32. Habit #9: List Next Actions (Not Just Projects)

This page is part of the Holacracy Habits series.

These habit lessons have said little about personal productivity. But anyone filling a role in a Holacracy-powered organization must fulfill certain duties like processing requests and tracking projects. So, we need to cover some basics.

The habit we're introducing today is “List next actions (not just projects).”

Though it may not seem special, this habit may challenge some assumptions about what it takes to get things done. After all, we all have our own style. Yet, we all face rapid change. Increasingly, our work doesn’t show up pre-defined for us. More than any time in history, we must figure out what to do before we can do it. But complex problems don’t always need to have complex solutions. Which is why David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology recommends a simple five word question: “What is the next action?”

This question alone can immediately cut through most of the complexity in our way. So, David recommends we abandon the traditional to-do list, but only because we need to get even more clear. Instead of having one single to-do list, we actually need two lists. One for projects and one for next actions.

Here’s why:

You Can’t Do a Project

Most of us have used to-do lists. We love them because, through the simple act of writing something down, it unburdens our mind. But there’s a problem. The easiest way to write isn’t usually the easiest way to read. Most lists include things like:

• Website redesign

• Contract to John

• Dentist appointment

The problem? You can’t actually do any of them... you can only do a physical action. You can’t do a website redesign. You can’t do a contract to John or a dentist appointment. Each one takes many physical steps to complete.

The next action for the website redesign may be scheduling a meeting with the designer. Or even before that, email the designer for this week’s availability. The next action for the dentist appointment is looking up the number to call. GTD tells us each of these to-do list items is actually a multi-step outcome (i.e. a project), and you shouldn’t put them on your to-do list.

Instead, keep two lists. One for projects, or high-level outcomes you’re working towards, and the second for next actions, which allows you to quickly identify actions for the day.

Thinking is Often Harder than Doing

Many times we put off action on something because there are things that have to be decided that we don’t want to think about. Time passes, and we avoid the issue even more. We simply haven’t asked ourselves, “What’s the next physical action I can take on this?”

When we’re in the mood to get going, the last thing we want is to stop... and try to remember what we need to do. So, do the thinking beforehand. If you just write down “Clean garage” on a list, you'll have to stop and consider what to do every time you look at it. It’s hard to take quick action on something your brain needs time to process. Instead, write down "Buy more trash bags" or whatever the actual physical next step is. That way, when you're in the mood to do, you can get right to it.