What’s Next?

I came across the idea of Next Actions from David Allen many years ago, even though I had been using it from way back. Over the years, I’ve applied this idea not just to my work projects, but also to my personal ones.

So what is the Next list? Put simply, it’s a list of things you want to do when you have any discretionary time. The items on this list are not scheduled or due on any particular day or time. This list answers the question: If I had nothing else on my plate right now, what would I need to do next? In other words, this is your as-soon-as-I-can-get-to-it list. The actions on these lists are not time-sensitive but time-flexible. You do them as soon as you have any discretionary time at all.
Work from these lists whenever your calendar has any discretionary time openings.

Having this list doesn’t mean you have to do anything right now. It just means when you have some time, you have a list of Next Actions ready to go. This can only happen when you have thought about what you want to do in advance. We need to think about our work before we can do it. Thinking and doing them both at the same time never works. For further reading, see Divergence and Convergence.

There are a few reasons for using a Next list:

  • Having a next list allows you to be more clear, present, and focused with whatever it is you’re doing in the moment. You’re not thinking about what you’re not doing because you trust that you’ll look at your lists at an appropriate time. You can only be okay with what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing.

  • Unless you know what work you have to do, how are you going to work on it? Having a Next list allows you to have a list of things you want to work on by separating the thinking from the doing. Thought precedes action. This doesn’t mean there won’t be things that show up ad-hoc that you do in the moment. This is fine as long as you keep them to a minimum.

  • Such a list allows you to have a complete inventory of things you have on your plate. You can only prioritize when you have such an inventory.

  • Your mind is for having ideas and not for holding them. It does a poor job of holding those ideas, which is why you need a list manager as part of having a trusted system.

  • Having a Next list removes the thinking required to decide what you have to do at the time you want to do it. Because you’ve already done that kind of executive thinking in advance, all you need to do is show up and do the work.

Also, just because you have some discretionary time doesn’t mean you also have the space and/or the energy available in order to do those things.

How do you set up your Next lists? First, you’ll need a list manager. I wrote about this in Trusted System. I use Things, but any list manager with the ability to have multiple lists will suffice. Having the ability to link next actions to projects would be great, though it’s not required.

Here’s how you create a Next Action. Every next action begins with a verb. For instance, make a phone call, send an email, run an errand, etc. You can only do actions, not projects.

A project is a result/outcome you want. It’s something that takes more than one step/action to complete. You don’t have to know all the next actions in any given project. In order to move any project forward, you just need to identify one next action. You can even have multiple next actions (non-sequential/parallel) that start at any time.

The golden rule for creating a Next Action is: if this was seen by some random person, would they be able to complete it assuming they had the necessary skills? That’s how you know it’s granular enough.

The key to making a Next Action list work is to make sure it’s complete. When it’s incomplete, you won’t trust it. When you don’t trust it, you won’t use it. How do you make sure your Next Actions list is always complete? You spend some time every day defining your work. You’ll need to set up a trusted system using the Think, Review, Do model.

Once you’ve decided on a list manager and you now know how to create a Next action, the next thing to do is figure out the appropriate categories for the different lists you’ll need to be able to park the things you’re going to commit to. Most people have about 150 next actions and 5-7 categories in their list manager. These categories can be physical locations (home/office/airplane/errands), areas of focus, personal/work modes, tools (phone, email, computer), etc.

The point isn’t to do everything on your lists right now. You can’t. You should be okay with what you’re not doing, which is why you have these time-flexible lists in the first place.

The next time you are reminded of a thing you need to do, you simply capture it in your inbox, either at the workstation or on your phone, then later use some time in the evening to process those action items.

Don’t have one giant list because that will just overwhelm you. Instead, use appropriate categories to filter your lists or use different Next Action lists for each category depending on your list manager of choice. How many categories/lists do you want? As many as you need and as few you can get by with.

Examples of lists/categories are:

  • You could have a Next Action list each for your personal life, work, family, etc.

  • You can have lists for calls to make, errands to run, things to do at home/work, agendas to discuss with others, etc.

  • You can have an Agenda list for people you work with regularly; the next time you see them, you can just pull up your list and talk to them about it.

  • Use a Waiting For/Follow Up list to keep track of things you’ve delegated to others.

  • Keep a Someday/Backburner list for things you don’t want to think about right now and might want to do in the near future.

  • Use a Reading List for articles you come across on the web that you might want to read later. The same goes for music or podcasts you want to listen to later. You can even maintain a Watch list for films that you might want to watch in the future.

  • You can have videos to watch in your YouTube Watch Later playlist. Then, whenever you have any discretionary time during a weeknight or weekend, you can visit that playlist and watch the next video in the queue.

Here are some best practices for using these lists:

  • You’re either attracted to your lists or repulsed by it. Make sure that you actually want to do the things that you have committed to. There is a time and place for thinking about your work and doing your work. Thinking about your work when it’s time to do it is counterproductive.

  • When you’re sitting at your workstation to do the work, you have a list of next actions ready to work on that you don’t have to think about. Having a list of next actions ready to go requires that you regularly take some time out of your work to define your work.

  • Structure your day so that you spend some time in the morning and evening to define your work while you spend the day doing the work.

  • When you find yourself low on energy as the day wears on, simply choose a “brain-dead” category/context in your list manager and start doing those actions that don’t require much cognitive thought, such as looking up something on the web, etc.

When you have taken the time to think through your Next list, then it’s a matter of showing up and doing the work. The key is to keep the thinking and doing parts separate.

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