56: The Power of the Next Action

Next actions are a key concept of GTD and can alleviate a lot of stress when working on projects that the path to the outcome is not clear. This week, we explore what using next actions could look like for you.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://podcast.effectiveremotework.com/56

I know it’s GTD heresy, but I’m starting to think that most potential “projects” should not be “clarified” upfront during inbox processing. Instead, clarifying to pin down the desired outcome and next action should be postponed until the “do/engage” stage as a sort of default first next action in its own right. I don’t know about other people, but I’ve got way more someday/maybe projects on hold than I have active projects, and it would be a waste of time and effort to do all that upfront thinking for projects that I may not actually get to for a long time if ever.

I totally agree! That’s why I’m focusing on next actions for simply the purpose of keeping myself sane and not doing a bunch of work that’s pointless. Most projects I’m doing I don’t know the whole path to get there to start anyway. For me, it’s better to start with a small number of next actions on a committed project than to try to flesh it all out and be wrong and frustrated.

I may still be going farther than you are here. It’s not really clear to me from the podcast what you were doing before you started focusing on next actions. A lot of casual GTD discussion doesn’t make a careful distinction between actions per se and next actions. I’m not sure if you’re making that distinction here or not. I think it’s canonical GTD that a project doesn’t have to be planned out upfront from beginning to end, but DA does say it should have at least one “next physical action” — strictly speaking there’s only one that’s “next”.

Where I’m taking issue with DA is his insistence that only “physical” actions count and that tasks that haven’t been clarified are non-actionable “stuff” that generates resistance and procrastination. I say no, it’s not the need to think that generates resistance, but rather having too many things to think about. The thinking that does need to be done upfront is to narrow down the list of things to work on now to some very small number — think one to three, not 15–30. Then identifying the desired outcome and initial physical actions required is the first “next action” on each of those items. A non-physical “next action” consisting of figuring out how to tackle 1–3 items is not particularly intimidating; in fact I’d say it’s less intimidating than having to crank a few dozen different perfectly actionable widgets.

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You very well may be. I’ve never been a GTD purist, so maybe my definition of next action is a bit looser than David Allen’s.

I fully agree here. That’s where I often find myself overwhelmed – when I have too many things that need consideration or aren’t clear enough.

I think you share some solid insights here. Thanks for the post!

I’ll brainstorm my projects after I finish my inbox clearing.

If it’s a brand new project that I’d like to brainstorm on, I’ll go to my mind map app and create a new mind map document for each project. I’ll put the title of the project and then a short description of what I think my final outcome should look like. I’ll save that for every new project and won’t put it into my task manager until I’ve fleshed out the project.

However, I often don’t know what the next actions are. So, I’ll add new actions as far as I can go. I often put “R&D {topic}” if I’m not clear about what to do. For example, I might want to take up “running”. My first next actions are:

  1. Buy proper running shorts
  2. Buy Camelbak for portable water
  3. Look at review to buy proper running hoes
  4. Visit local Foot Locker store and consult with a sales rep re: new running shoes

These are my first 4 actions. The last next action will be:

The project is left open but I planned as far as I can go. When I import my mind map into OmniFocus, I can review it on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to see if there are any new next actions I can do.

The power of next actions is further realized when I am stuck on a stalled project. Breaking down the very next action into a smaller task helps me jumpstart a project. When I get the ball rolling, it’s easier to gain momentum for me.

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I use very loose templates for my code/design projects just so I have some structure to work with, but I do agree most projects change and grow as they progress which is probably as it should be.

When I am working on code and design stuff I keep a working file in org format in my code editor for notes and things that occur while working, and the end of each session I transfer those that are relevant into Omnifocus so I have a complete overview.

For other projects I decide what it’s all about, put one action in at least then when I decide to work on it, flesh it out.

Too rigid a structure discourages free thinking and makes changing direction more difficult during the project itself.

Disclaimer: I have never read GTD and never actually intend to, obviously I “know” the concepts, but to me it’s a suggested system not a religion, it has things that work for me, and things that don’t work so well. No one will ever put together a system for you as well a s you can, use other peoples ideas, adapt them but always remember you are not them and they are not you.

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Second this. There are fantastic foundational concepts for productivity in GTD, but it’s really David Allen’s system. The principles can be applied relatively generally, but it’s as @TheOldDesigner mentioned it will not solve everyone’s problems. I love the concept of the next action and have been learning to embrace other concepts as I’ve grown in my own productivity journey, but I hardly call myself a GTD’er.