Projects and next actions

In the GTD system, a “next action” is a physical action you can take, preferably something that lasts a fairly short time. Examples of next actions would be “write e-mail to project mailing list explaining your plan to implement a new test driven development approach”, or “buy apples and bananas for home”.

A bad next action would be “start a side business”. It’s bad for two very important reasons:

  • it’s not short; indeed, it might be of indefinite length
  • it’s unclear when it’s finished

When you actually start doing things, it’s much easier if you know what you need to do, and when you’re finished. A good next action would fulfill the following criteria:

  • a physical action (“write”, not “think about”)
    • thinking is part of planning! and that should happen during a review phase
    • planning can be broken down into next actions, however
  • it’s clear what I need to do (a widget to crank)
  • duration at most 15 minutes, preferably
  • I’m committed to doing it
  • does not depend on anything, can be done immediately
  • it’s clear when it’s done

Obviously, some things you want to get done are going to take a lot of time. That’s OK: they just should not be next actions. Next actions need to be things that you just do. No more thinking or planning should be required.

Anything that takes more than one step (more than one next action), is called a project in GTD. Like next actions, projects should have a clearly defined goal so that you know when you’re finished. For example, “form a corporation for side business” might be a good project:

  • it’s clearly defined (it’s done when the corporation is formally and legally founded, and has a bank account, accountant, e-mail address, and other such things)
  • it takes several steps: decide on name, register, open bank account, etc.

Also like next actions, projects should be finished within a limited time, though the time will be much longer. Next actions should typically be doable within half a day (but shorter is better), whereas projects might last up to a year.

It’s a good idea to write down the goal of a project in a sentence or a paragraph. This concentrates your thinking to be directed at achieving that goal and makes it easier to avoid spending time on things that are related to the goal, but don’t help you achieve it.

Update: Finishing things is an important motivator, at least for me. It’s probably a good idea to prioritise finishing existing projects, and to scope and plan projects so they’re easy and quick to finish, to gain from the motivational boost.

Update: Getting started in the morning can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to have really simple, tiny next actions to choose from that you can do and get started. I tag such actions with a “zombie” label, to find them easily.

Keeping track of projects and next actions: the art of lists

You’ll likely have more than a handful of projects or next actions. Even if you only have a few of each, it’s best to write them down. The human brain is not good at remembering things without triggers, whereas even the cheapest pen and piece of paper will do lists with excellence. (In fact, my memory seems to work better the more I write things down.)

You should keep one list of projects, and another list of next actions. You can keep them in any way or form that you like:

  • a single plain text file for each
  • a web page for next actions (so you can read it on your phone), and a folder on your computer’s desktop for every project
  • using an outliner: one tree for next actions, one for projects
  • using a specialized GTD application
  • a sheet of paper for next actions, and a project folder for each project

If you choose to have one folder per project, whether digital or physical, that provides a convenient place to store files related to that project. However, this requires all files to be arranged according to project, which can be inconvenient: if you have two projects related to the same software, do you check out the source code twice, once per project folder? You might instead keep a simple list of projects, and then store the supporting files in a way that is more natural than per project. Or you might decide that per-project is the natural way. Your choice.

There is one right way to do this: anything that you do that helps you keep track of things is fine. Anything that is a hassle or gets in your way is wrong.

Next action contexts and categories

The list of next actions is what you will be dealing with most with GTD. It is important that it’s easy and fast to use. However, as soon as it grows longer than two or three dozen entries, it will become hard to pick something from it quickly: you need to read through a lot of it to find something suitable to do.

Say you’re waiting for the bus, and you have maybe ten or fifteen minutes. You have your laptop, and there’s a place for you to sit. This would be a perfect time to knock off an item from your next actions list, but what should you do? If it takes five minutes to scan the list and find something to do, you’ve wasted maybe half of your available time. Not good.

You should break down the list by context or other suitable category. A context is the things that are required for you to do the action: “at phone” would be the context for anything that requires you to use your phone; “online” would be all the things you need Internet access to do; “at home” for things you must be at home to do, etc.

Productivity geeks have spent inordinate amounts of times figuring out the ideal contexts and categories for them. This is an easy thing to obsess over. However, it’s also clear that nobody else can decide what contexts suit you than yourself. Still, for inspiration, here’s the list of contexts I use:

  • In progress: for anything that has been started, but is currently waiting for something, typically a long computation being performed by a computer
  • Unfun: anything that is unpleasant, and is therefore easily postponed; having this as its own category helps avoiding that (also, I have a rule that every workday at least one unfun thing needs to be done)
  • At phone, able to call: for phone calls one needs to make (a special category of unfun, for me)
  • Errands: things that require you to go somewhere, such as a shop, or office, or meet someone outside your normal locations
  • With person X: things that need to be discussed with a specific person, either in person or perhaps over the phone
  • At home, not using a computer: cleaning, dishes, etc.
  • At home, using computer: typically involves a desktop computer, or external hard disks, or a printer/scanner, or other hardware that is hard to carry
  • At laptop, offline: the laptop being my primary computer, this is all the things I need to do at a computer, which don’t require Internet access; I travel a bit, and I often go sit in a cafe to work a bit, and so I can’t take the Internet for granted; there’s a lot of things that fall into this context, so this is often quite a long list
  • At laptop, online: like the previous one, but these require both the laptop and Internet access

“My lists are too long”

Inevitably, life dumps more on you than you can handle, at least in the short term. I feel like that every Monday morning. One sign of this is that my next actions list keeps growing, and doesn’t ever seem to get shorter.

Sometimes this becomes so overwhelming I can’t stand it, and I need to do something about it. My main strategy is to drop commitments until I have the situation under control again. For example, if I’ve got five ideas for blog posts to write, I’ll delete those, or move them to someday/maybe. Or I find other things I can wriggle out of doing, though sometimes that requires careful diplomacy (also known as throwing a tantrum).

The feeling of being overwhelmed is an important indicator to me that my level of stress is rising too high. In principle, it doesn’t matter if your next actions list is very long, as long as you keep doing each thing before it’s too late. However, if I’m under too much stress, the mere length of the list starts causing stress, and I start avoiding even looking at it, and then everything starts falling apart.

And that’s why I try to keep my lists at manageable lengths.

Before dropping commitments, I try to do things like doing as many quick tasks as possible, or avoiding new commitments while I deal with the old ones. Those strategies tend to work only if I’m not already overstressed.