The secret to getting things done – take the Next Action

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 14, 2022.

There is a concept in time management called “Next Action.” Could this be the missing ingredient to your planning formula?

You see, everyone has ideas.

Like your friend who’s going to write a book. Not just any book, mind you – they are going to write the epic best-seller everything-I-know-about-life book. Oh, they’re also going to (finally) clean their garage, upgrade their car, give away all their clothes and tell their husband of 20 years that he needs to take her seriously (or else).

Yeah, right.

Everyone has ideas. Successful people take the Next Action.

The idea of Next Action comes from David Allen the man behind the Get Things Done brand. And it’s brilliantly simple.

Before you leave any idea/planning moment you record your Next Action.

Now you’ve taken that all-so-important first step forward.

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” David Allen

Think of all the tasks on your To-Do list. I have hundreds (they seem to multiply like rabbits).  Every time I read a book or listen to a podcast my list gets longer. Great, that’s step one. Next I need to record the Next Action.

The Magic of Next Action

When you add an item to a list there’s a certain inertia “That’s something I want to get done.” Next Action moves it forward for a number of reasons:

1. You can’t ‘Do’ an idea. Ideas are great and they can sit on our lists for a very, very long time. That’s a drain. We can only do a physical thing. If I want to delegate my graphic design work I could write up a job description (10 minutes) and post it on (5 minutes). That’s doing something. If I want to reorganize my garage I could search the web for shelving ideas (15 minutes) and move everything I want to give away into a pile (20 minutes). If I want to write this blog I could search blog ideas in Evernote (5 minutes) and type up a quick outline (15 minutes).

2. Actions mean commitment. Often I will record an idea that doesn’t belong on a short-term list. My Flight Plan is reserved for work to be completed this week. It’s sacrosanct – anything on that list must get done by Friday. Adding a half-baked idea, like “Check out competitor’s blog strategy” is like dumping last weeks garbage on the kitchen floor and saying “Uh honey, take care of that would you?” Not smart. When I’m forced to record my Next Action, I quickly realize what has no place in my current focus and has to slide into my “Someday” list (see below).

When I’m forced to record my Next Action, I quickly realize what has no place in my current focus and has to slide into my “Someday” list.

3. Gauge your success before you start. Newton’s second law of motion is momentum = mass X acceleration. Add more acceleration, you increase momentum. Good to know. Decrease acceleration, momentum sucks. Not good. When you add a Next Action to your idea you can gauge your “acceleration”. “Write a book” is a lovely notion until I realize my Next Action is to carve out two hours a day for the next month (read: zero acceleration on that idea).

4. Get traction on your best ideas. Here’s the best part: when you nail that Next Action you are already rolling and you have to think it through. When I meet with Sarah, in our office, we are deliberate about going to the next action before we leave the conversation. We will discuss a problem, agree it needs to be fixed and then before we can move on we need to agree on the action, who will do it, by when, and how to create a bring-forward to check on it later. It’s deliberate and slower (pumping helium into new ideas is always more fun) but we get results.

An Exercise You Should Do Right Now

Before you pass ‘Go’, take five minutes and do this.

Pull out your current To-Do list. If it’s one long laundry list, stop and give your self a slap on the head and take 10 minutes to read how to organize your life (and lists). Back already? Okay, the exercise is to draw a line down the middle of you page with your current list on the left and a blank column on the right. You know what’s coming next, right?

“The beginning is half of every action.” David Allen

For every item on the left add a Next Action in the right-hand column. And here’s the trick. Not only are you deciding how to launch each task with a Next Action you’re also deciding if that job needs to be moved out of your top priority list.

My Flight Plan

My Flight Plan with Next Action

My list options are (read “How to get your To-Do list out of your head” to see how my system works):

  • Today List – to complete today
  • Flight Plan – to complete by this Friday
  • ‘August’ – later this month
  • ‘Someday’

I also block time for specific tasks, like client interviews, directly on my calendar.

Life Is Not For Lists

We weren’t born with a list and we certainly shouldn’t die with one. Lists are just tools to help us move forward. The better we get at creating them (like with a Next Action for every item), the more time we have for life.

And that’s a good thing.