What's the Next Action?

“Actions are the seed of fate deeds grow into destiny.” – Harry Truman

What’s the next action?

That simple question is one of the most significant contributions of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system at the same time that it’s one of the most mundane and understated aspects of it. I’m by no means implying that he’s the first person to ask the question, but the prominence he places on it is one of the reasons the people who adopt his system actually start getting things done.

The question is especially powerful for creative people, as it gets us out of our heads and into the world of action. Big Ideas come about through a series of next actions.

In his words, “the ‘next action’ is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.” He stresses “physical” and “visible” not to de-emphasize cogitation but because he wants us to get the ideas out of our heads. “Create plan for Project X” may require doing some sitting and thinking, AND the best end result would be the creation of the plan, not more sitting and thinking.

The power of the idea is its four-fold utility:

  1. It helps us figure out all the strings of actions it takes to create a new reality. With any given project, you can ask “what’s the next action?” for each item until you get to the point at which the project itself is completed.
  2. It helps us organize action. Rather than have an incoherent list of action items that need to be done, identifying the next action helps organize the action items into a logical progression of action.
  3. It helps us pick up projects later on so we know we don’t have to do everything now before we forget what to do. Because we have identified what the next action is OR can identify it pretty easily, it helps us see that Not Now doesn’t mean Never.
  4. It helps us get things done more easily when it’s time to get to work because we don’t have to figure out what to do. We do the next action, then the next action, and so on until the project is done.

While I’ve shared some concerns about GTD as it relates to creative work — for example, the questionable utility of contexts or the two-minute rule squandering creative momentum — the understanding and use of the “next action” insight is so powerful and useful that it’s one of those “must know” thinking tools for anyone interested in their own personal productivity. It’s about like rules for simple addition in that you just use it without thinking about it anymore. I believe that’s why Allen himself downplays its significance in the book — he probably figured that it was so obvious and basic that it didn’t deserve special attention.

So, take a look at the projects you’d like to complete this week. What’s the next action that will get you that much closer to done? (Click here to share this. Thank you!)

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  1. says

    This is one of the aspects about GTD that not just doesn’t work for me as a creative. If you want me to get overwhelmed, the fastest way is to make a to do list of next actions. I’m a holistic thinker and absolutely not sequential at all, so I’m already bouncing all over the place on a project, and not necessarily in any kind of order. I often only need a brief joggle of what I need to do and it sets into motion all the pieces that go together.

    The next action actually make sense to me, and I can see all the reasons to do it. Outlining is like that. I can see all the reasons to use one for my stories, and yet, when I try, the story fails very quickly. With a Next Action list, I look at everything, they turn into major projects in my head (regardless of whether they actually are), and I start getting overwhelmed by everything I have to do. Then I miss an action because it was on the list — but that I would have bounced right into with my normal way or connecting all the dots.

    • says

      Thanks for weighing in here, Linda. I think I might write a follow-up post here, because the three reasons you either directly state or allude to are commons one I hear often. Two are about mindset, one about process – but all of them are only indirectly about the next action method.

  2. says

    When I was a young attorney, one of the partners I worked with taught me about the next action concept. He was my mentor, and I was lucky to have him. It was my first year in practice, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the caseload. In my naivete, I thought I had to know everything there was to know about every case at all times. I was terrified that I would miss something, so I reviewed every single client file every single day. Just in case. My mentor sat me down and gently read me the riot act. He helped me go through each case and identify the very next action I needed to take on that particular case–and the date by which that action must be completed. I was not allowed to look at the files that had nothing happening for the next two weeks. It terrified me, but it also helped me learn how to manage my caseload. Thank you for reminding me of this valuable lesson. Sometimes, we just have to go back to the basics of what actually works. And now, it’s time for me to review my client files and make an action list for the week!

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