Have I Been Completely Misunderstanding the Next Actions List?

andyphickman

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Should the next actions list only contain the very next action for all my active projects? Another way to phrase this is: If I have 50 active projects, and have generated 200 total actions for those projects while clarifying, should my next actions list not contain 200 actions, but rather only the very next action for each project (say, 10 or so)?

Thanks,
 

AndrewJMason

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Hey there Andy, If I remember correctly, I think the official word is "only the very next action" is *needed*.

But - I'd add a personal caveat that I've heard David say a few times, "Plan projects as much as you need to to get them off your mind." If that's 200 actions, that's cool. If it's only one per active project? Cool too.
 

Gardener

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To a large degree, it's up to you. I think that it would be "nonstandard" to put a whole project plan, dozens of actions, into Next Actions--I'd say that after some small single-digit number, the more Next Actions you have for a project, the more nonstandard you are. That doesn't mean you're wrong, but I would see it as a non-trivial modification of GTD. Not that you said you wanted to do that, I'm just going to an extreme.

I prefer very small lists, so for me, it is indeed exactly one action, unless there's a good reason for more than one. For example, The Perennial Blitz for this year's vegetable garden might have both "Prep asparagus bed" and "Buy plants listed on farmer's market list" because I don't know if I'll be at the garden before I get to the Tuesday farmer's market, and I'd be highly annoyed on Wednesday to realize that I bought food and not plants. However, I dislike the multi-action thing enough that if I found myself constantly having a "do" action and a "get" action, I might well do a project split to have only one action per project.

But that's me. I'm a short-list extremist.
 

Geeko

GTD since 2017
Hi Andy,

As far as I understand the only things that go on your next action lists are tasks that you could perform right now if you were in the right context. That means for example if you have to wait for some information or you have to do something else first before you can start an action, that item should not go on a next action list.

Each project should have a next action so let’s assume that in your case you got 50 projects and maybe 80 actions you could take on right now. These actions go on your next action lists and the other 120 actions go to your project support folder so you can move them to your lists once they become active.

This way you don’t clutter your lists with actions you cannot take on.

I hope this helps.

Cheers,
Tristan
 

Oogiem

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Should the next actions list only contain the very next action for all my active projects? Another way to phrase this is: If I have 50 active projects, and have generated 200 total actions for those projects while clarifying, should my next actions list not contain 200 actions, but rather only the very next action for each project (say, 10 or so)?
If you can work on all 200 of those without any dependencies and you like long lists then by all means put them all on. If any are dependent then they are not ready to be acted on so can either stay off the lists, or if your tools support it, add them in a way that prevents you from seeing them until you've competed the things they are dependent on.

I use Omnifocus, I frequently have hundreds of next actions and most of my projects are sequential, so only the top one is available but the rest automatically pop up into their proper context once I've finished the first one on the stack.

Most of my projects can be well defined at the beginning and the actions rarely change once I've done the initial thinking so why not put everything in so it runs into my lists automatically? If I had lots of projects that tended to change where I couldn't foresee the next action after the one I am working on then I'd probably not have as much already planned out. It all depends on the type of projects you have and how you like to interact with the populations of stuff you have available to do.
 

Sarahsuccess

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...should my next actions list not contain 200 actions, but rather only the very next action for each project (say, 10 or so)?


I think the answer to your question is "yes", your action lists should contain only next actions. There's a difference between all actions and next actions. All the actions generated for a project are project plans. The very next action you are able to do is a next action. You can have multiple next actions for a project, as long as they are independent of each other. Actions that need other steps to be completed first are project plans (or "waiting for").

In the 5 stages of the gtd model, determining the next action happens in the second stage, in what David Allen calls processing (older book) or clarifying (newer book). He has a separate chapter on project planning.

