Do the items on your action lists tell you what actually needs to be done?
A routine observation from facilitating workshops and coaching people on issues related to productivity and strategy execution is that the way people are formulating action items simply isn’t helping them. A well-written action item contains enough information to spur you into action rather than just serving as an anchor for you to then remember what needs to be done.
That’s fairly abstract, I know, so an example here will help. Take the person who wants to write a business plan. Oftentimes, when I look at their action item for this, what shows up is something like “TPS Report.”
Now, imagine that they look at this list three weeks later. How likely is it that they’ll remember what they were supposed to do with the TPS Report? Was it to review it? Edit it? Start it? Get some help on it? Send it to Manager Rob?
Rather than doing whatever they were supposed to do, they’re now trying to figure out what they were supposed to do. All of this may sound obvious, but take a look at your action lists and see where these types of problems show up.
I use “action lists” rather than “To-Do lists” or “task lists” because sometimes we’re talking about tasks and other times we’re talking about projects and objectives that need to be completed. The same rules apply; an action is an action and you always complete the big things through discrete actions anyway.
Here are some great ways to write better action items:
1. Remember that the capture phase is different from the process phase.
Whether you use a formalized productivity system like GTD or a more intuitive, home-grown way of getting stuff out of your head, there are two discrete phases: capture and process. “Capture” is where you get stuff out of your head, whereas “process” is where you actually analyze what you’ve gotten out of your head. This distinction is much like the distinction between drafting and editing; the main goal of the capture phase is to get it out so you can see it, and the process phase is needed so that you can make sense of it.
The items below are all about what you do during the process phase after you’ve gotten your items captured.
2. Write each action item as if you were writing it to someone else.
Our action items are often shorthand codes for our current selves and are meant just to jog our memory. While this may work for things we might need to do today, what often happens is that a task we mean to do today gets booted into the future. Not to go metaphysical on you, but the person who reads the action item two months from now is a different person, who may not remember what that shorthand code meant.
I’ve found that when people write the items as if they were writing them to someone else, they write them the right way. That means their lives are easier in the future when they get to those action items, as well as in the now when they see the items and don’t have to do a bunch of guessing about what needs to be done.
3. Use verb-noun constructs at the beginning of the action item and all the way up.
A verb-noun construct tells you what needs to be done to what; it automatically spurs action, which is what we want. In our “TPS Report” example above, adding a simple verb like “Draft TPS Report” creates a useful verb-noun construct. You now don’t have to guess what needs to be done; you’re left with figuring out how to do it, which is a substantial improvement.
“All the way up” means to use it not just for your tasks, but also for your projects, objectives, and so on. Whether you’re talking about something that’ll take you 10 minutes or 10 months, there’s still a verb in front of whatever it is.
Another thing to recognize about the power of verb-noun constructs: They make it apparent when you need to chunk a project into doable parts because the immediate question that comes up is “what needs to be done to do that?” If you know that you need to email Mike to ask him to send his QLM Matrix before you can finish the TPS Report, then it’s easy to see that the TPS Report is actually a multi-step project with sub-items. What other items are there? Not only that, but the verbs that go in front of tasks and those that go in front of projects are normally different, again giving you a signal about how much work it’ll take to complete the thing in question.
4. If it needs to be done by a certain time, include the “when” in the task.
Do yourself a favor and make the default habit be that items with a time requirement always contain their due dates so that you develop the practice of immediately being able to distinguish between what needs to be completed anytime versus what needs to be completed at some specific time.
Also consider distinguishing between when something external is due and when you need to have it completed. Again, back to our example: “TPS Report” could now be “Draft TPS Report by Thursday (due to Manager Rob by Friday).”
5. In team environments, always assign ownership for the action item.
This one can be tricky, because sometimes it’s clear who should do an item and you can make them responsible for it. However, in some cases, you’ll need to assign ownership just so that it gets done. Many managers and leaders fail to understand that if someone else isn’t assigned the item, then by default the manager or leader is responsible for seeing it through, which often isn’t the intent; they want “somebody” to do it.
Remember, “somebody never does anything” — specified people do specified things. (Tweet this.)
6. Be clear about relay items.
Many action items are meant to spur the action of someone else in the chain of a project; think of a multi-person project as a relay race, wherein one person runs a piece of the race and hands off the baton to the next person. In our example above, Mike’s completion of the QLM Matrix enables the next step in the process, but if he completes it and doesn’t send it, then we have a relay fail. A lot of time is lost by poor handoffs, and days easily become workweeks. (Relays are one of the first things I look for in team workflows because streamlining them yields immediate and lasting benefits.)
