On the face of it, writing down all the things you have to get done seems an effective way to
clarify and define the day ahead and so focus our efforts on what needs to be done. Given that, not
surprisingly, the To Do list has become one of the mainstays of traditional task and time
And so, while better ways of task management exist, like the ‘next action thinking’ outlined
below, too many of us stick with the To Do list, even though it doesn’t work and can actually make
us even less effective and productive.
Here's how traditional to do lists can, in fact, conspire against unwitting users:
1. Cluttering-up Your List.
It’s all too easy for a To Do list to become a dumping ground not just for what we are supposed
to be working on today, but also for every other tasks, idea and thought that comes our way. As a
result, our To Do lists quickly become filled with extraneous clutter that ‘camouflages’ what we
really should be doing.
2. Creating a Sense of 'Overwhelm'.
When we overfill our To Do lists like this, we also reinforce our feeling of ‘overwhelm’ that
makes us ever more anxious that we have too much to do and in turn affects our personal performance
3. Encouraging Cherry-Picking.
By filling our list with an avalanche of additional low value items, we can end up ‘cherry
picking’, in other words choosing easy to do items that at the end of the day make us feel ‘we’ve
accomplished’, even though what we’ve done hasn’t moved us further forward.
4. Breeding Amorphous Blobs of Un-doability.
The items we generally put on our To Do lists, are often just ‘project reminders’ like ‘Create
Brochure’, ‘Plan Wedding’, or ‘Organize Conference’. But these are actually too big to be practical
So, while these things may be on our To Do list, they don’t actually give us anything to do at
all. These tasks have no focus and are what productivity expert, David Allen, developer of the
Getting Things Done System of task management, calls ‘amorphous blobs of un-doability’.
5. List Fatigue.
When To Do lists don’t work well, we can quickly develop ‘list fatigue’, gradually stopping
using them until we don’t even look at them at all.
So, if the traditional To Do list can be more of hindrance than a help,
what is the way forward for anyone wanting to take their productivity to ever higher levels?
Simply by asking one question:
‘What is the Next Action I need to
complete to move this project forward?’
Ask this single question when approaching any project or large task and your personal
effectiveness will soar to new levels.
By continually asking yourself about each of your projects – ‘What is the Next Action? – you can
break down even the largest project into small bite-sized pieces.
Even a massive undertaking like the Olympics only happens because of millions and millions of
small completed Next Actions – phone calls, conversations, memos, reports, meetings arranged and
attended – that collectively make ‘impossible dreams’ eventual reality.
Given this, it’s easy to see why the power of Next Actions helps you avoid the peril of
procrastination and the feeling of overwhelm that can occur when you are faced with any large
project. By concentrating on taking the Next Action, we are never at a loss as to what do.
Breaking large projects into smaller pieces also makes it much easier to estimate how long each
will take and so determine a more accurate timeline for the entire project, crucial when you are
working to a deadline or have multiple projects on the go.
So, here’s a practical four stage approach to using Next Actions in your work and personal life,
as opposed to trying to manage the often large and unfocused items that make it on to traditional
To Do lists.
The 4-Step Plan for Using Next-Actions.
1. Brainstorm Your Next Actions.
One, if you can’t identify a Next Action, then use brainstorming, or creativity tools such as
Mindmapping, to come up with all possible options until you have found the Next Action.
This isn’t time wasted as most of the ideas you come up with will in turn become Next Actions
themselves as the project progresses.
2. Double-Check Your Selection.
Make sure you really have identified the Next Action. ‘Phone Fred to arrange meeting’ may seem
like the Next Action, but not if you don’t have his phone number, in which case, ‘Phone Karen to
get Fred’s phone number’, is the real Next Action.
If you are not careful, projects can stall because for some reason you are unable to progress
onto the Next Action you have identified.
3. Use Verbs.
Write your Next Actions down using an active ‘doing’ verb such as phone, write, visit, speak. If
your Next Action is written using unfocused words like – arrange, organize, research – then you
will probably find it’s not a Next Action at all, and it needs to be ‘unpacked.’
4. Make Use of 'Smart' Tools.
Maximize the potential of ‘Next Action thinking’ by using new generation task management
applications rather than 'traditional' To Do list software.
This type of software, including ShoutDone of course, is a major improvement on traditional To
Do list software because it offers not only a more flexible and interesting user experience, but
also one that lets your organize and manage your Next Actions by multiple ‘contexts’.
Though some tasks are ‘universal’, many tasks can only be done when you are in a particular
‘context’ such as the right place (home, office, town); have the right equipment (computer, phone);
or are with the right person (wife, husband, colleague, boss).
The New Approach: 'Living Lists'.
New task management tools give you the flexibility to attach Next Actions to both multiple
projects and contexts, so that whenever and wherever you are, you will always be able to call up
the right Next Action for the moment.
This isn’t something that standard To List software normally lets you do.
‘Next Action thinking’ is one of most powerful productivity enhancing tools around. Use it in
both your work and personal life and you will bring a laser-like focus to all that you need to do,
achieving more, and doing so faster and with greater effectiveness than ever before.