Getting Things Done: A Guide To Next-Action Lists

Getting Things Done (GTD), is a productivity methodology designed by David Allen. GTD increases your productivity by getting things out of your mind, and into a reliable system that you can trust. This frees your mind to work on the task at hand, instead of trying to remember a myriad of things at once. You will find yourself more relaxed, and more productive at the same time.

In particular, one easy-to-use part of GTD (which I describe later), only takes 2 minutes to learn, but can increase your efficiency by phonemenal levels.

There are many parts to GTD. One important component is next-action lists, which replace to-do lists in other methodologies.

David Allen realised that in today's dynamic society, todo lists, daily plans, etc, often do not work. If everything and everyone around you is going 100% to plan they can work, but how often does everything go according to plan? A meeting runs longer than expected, the report you need isn't ready yet, or the computer network goes down for an hour, and your whole day can go out of whack.

David Allen's solution to this was next action lists. Rather than plan out the day based on projects, you list the next-action items for tasks you have to do. You record these next-actions into separate lists based on context.

This is best shown with an example...

Suppose you had the following todo list:

  • Research buying new Palm pilot
  • Arrange next marketing meeting
  • Service car
  • Buy new Apple Mac
  • Cancel magazine subscription
  • Prepare for the department meeting

The first step in GTD is to change the list to be based on the next physical action for each project:

  • Search online to find different potential Palm Pilots to buy
  • Phone John to arrange next marketing meeting
  • Look in car manual to find qualified mechanic for car
  • Phone Apple Reseller and buy new Apple Mac
  • Phone and cancel magazine subscription
  • Print out the financial report for the department meeting

By listing the next specific physical action, it becomes much easier to proceed on the projects. You might procrastinate on "Prepare for the department meeting", but "Print out the financial report for the department meeting", seems like a much easier thing for you to tackle, and therefore, you are MUCH more likely to get it done. Just this one idea alone will increase your productivity dramatically! It seems simple, but it is actually quite profound, because it focuses your mind on ACTION.

The next step in Getting Things Done, is to move these next-action's into separate lists based on context:

@Phone (Things I can do when I am at a phone):

  • Phone John to arrange next marketing meeting
  • Phone and cancel magazine subscription
  • Phone Apple Reseller and buy new Apple Mac

@Computer:

  • Search online to find different potential Palm Pilots to buy
  • Print out the financial report for the department meeting

@Home:

  • Look in car manual to find qualified mechanic for car

Why have separate lists? The main benefit is that it lets you look at the tasks that are only suitable to where you are at the moment. If you are at work, you aren't distracted by the tasks that are on the @Home list, and if you are at home, you aren't distracted by the work tasks. The actual GTD contexts that you use are up to you. The standard ones that David Allen recommends are generally based on location (like the ones above), but you can use whatever works best for you.

Another benefit of separating out the lists into contexts is that it becomes easy to change what you are working on quickly if something goes wrong. Suppose your in the middle of some research online, and the computer network goes down. Whilst other people might decide it's time for a coffee break, you can just look at you phone list, and start tackling some of the @Phone tasks instead.

Breaking your todo lists into next-action lists based on context may seem like a lot more work than a standard todo list, but it isn't really. It only takes a little bit longer to plan, but the increase in productivity more than compensates for this.

Next-Actions lists are a small part of the Getting Things Done methodology. They are useful on their own, but their power is multiplied when used with the rest of David Allen's system. GTD is incredibly effective, and I highly encourage you to try it out for yourself, by reading David Allen's book ("Getting Things Done: The Art Of Stress Free Productivity"), or by trying out some GTD software.

Dan Fletcher is a developer at dogMelon. They make Note Studio, an easy-to-use tool, being used for GTD on Palms, PC's, and Macs.

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