In your example, if you have 50 projects you would have at least 50 next actions, one for each project. Also, you might want to consider whether all the 50 projects are active projects, or whether some could be moved to someday/maybe.
 

bcmyers2112

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Should the next actions list only contain the very next action for all my active projects? Another way to phrase this is: If I have 50 active projects, and have generated 200 total actions for those projects while clarifying, should my next actions list not contain 200 actions, but rather only the very next action for each project (say, 10 or so)?

Thanks,
David Allen suggests that if you have multiple actions for a project that you can do now (i.e. they're not dependent on some other action being completed first), you should list them all in your next actions list. If you've identified certain actions that you can't do until you complete something else first, then those should go wherever you keep your project support materials.

So... if you have 50 active projects and 200 related actions that you can do now, then the best practice according to David Allen is to list them all in your next actions lists. If any of those 200 actions require you to do something else first, then park them in project support.
 
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bcmyers2112

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To a large degree, it's up to you. I think that it would be "nonstandard" to put a whole project plan, dozens of actions, into Next Actions--I'd say that after some small single-digit number, the more Next Actions you have for a project, the more nonstandard you are. That doesn't mean you're wrong, but I would see it as a non-trivial modification of GTD.
I've never heard David Allen suggest that there is an upper limit to how many next actions you should list per project. In fact, in the Getting Things Done book he explicitly suggests that if you have identified multiple next actions for a project that don't have dependencies (i.e. something else needs to happen before you can do them), they should all go in your lists. He doesn't say anything about limiting the number of actions to a "small single-digit number."

Have you read or heard something different that I'm unaware of? If so, can you cite the source? Because I'd like to check it out for my own edification.
 
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Gardener

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In fact, in the Getting Things Done book he explicitly suggests that if you have identified multiple next actions for a project that don't have dependencies (i.e. something else needs to happen before you can do them), they should all go in your lists.
Should, or can? Because putting dozens of next actions for a single project in my lists would certainly drastically hamper my use of my system.

There are probably forty different things that I could do in my vegetable garden that aren't interdependent. I may well have "identified" those things in the sense of making a brainstorming list. But I don't see where the book instructs me to put all forty of them in my current, active lists.

Are you maybe talking about the "What About Subprojects?" section? I don't see that section as telling you to list all independent next actions that you can think of. That section refers to "major subprojects" and suggests that each of the subprojects have a next action, if that subproject can be progressed on independently.

If it's not there, can you point to where the book prescribes this, or give a quote?

He doesn't say anything about limiting the number of actions to a "small single-digit number."

Have you read or heard something different that I'm unaware of? If so, can you cite the source? Because I'd like to check it out for my own edification.
I suppose I'm primarily reacting to how often the book refers to "the next action" (singular) when referring to a project, rather than "the next actions" (plural) for that project. For example, I see

"The Key Processing Question: What's the Next Action"
not
"The Key Processing Question: What are the Next Actions"
 

TesTeq

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Should, or can? Because putting dozens of next actions for a single project in my lists would certainly drastically hamper my use of my system.
At least one Next Action is needed to move forward.
Dozens of Next Actions give you a greater ability to choose the appropriate one for a given context, time available, energy available and priority.
 

Gardener

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At least one Next Action is needed to move forward.
Dozens of Next Actions give you a greater ability to choose the appropriate one for a given context, time available, energy available and priority.
I'm realizing a nuance here. My projects tend to have multiple tasks for the same context/time/energy, so that the only thing left is priority.

In that situation, I don't want to see the lower priority tasks in my active Next Actions. I want to do my prioritization while making my lists, not while using them. Sure, two or three tasks, maybe, but if there are eighty things that I could choose from for a given situation, and some are much higher and some much lower priority, I don't want to waste time scanning all eighty.

I wrote a long example about the fact that my garden has dozens and dozens and dozens of possible independent tasks for the same context/time/energy. But now I'm thinking of starting a thread about baking priority into project design.
 

Gardener

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Actually, I think I'll leave the thought here, because the concept I'm thinking of is basically "dependency by priority". Or "pseudo dependency by priority"? Because it's not literally dependency. It's not that I CAN'T do X until I do Y. It's that I SHOULDN'T do X because Y, Z, A, B, C, and on thorugh Q are not done and are all higher priorities.