When handling relays, you can either split the items into two discrete items — e.g., “Update QLM Matrix for Sarah by Wednesday” and “Send Updated QLM Matrix to Sarah by Wednesday” — or develop the internal habit of automatically sending the item to the next person in the chain. Well-functioning teams with effective people usually opt for the latter because they trust each other and the process.
7. Give context as a comment or note.
Giving context about the task — such as stating why the task is important or giving background information — can help you and whoever gets the task complete it better, and often motivates the person to do it. A whole horde of tasks can often appear as busywork, but knowing where and why your work fits in can be incredibly helpful. You’d be surprised how much taking an extra 10 seconds to write a couple of sentences can affect the quality and timeliness of execution.
These steps are listed in a logical, sequential order that’ll help you process each action item. You’ll notice that the order moves from “What needs to be done?” to “by when?” to “by whom?” to “what next?” to “why?” You may not have a “by whom” if you work for or by yourself, but the rest of the steps are still relevant; on that note, many solopreneurs have trouble delegating precisely because they automatically assume that everything that needs to be done needs to be done by them.
Writing Better Action Items Is a Practice
Most things that are worth doing take continual practice, and writing better action items is no different. I’ve ingrained these things as habits after doing and teaching them for so long and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Does it take some extra time? You bet. But much more time is usually wasted by poorly formulating action items because they’re not spurring the actions needed to complete them.
Take the verb-noun construct rule. When there aren’t verbs in front of action items, I actually get confused and immediately correct them mentally. It’s a bit sad to admit that it causes me a bit of anxiety to see them because it opens an unhelpful curiosity loop. Years of practice make them pop out like misspelled words do to an editor.
And, like any other practice, it’ll eventually become a habit. Getting stuff done is a lot easier when you have habits like these because it’s one less thing you have to think about and make decisions on.
Over to you: Of the items listed above, which is the most challenging for you?
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Amanda Ramsay says
So it seems like actually, having an electronic to-do list might be detrimental to writing good action steps. If you’re on paper, then you can just write down “Draft TPS report and send to Wayne by Wednesday”. But if your smartphone app has a space for “Schedule on [date]” and “Due on [date]” and “Collaborating with”… then you feel like ALL you should put in the “Task Name” spot is the “Draft TPS report”
Which is still an improvement on “TPS report”. But makes it harder to glance down your list and see what has to be done when. (Especially since, even though you have fields for due date and schedule date and so on, you don’t actually ever fill them out.)
Bennett Garner says
Thanks for the great post and the reminder that “to do” lists are action based. I’ve recently begun using lists and my calendar more intensively, and I’ve become more productive and efficient. Thanks for the reminder.
stacey thornton says
Omg this is so helpful to me. I have a very hard time with actions because I don’t assign a deadline and I don’t schedule things in my calender. I know this theoretically. But the way you have explained things has made this click for me today. I will start putting this into practice. Thanks for all the work you do!
Charlie Gilkey says
Happy to help, Stacey! I’m glad to know this resonated with you.
I’d love to compare any frameworks you can share regarding writing action items to our standard spreadsheet. In my role, we use a simple Action/Action Owner/By When excel spreadsheet, but that’s only as good as the action written. Vague answers will lead to vague results, so a framework for writing the actions more effectively would be very helpful.
Charlie Gilkey says
Hi Daria – I’m not quite sure what you’re asking for here. Are you asking for more examples of using the methods in this post, or more elaboration on the points?
Trien Dinh says
Please describe clearly process & capture phases with specific examples – Pros & Cons. With your description about these phases, in my opinion they are not clear and too wordy.
Charlie Gilkey says
Thanks for the question, Trien. I’m not sure that there is a Pro/Con breakdown between them, as much as they’re two discrete stages require different types of cognitive work.
Let’s use the example of figuring out what you need to get from the grocery store. When you’re just listing the items – bananas, beef, beer, etc. – you’re capturing the items. When you sort the items into groups so you don’t run around the store or have to keep re-searching your list, that’s the process phase.
You might think about listing the emails you need to write in a similar way. You might just make a list of all the people you need to write, in which case you’d be capturing the items. But you may also triage or prioritize that list by what’s most important to do first or during a set amount of time, in which are you’d be processing the items.
I hope this helps!
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