Saturday, November 19, 2011

What To Do When Your GTD Next Action Lists Are Too Long

I had a reader ask me what to do when your GTD next action lists are too long. They wanted to know how you should handle that. This is a common question and one that I have probably addressed a while back in some fashion. Our next action lists sometimes get stagnant because we have to actually do something.

Because we don't have to make decisions other than where to put stuff into our gtd system, it is usually pretty likely someone will get to an empty inbox if they set their mind to it. But getting things off of a next action list takes more effort and therefore is a common place that people struggle.

What I suggest in this case is to pick a next action list and look at it just like another inbox. It might be a lot more organized than it was when the work first showed up, but nonetheless, that is exactly what an action list is - an inbox.

Once you start to look at it that way, you will realize that it too can be reduced to zero or at least get things on and off the list.

David Allen's analogy of processing your stuff being like an assembly line is a perfect way to look at any list in your system.

Things show up. You do them. Another one shows up on the assembly line.

The problem is that the conveyor belt snags on your ability to make decisions. Decision making is the electricity that makes the belt move.

Here are some tips that I use to get my lists pared down that might help you.

The first suggestion that I would make is to expand the two minute rule to five or ten minutes. Ask yourself. What tasks on this list can I knock out in that amount of time. You'll be surprised to find that you can eliminate some easy stuff off of the list.

The next thing I would consider doing is getting in the habit of processing things in a first in first out method. Put all new items on your list at the bottom. As the top ones (oldest one's) get done, the newer ones make their way up to the top of the list.

The ideal way to move things that are on your lists off is to do the things that matter most. But for some reason, I and I am guessing many of you would avoid that tip because that's usually the harder stuff we don't want to do.

Ultimately, I think the best way is to make one particular list, say your calls list and make it a primary focus until you have it functioning like a well oiled machine.

I would do that by first keeping all of your inboxes empty and everything put into your system. Second, I would do whatever I had to do to get rid of any distractions so that I could focus on the list and only the list at hand. Many times, I move to a location that has nothing to do with my work so I can focus on it. It might be a Kinkos or even a hotel lobby where I can get internet.

After that I would do the easy stuff. I would then knock out things that I know that I will never do. Then I would expand the two minute rule to five or ten minutes and start picking off the things that take a little less effort than some of the more challenging stuff.

One other thing that I would do is that I would make sure before a next action makes it on my list that it would be the smallest possible step to move a project forward.

What that would do is make it easier to check off these things that show up. Many times, we put a next action on the list but it's really another mini project. Try not to do that.

Work on one particular list like this for a while until you have mastered it. It might take you a while to get that feeling. But once you start to focus on a list, you'll start to figure out ways to empty it.

Hide the list and you won't.

Good luck and start taking action!

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Michael Kuhn

Black Belt Project: Build Mental Strength


I like the idea of looking at the list as though it's just another inbox. David Allen himself has said that sometimes whole existing to-do lists or organizers get thrown into the inbox during the "collect" phase with his clients. I find sometimes when my own lists get stale, it's because I've gotten sloppy in my decision-making or lax in my reviewing (and changing/renegotiating/deleting as appropriate), and re-processing them as if they were new inputs will shake things up and get the list moving again.

Good suggestions. Your comment about decision making is probably where most of us have our problems. We choose not to make Thanks for the comments.