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Everything is Actionable?

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  • Everything is Actionable?

    This is probably over-thinking, but I run across it often. Following the outlined workflow I pick up an item and ask "What is it?". The system is running smoothly so far. Now I ask "Is it actionable?" The answer to that question for basically every item is "Yes." My next action may be to throw it away, but that's an action.

    To add to my confusion in following the workflow, if I answer "No," then it can still wind up on a "Someday/Maybe" list for future action--even though I just said it was not actionable.

    It seems just asking "Is it actionable?" leaves out a temporal element and an element of my commitment to the item/action.

    Any thoughts? Or am I just crazy (which is probably "yes")?

  • #2
    Are you overthinking, or underthinking? Remember that the workflow diagram is only a summary of the GTD method. The nature of summaries is that they leave things out.

    I don't think of throwing something away as an action. I reach my arm 6" to the right, open my fingers, and let the item drop into my wastebasket. Gone. You can call that an action if you want, but since it takes less than two minutes, the effect is the same.

    (There are trash items that are more complicated, such as arranging for the disposal of that asbestos cache you found in your basement. But most of us don't have many of those.)

    If the workflow is giving you trouble, you might substitute this:

    1. Do I ever need to see this again? No = trash it.
    Yes =
    2. Under what circumstances would I need to see it?
    a. Reference material = file it
    b. Possible future action, project, or idea = Someday/Maybe
    c. Current action, project, or idea. = Do/Delegate/Defer

    Good luck!



    • #3
      Perhaps you can ask yourself 'Is this something I need to take action on in the very near future?'

      If yes, it ends up on your task list.

      If 'not right now, but maybe later' then it goes on the Someday list.

      If 'not in the forseeable future' then it becomes reference material (eg. the instructions to something).

      Does that help?



      • #4
        You're not crazy !


        I think wrestling with these concepts is necessary if you want to get it right. There certainly a temporal element missing, as you say.

        One of the merits of the David Allen GTD formulation is that there aren't continuous variables like time and degree of commitment. There are very simple categories, especially for non-actionable items, which are in many ways not worth a lot of time unless they give you pleasure. Analyzing projects, strategizing to achieve goals, figuring out how to delegate when you don't have any subordinates --- these are worth the time.


        • #5
          I reviewed sections of the book that pertained to this area looking for clues. DA does make reference to what must be an implied temporal element of the "is it actionable" question.

          When DA discusses following the "no" path and comes to the "Someday/Maybe" list he says we apply it to things that are not actionable _now_ but may be _some_ day. So the question I am supposed to be answering isn't "is it actionable"; the question is really "Is it actionable _now_?"

          If I come across a piece of paper that says "Go to Europe," and I ask "is it actionable now," the answer is yes. Going to Europe does "afford a ground for an action." Technically, I could do it now--I could take off work, buy a plane ticket, and go. But I have no intention of doing it now. So as I progress down the workflow diagram I end up with a next action for going to Europe even though I have no intention to do it now or as soon as possible. I needed to follow the "No" (it's not actionable now) path on the diagram to get to the proper location of the "Someday/Maybe" list. But the question "is it actionable" or even "is it actionable now" sent me down the wrong path.

          Just thinking out loud. Maybe someone else has thought about this as well. It just seems very easy for the uninitiated to end up in the wrong place on the workflow diagram and not know how they got there.



          • #6
            "Go to Europe" is SO FAR from actionable

            I think most GTDers would react to the "Go to Europe" note as a project. Some might even put it in 'SomedayMaybe' because it is so vague. It is not actionable now unless you:
            1. are going to travel very light;
            2. are already wearing your travel clothes;
            3. have your passport;
            4. bring your cellphone (which won't work there unless you have a really expensive cellphone and calling plan); and
            5. a. decide on your specific destination (at least at the level of airport [You ARE flying, aren't you ?]) and
            b. make your travel arrangements on the way to the airport.

            The point is that 'going to Europe' efficiently and effectively requires some kind of planning and preparation, unless you do it so routinely that you already have everything you need, including a packed bag and ticket. Deciding and planning next actions might both necessary in the case of 'Go to Europe', because you haven't decided on a destination AND you given any thought to what is required to make the trip even feasible.

            Does THAT help ?


            • #7
              Thanks for the replies.

              I think I should clarify that I'm not trying to figure out what to do with some specific item. I'm trying to figure out how to use the workflow diagram to process _any_ item so that the answers to the diagram questions place the item in the correct location.

              The answer to "is it actionable" by itself does not send me down the right path for most items. The answer to "is it actionable" for the vast majority of items is yes. If I change the question to "is it actionable _now_" that narrows it down and helps branch me in the right direction. But it's still missing intentionality. Somewhere the diagram needs the question "do you want, need, or intend to do this" after it has been determined if it is actionable and when it is actionable.

              Simply stated, my goal is to revise the diagram so that the questions on it send one down the right path. "Is it actionable" (at least for me) does not because it does not include the element of time and intentionality that are required to conclude in the correct location.

              The easy solution may just be to break "is it actionable" into two question: (1) Is it actionable now?, and (2) Am I committed to doing it?

              I'll have to try that out on several items to see how it works.


              • #8
                I think you're right ! No explicit step to put trash in trash.

                Part of my reaction to the 'Go to Europe' example, was that, in that case, it was clearly NOT actionable at ANY time, WHATEVER your intention or commitment. As such, it did not serve to clarify your issues.

                I went back to the GTD diagram and noted that it does not have an explicit step for discarding items that you don't care enough about to process further.


                • #9
                  Do you want to use the workflow diagram as a memory aid, or as an instruction sheet? The second needs more detail than the first, but I'm not sure why the second is "better" in any objective sense.

