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Create a Better To-Do List

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If you are like many people, your “To-Do” list tends to be a jumble of actions, contexts and priorities: Clean the bathroom, write novel, Suzy’s birthday, car – new tires. Obviously, those are four very different things that take differing amounts of brainpower and must occur in unique places – so why are they all jumbled together on your “To-Do” list?

It’s time to revolutionize your list, and your life, by instituting a new list limited to actions only: Next Actions. The “Next Action” list is part of a larger organizational system espoused in the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen, a national bestseller. I cannot highly recommend this book more and its methods to those who must handle several large projects at the same time.

Allen preaches the “Next Action” method, which throws away the “To-Do” list in favor of a list of the very next actions needed. Any item on your “To Do” list that needs more than one step to complete is a project, and you must define what is the very next physical action that needs to be taken in this multi-step project. Turning your “To Do” list into a “Next Action” list will create forward momentum towards achieving your goals, sort your actions into appropriate contexts and stop the mental block that happens when you look at a “To-Do” list that is really a list of larger projects that need sorting and organizing.

Looking at the sample “To-Do” list above, you can see right away that cleaning the bathroom is the only true “Next Action” on the list (provided that you already have the supplies to do the job). It can stay. Every item on your “Next Action” list should start with a verb.

Writing a novel is not a next action – it’s a project that will require multiple steps. Throw “Write a Novel” on your list of projects and then define the next action: is it brainstorming, researching publishers or writing chapter one? Define the appropriate next action and write that on your “Next Action” list: Write chapter one.

Suzy’s birthday is not an action either, it’s a project that has many actions tied to it: shop for a gift, bake a cake, reserve a table at the restaurant, invite friends, find a card for everyone to sign. There are so many actions tied to Suzy’s birthday that looking at that phrase on your “To-Do” list is likely to cause your brain to stall. Identify the very next action you must take and add it to your “Next Action” list: Reserve restaurant for Suzy’s birthday.

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“Car – new tires” is also not a next action. Do you need to research tires, call Pep Boys to compare prices or just show up at your local tire store with a credit card? By defining the next action for each item on your list, you are starting out with the crucial first step already done, and now all you have to do is act:

  • Go to Pep Boys for new tires
  • Clean bathroom
  • Write chapter one in novel
  • Reserve restaurant for Suzy’s birthday

Can you sense the forward motion in your new and improved “To-Do” list? Every item is actually something that can be done, not something that needs to be further defined. Every item is a Next Action.

If you are like most people in the modern world that are juggling way too many projects, you will have 50-150 next actions at any given moment. You can organize these actions by context to further define your list and your world:

  • Next Actions - At Home
  • Next Actions - Online
  • Next Actions – Errands
  • Next Actions – Phone Calls to Make

Now all of your next actions will be divided by context, so that you can take a quick look at your list before heading out the door to run errands and know exactly what needs to be done.

Take a look at your current “To-Do” list, and define each item’s Next Action. Keep a larger list of Projects, and go over your Next Action list at least once a week to see if any deleted items prompt any new next actions. By defining your “To-Do” list by action verbs instead of hazy projects that can be overwhelming, you empower yourself with control and knowledge. Make sure every item on your “To-Do” list is actually a “Next Action” and you will already be one step ahead of the game.

Image: Courtney Dirks

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