thought.
- You’ll know when you’re done. Any poorly-defined project will expand to take all the time, energy, and resources you care to throw at it. Know when you’re done and move on.
Take a few minutes and review your to-do list. Look for things that are projects, topics, and other amorphous blobs. Replace them with discrete next actions you can take.
Now go have fun checking things off.