Saturday, May 06, 2006

From To Do lists to Next Actions

I was brought up on "To Do" Lists. The very first system I learnt was from Alan Lakein's book "How to get Control of your time and your life". His recommendation was to make lists of what needs to be done and prioritise your tasks as A, B, and C. Tasks marked A were the first things to get done, then the "B" tasks. If there was time remaining, the "C" tasks could be done. Lakein's most memorable saying was "Review our priorities, then ask the question: What's the best use of our time right now?

I have used planner systems from Time Manager International (in Denmark) and Stephen Covey (now Franklin Covey). The basis of these systems is a daily page with a section for appointments (the "diary" part of the page), a todo list, and calls to make. The ideas is to "work" the todo list, then copy the uncompleted items to the next day.

Often the lists would get too long and contain too many areas of my life, to the point that the todo list was no longer a useful tool. I tried making "Personal" lists and "Office" lists, but inevitably, many things didn't get done. Before the weekend I would make a "Weekend" list, then on Sunday night another "Work" list would be made.

Lists, lists and more lists. A lot of time was spent making the lists but I was not effective in doing the work and crossing items off the lists.

Now I use the Getting Things Done (GTD) system. The daily page has been transformed into a true calendar (read my meditation on Calendar) and the todo-lists have been replaced with Next Action lists.

Instead of writing lists of things to do, I ask myself two questions:
  1. What's the desired successful outcome?
  2. What's the next physical action I can take to get closer to this outcome?
Now I know what I need to do, as well as a tangible step I can take to move closer to completion. Describing the physical action makes it easy to know what to do, and minimises procrastination as the work has been defined up front.

I ask a further question about the Next Action: "What is the context for this action?". I have a small set of contexts that identify where the next action can be done and what resources are required. My contexts are :
  • Office (includes personal things I have to do in my lunchbreak)
  • Home
  • Phone (I dont have many calls to make)
  • Computer (using the home computer)
  • Reading (work reading as well as pleasure).
  • DVD Watching (I borrow a lot of DVDs from the library)
I write the context on the top right corner of the card prefixed with an @ sign and the Next Action in the center of the card. Responding to the two questions in automatic as I write the next action in the appropriate "Verb Noun" formula of Next Actions.

Most of the benefit I get from implementing GTD is gained in my personal life. My professional life does not involve supervising staff and I work on on project at a time. I review the @OFFICE cards in the morning to plan my day.

Instead of using the traditional "planner" system, I now have a calendar, and lists of next actions organised by context. There are many ways to maintain these lists, including handheld
computers (Palm, Pocket PC), one page per context forms stored in my planner, or using the computer.

I choose to write each action on an index card. I can prioritise the actions by shuffling the cards around, and once an action is complete, the card is thrown out. Read my meditation on Index Cards on how I make my own index cards using recycled paper.

The Next Action cards are grouped by category behind clearly labelled divider tabs and held together with a bulldog clip. A few spare cards are on the front for recording new actions.

How do I decide what is the best use of my time right now? I look at the cards for the relevant context then take out the cards for the tasks I have chosen to do. The complete pack of cards is reviewed each week during the Weekly Review to ensure there are Next Actions
for all my active projects.


At 10:37 PM , Blogger brownstudy said...

You refer to other meditations on the calendar and the index card. Will you be publishing these soon-ish?

Thx -- mike

At 11:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hehe I was to ask about the calendar too...
which one and your use of it


At 9:53 PM , Anonymous Sue said...

Great blog! Very informative!
Where can I find your meditation on index cards? I am interested in what your cards look like and how you make them.

Thanks - sue

At 4:35 AM , Anonymous Jason Womack said...

I've had one of these on my calendar for years. I first started doing it after learning of The Pacific Institute.

Years later, I attended a three day intensive course led by Lou Tice. And, what he calls "affirmations" I've heard called many different things: Meditations, Prayers, Positive Focuses...etc.

For those asking for examples, probably the easiest way to start is to go find a quote by a mentor, teacher or coach. Copy that into your calendar (or, put it in your 43Folders!) and "forget about it."

The goal is, for me, when I see it the next time (in two, four, six weeks...) I'll re-read it and try and look at or interpret it in a new way.


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