Getting stuck on coming up with Next Actions for certain projects

Lamb918

Registered
This has been a sticking point with me for quite some time and I've tried a few things that don't work all that well, I'm hoping for some suggestions.

I have two kinds of projects where identifying next actions gives me trouble:
  1. Very "fuzzy" projects where the outcome is not completely clear when I get it and my job is to make sense of it and work on it until the picture becomes clearer
  2. Longer-term projects that take kind of the same activity over and over for a while until it's done and the next action seems to be just "work on this thing"
For the fuzzy projects, the biggest problem is that for the most part I just need to find a chunk of time to get into "flow" and start digging into stuff to figure things out. This is kind of like a "brainstorm" next action, but for some reason seeing "brainstorm potential next actions to Project X" on a next action list makes me want to skip that thing, like it's not definitive enough or something. Also a lot of my work-related projects are like this, so then I end up having 15 "brainstorm" next actions and I want to scream. I also avoid processing those projects because I don't know exactly what my next action is supposed to be and thinking about it will be a way longer than 2-min task, so I put it off. Is there a better way to frame that kind of work in a next action? Or is the "brainstorm" kind of my best bet and I have to just change my mindset or way of working?

As an example of the longer-term clearer projects, I got edits back on a long report I wrote and I need to revise the report. This isn't something I can do in one sitting, but I've struggled with what Next Action to use that will actually get me to do it. Some things I've tried:
  • "Work on edits to report XYZ" - maybe this isn't a bad thing, it just doesn't feel very "next action-y" to me, and it ends up staying on my list for a long time so I can potentially become numb to it
  • "Complete edits to section A of report XYZ" - 1) I might not be able to complete all the edits to that section in one sitting, and 2) it seems arbitrary to start with that specific section, maybe I want to just open up the report and scroll through and attack something that makes sense to me at the time, by adding this extra structure it creates some friction to actually opening it up since I'm like "ugh I don't want to deal with that particular section right now".
  • Have multiple items "Complete edits to Section A", "Complete edits to Section B", etc since I can technically do any of those at any time. - Seems to clog up my list a bit.
I love GTD for 95% of my life, but for some reason I've always struggled to fit these things into it and they cause me to put off updating my system and then I fall off the wagon more often than I should. I still get that work done, but then it ends up existing outside my GTD system, so then I'm not looking at my lists regularly since I'm working on this other "bigger" stuff I can't figure out next actions for, and then it all falls apart.

Thanks in advance!

Edit: I thought about it a bit more and maybe the main problem with both of these kinds of projects is that there's a bunch of potential next actions that I could do to move it forward since it's either a bigger project or a project without a clear outcome just yet. So then I struggle between a) choosing ONE next action to put on my list and seems arbitrary and maybe gets me unmotivated because I see it and say I don't want to do THAT particular thing right now but I could have done another thing, or b) putting every possible next action on my list since they aren't dependent on one another but then that seems like it could overwhelm my list. Is there a happy medium?
 
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Gardener

Registered
I'm comfortable with these actions being defined in terms of time. I seem to be in a minority, or in fact totally alone, in this. But I want an action I can check off.

So:

- Spend ten minutes figuring out a next action.
- Spend an hour reviewing Report Blah.

And when I've spent the time--and I may exceed the time--if the thing isn't done, I add that action again.
 

ivanjay205

Registered
I too struggle with that and I find that when I get lazy and say "work on xyz" those are the things I fail on. I try to find a way to break it down.

For example right now we are working on an internal marketing campaign and I need to strip through my Outlook contacts for people I want to add to our email campaign. I have 1800 contacts in my outlook so that is going to take awhile!

I had it as work on stripping contacts. Now I have set chunk goals. So sort through A-k, L-O, P-Z etc. So this way I have a clear start and stop point ot make that activity marked complete and move on to the next.
 

Lamb918

Registered
I too struggle with that and I find that when I get lazy and say "work on xyz" those are the things I fail on. I try to find a way to break it down.