We do this at the project level--entire projects go to Someday/Maybe, not because they're dependent on another project, but because they're a lower priority.

I would argue that the same thing makes sense for actions within a project--that merely being possible is not necessarily a reason for an action to appear as a Next Action.

There are dozens of tasks that I could do in parallel in my vegetable garden. A tiny subset includes:

- Prep beds 1A, 2A, 3A, and 4A for box shrubs
- Buy strawberries to finish planting row 7.
- Divide strawberries from the front of Row 9 to fill the back of row 9.
- Plant carrots in bed 12G.
- Plant beets in bed 12F.
- Divide and give away garlic chives.

I'd love to do all of those, plus countless others. I have 120 beds, and I could come up with a plan for annual vegetables in sixty of them, ten rugosa roses along the south fence and ten more along the north fence, etc., etc. Each of hundreds of possible actions is independent and possible--I could go out there this Saturday and do any of those. And many of them are things that I've thought of--I've listed bazillions of things that I'd like to do.

So I could have all of those in my Next Actions. But IMO I shouldn't.

To get specific, there's absolutely no reason why I couldn't plant those carrots in bed 12G. No reason. Perfectly easy; I could do it this Saturday. The bed is prepped, so it's a single action. (I don't do that deep digging and sifting sand thing for carrots.) And I'd love for it to have been done--I'd enjoy pulling carrots later this year.

But my priority this year is to get the garden redesigned to be much more focused on perennial edibles. Since we expect a drought this year, a sub-priority is making the most of the wet spring for establishing perennials.

The carrots don't serve either of those priorities. So while it's theoretically possible that I might finish all my other goals and have time for the carrots, it's not realistic.

I consider the carrots to be "dependent" not because I can't plant them, but because I shouldn't--the other workload is sufficiently overwhelming that there is no plausible scenario where planting those carrots will not mean delaying a higher priority task. So I'm not going to have the carrots in my Next Actions.

If the project fundamentally changes--if fifteen friends who have all the same skills I have show up and offer to be my obedient gardening crew--then that's the time that I can pull those actions out of the project support.
 

Oogiem

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There are dozens of tasks that I could do in parallel in my vegetable garden. A tiny subset includes:

- Prep beds 1A, 2A, 3A, and 4A for box shrubs
- Buy strawberries to finish planting row 7.
- Divide strawberries from the front of Row 9 to fill the back of row 9.
- Plant carrots in bed 12G.
- Plant beets in bed 12F.
- Divide and give away garlic chives.

I'd love to do all of those, plus countless others. I have 120 beds, and I could come up with a plan for annual vegetables in sixty of them, ten rugosa roses along the south fence and ten more along the north fence, etc., etc. Each of hundreds of possible actions is independent and possible--I could go out there this Saturday and do any of those. And many of them are things that I've thought of--I've listed bazillions of things that I'd like to do.

So I could have all of those in my Next Actions. But IMO I shouldn't.

To get specific, there's absolutely no reason why I couldn't plant those carrots in bed 12G. No reason. Perfectly easy; I could do it this Saturday. The bed is prepped, so it's a single action. (I don't do that deep digging and sifting sand thing for carrots.) And I'd love for it to have been done--I'd enjoy pulling carrots later this year.

But my priority this year is to get the garden redesigned to be much more focused on perennial edibles. Since we expect a drought this year, a sub-priority is making the most of the wet spring for establishing perennials.

The carrots don't serve either of those priorities. So while it's theoretically possible that I might finish all my other goals and have time for the carrots, it's not realistic.
I would approach that problem differently.

Since you are changing the focus of your garden away from annuals to perennials then why is plant carrots in bed 12G still even anywhere but in a much later future someday/maybe list? That also looks like a project to me. I'd have to decide on the variety or varieties I wanted to grow, find or buy seeds and then plant.