                  It sounds like you would like to develop a workflow diagram that would allow correct processing of any item by someone (or a computer) with no other GTD knowledge. Explaining why you think such a diagram is important might make it easier for us to help you create one.



                  • #10
                    ProfD: I appreciate your replies. All thoughts on the topic are helpful to me. Thank you for taking the time to reply.

                    "Go to Europe" is something that is actionable for me now. The question "Is it actionable now" does not include a qualifier as to _how_ my trip would be (e.g. smooth, easy, efficient, no-hassle, comfortable, etc.). Technically, anyone could buy a plane ticket right now (if they have the money) and fly to Europe with the clothes on their back. Now someone could say, "That's just ridiculous," but it is possible and I know people who have done it.

                    Katherine: Thank you for your replies as well. I am looking for step-by-step instructions on what to do with an item so that someone without any _or_ with much GTD knowledge would know what to do with virtually any item. I've just found that if too much is assumed in a question, people can get the wrong idea or end up going in the wrong direction. It's very easy for me to do that. If the questions asked on the diagram are specific enough, then the chances of that happening are greatly decreased.

                    Continuing with my previous example, if I were helping someone implement GTD and we came across "Go to Europe" in their "In", then I ask "Is it actionable?" They say "Yes." Going by the diagram we end up with a next action for "going to Europe." Then they say, "But I don't want to do it now." Then I say, "You should have answered 'no' and said it was not actionable." Then they say, "But you asked me if it was actionable, and it is. You should have asked me if I wanted do it now." Then I ask them "Is it actionable now?" They say, "Yes, I _can_ do it now, but I don't _want_ to do it now. But you didn't ask me if I wanted to do it." At this point they've decided GTD is either too difficult or just not correct.

                    There's the long answer as to why I'm looking for a good set of instructions.


                    • #11
                      Hmmmm.... I think the stumbling block may be the definition of "actionable." To me, it means something that I want, need, and/or am able to move forward within my planning horizon. (Typically within the next month.)

                      So, if I came across "Go to Europe" in my inbox, I would ask myself the following questions:
                      1. Do I want to and am I able to go to Europe in the next six months, or do I have a time-limited reason to go to Europe in the next six months?
                      If No, then Someday/Maybe or trash.
                      If yes, then
                      2. What needs to happen for me to go to Europe?
                      The answers to 2. then become current or deferred Next Actions: decide on destination, decide on dates, plan airfare, hotels, etc., schedule time off, and so forth.

                      You're clearly considering a person who defines "actionable" much more broadly, perhaps something like "is there an action associated with this item?" Rather than quibble over definitions, a more helpful series of questions might be:
                      1. Do I want or need to do this task or project? (Yes= go to #2. No = go to #1a)
                      1a. Do I need to hang onto this physical object for some other reason? (Yes = reference files, No = trash)

                      2. When will I or should I do this task or project? If I don't know, when should I next consider doing it? (Project is either current or Someday/Maybe. If Someday/Maybe, schedule future reconsideration. If current, go to #3.)

                      3. What physical action will move this task or project forward? What resources do I need in order to perform that action? (What is Next Action? In what context?)

                      Hope this helps,



                      • #12
                        Thank you Katherine. That helps some. I agree that "actionable" would need to be defined specifically for the simple question "Is it actionable" to be the only question needed at the top of the diagram. I was going by Webster's definition "subject to or providing grounds for an action." If you couldn't already tell, I work with computers and many of my friends and associates are _very_ detail oriented people. If you simply ask "is it actionable" to this type of person, the answer is honestly yes. When your job, whether it deals with computers or not, requires an incredible attention to detail, you learn to be specific as generalities can cause tremendous problems.


                        • #13
                          GTD has a specific definition of 'actionable'.

                          As with the term project, GTD uses specialized definitions of action and actionable different than the conventional or dictionary ones.

                          DA defines a next action as "the next physical, visible activity that would be required to move the situation toward closure" [GTD, page 128], implying that an action, in GTD-speak, is a "physical, visible activity." In other words, actions in GTD tend to be pretty specific, concrete, and atomic units of activity.

                          Also, GTD defines the following categories of things as non-actionable:

                          o trash
                          o someday/maybe
                          o future action required (tickler)
                          o reference

                          So, in GTD, for something to be "subject to or providing grounds for an action"
                          • you have to be committed to doing it either because you want to or you must (intentionality); and
                          • you can identify one or more "specific, visible" activities which will "move the situation toward closure."
                          GTD uses the project construct to capture intentionality (e.g., "any desired result that requires more than one action step" [GTD, page 37] and "any outcome you're committed to achieving that will take more than one action step to complete" [GTD, page 136]). So, GTD actions (next or otherwise) generally don't capture intentionality. (The exception is where a desired outcome can be accomplished by a single next action.)

                          In my GTD system, the item "Go to Europe" would imply the task "create a project called 'Go to Europe' and itemize what I have to do to get there (travel, lodging, etc.)."

                          For me, the GTD workflow diagram only became useful after I gained some degree of mastery of the GTD method; conversely, without that mastery, I found the diagram to be pretty opaque.

                          Thank you all for a great discussion so far!


                          • #14
                            Thank you mscudder. That really helps. Maybe if I just put a quick and dirty definition of "actionable" as it applies to GTD at the top of the diagram that would solve the whole problem. That seems like the easiest solution.


                            • #15
                              Maybe it would help if you were to listen to "GTD Fast," the CD/cassette recording of David Allen's two-day seminar. There are a lot of throw-away lines which, if you really THINK about them, are startling in the light that they shed on the day-to-day implementation of the system.

                              Best wishes.