For example right now we are working on an internal marketing campaign and I need to strip through my Outlook contacts for people I want to add to our email campaign. I have 1800 contacts in my outlook so that is going to take awhile!

I had it as work on stripping contacts. Now I have set chunk goals. So sort through A-k, L-O, P-Z etc. So this way I have a clear start and stop point ot make that activity marked complete and move on to the next.
Thanks for your reply! I'm starting to think the problem is more when I have a lot of potential next actions on a thing that I could do to move it forward. Choosing one seems arbitrary, and putting them all on my list seems like it would be overwhelming. So in your example, technically you could start anywhere in the alphabet and do L-O first, so would you put each of those chunks on your list or just go one by one? Considering that example is alphabetical so it's more logical to go in order it doesn't completely fit, but you get the idea.
 

Lamb918

Registered
I'm comfortable with these actions being defined in terms of time. I seem to be in a minority, or in fact totally alone, in this. But I want an action I can check off.

So:

- Spend ten minutes figuring out a next action.
- Spend an hour reviewing Report Blah.

And when I've spent the time--and I may exceed the time--if the thing isn't done, I add that action again.
Thanks! I've tried this too and found the time commitment held me back - if it was a smaller chunk maybe I would start it and end up spending an hour but seeing "spend an hour on this" was too much for my brain to handle. The struggle!
 

PeterByrom

Registered
In my experience, actions which start with "work on" are always a red flag. "work on" does not paint anything like a clear picture of what the next physical, visible activity is. Likewise, "complete" is a non-starter too, because what is the first physical activity you need to do, to get that completion going?

Let's take that example "work on edits XYZ". It's not at all surprising that this would repel you, because it's not a next action. You still have unfinished thinking left to do on what exactly the very next physical, visible activity is. How do you physically start to work on those edits?

For example, what if some documents that you need - for your editing - are stored in an online system, and you need to log in to the system in order to access them, but you haven't used it in a while and you're unsure of the password - is it even saved in your key chain? Do you remember it? Did you have it written down somewhere?

In which case, the next action would be something like "try logging in to system where edit docs are stored".

Or, suppose you have all the material for your editing right there in front of you, easy to access... how do you get started? E.g. do you need to load up the feedback you got on your report, and review the feedback so that you can make notes about which parts of your report you need to start on first?

Or even, and this really happens, are you clear about what "done" looks like for when your edited report is finished and submitted? e.g. have you been clearly briefed on the formatting, how it's supposed to be submitted? To whom? By when? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it may actually be that your next is action is to send a query for clarification. e.g. "email report reviewer re: clarify finalisation requirements"!

Notice the really big trap here: correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as though most of these actions take place at a computer, and you've succumbed to the temptation to visualise merely what it would look like to be sat down in a room at a computer screen, for defining the next action. But that's not enough... what are you doing with the computer, and what is showing on the screen? :)

As for outcomes not being clear in brainstorming, have you tried the Natural Planning model?
 
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TruthWK

Registered
When I process my inbox, my goal is not to get stuck spending too long on any 1 item. I'm perfectly happy to put Process x if it will take me longer than 2 minutes to go thru. I then have a set time for looking at longer stuff. I do this so that the longer stuff doesn't put a logjam in my whole system.
Also, I have no problem putting down Plan x Project as a next action in the same way. I then come back to it and spend the time needed to go thru the natural planning model. Also, be aware that in addition, there may be some sort of research action to take searching online or talking to someone to get information. I never put down a bunch of next actions on a single project. I may have 2-3 at the most. If there's more than that, it is usually a big project that may require subprojects to identify all the moving pieces. If its small and you can start anywhere then I've realized that rather than being a perfectionist, I just pick somewhere to start and make that my next action. Many times, you'll get into a project and the other actions will change as you go, so putting all of them as next actions becomes a lot of extra work to update. I've also been experimenting with have 1 dedicated hour daily simply to do GTD. This involves getting inboxes clear and then picking some of those plan and process tasks to do.
 
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