So IMO I'd put all of those sorts of things into a separate someday/maybe list. Maybe one I looked at more frequently than once a quarter, maybe into a list I check weekly but still it would not be in my current actions because it's away from my focus. I would also look at weather/seasonal things. Around here transplanting strawberries has to be done by a certain time or you might as well not bother. So I'd have the strawberry thing as a project by itself and if it got to whatever date it is that you can't successfully move strawberries without me doing it the entire project would go into someday maybe until next year.

I do that with a lot of things that I want to or would like to get done in this season but if time/energy/weather etc. prevent it then at the end of the season I just dump them all into DEVONThink and don't worry about them until next year.
 

Gardener

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I would approach that problem differently.

Since you are changing the focus of your garden away from annuals to perennials then why is plant carrots in bed 12G still even anywhere but in a much later future someday/maybe list? That also looks like a project to me. I'd have to decide on the variety or varieties I wanted to grow, find or buy seeds and then plant.
Well, for what it's worth, I would like to plant those carrots despite the perennial focus, because I am keeping a few annuals. And it would be a single action, because I have the seeds and all the supplies for my elaborate carrot-planting procedure. So really the only thing that's stopping me is lack of resources, specifically, my time. There is zero chance that my available resources will stretch to doing everything that's a higher priority than the carrots. So I am removing the carrots from my active lists based purely on priority.

Which is, I think, my point, though I've changed my point a couple of times in this conversation. :) My point just now is that for me, the factor that eliminates something from the Next Action list doesn't need to be "can't do it until I do X" or "can't do it currently, period" but can also/instead be "not gonna do it because higher priorities will crowd it out."

This is another thing that is affected by tolerance for long lists. My tolerance for long daily lists is incredibly low. To me, every item in a list has a cost, so that thing's presence in the list needs to have a payoff that outweighs that cost. On the other hand, long lists in project support material or, as you suggest, someday/maybe, are just fine. So I'm definitely not going to include, in my Next Actions, every action that I theoretically could do now. I'm not going to include even a fraction of them. I'll look at my Someday/Maybe list or my project plans, come up with a focus ("Let's get the perennial fruit planted.") and create a few active tasks or projects.

So IMO I'd put all of those sorts of things into a separate someday/maybe list. Maybe one I looked at more frequently than once a quarter, maybe into a list I check weekly but still it would not be in my current actions because it's away from my focus. I would also look at weather/seasonal things. Around here transplanting strawberries has to be done by a certain time or you might as well not bother. So I'd have the strawberry thing as a project by itself and if it got to whatever date it is that you can't successfully move strawberries without me doing it the entire project would go into someday maybe until next year.

I do that with a lot of things that I want to or would like to get done in this season but if time/energy/weather etc. prevent it then at the end of the season I just dump them all into DEVONThink and don't worry about them until next year.
Yep, this all works, except I'd dump them earlier--or they never would have made it on the active lists at all.
 

2097

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Should the next actions list only contain the very next action for all my active projects? Another way to phrase this is: If I have 50 active projects, and have generated 200 total actions for those projects while clarifying, should my next actions list not contain 200 actions, but rather only the very next action for each project (say, 10 or so)?
I'm going to come back to my analogy that the projects are like the dishes you want to cook (like "pancakes", "fruit salad", "marinara sauce" etc) and the next action lists are like the grocery store aisles where you can find the ingredients.

If you are overwhelmed with a thousand no-due-date projects it might be enough to buy onions in the produce section for you to feel good about your marinara sauce project slowly ticking along. So yes, strictly by the rules, it is enough to put in one next action per project. Buuut...

It might be way more efficient and a way better use of your time to get all of the ingredients from the produce section while you are in the produce section. So in that sense, it is optimal to put in a whole bunch of next actions per project as long as those actions are truly ones you actually could take now, i.e. they aren't waiting for anything else. They are parallel actions rather than sequential actions.

I usually split the difference and just put as many next actions as I can think of, but not necessarily racking my brain to try to make the list 100% exhaustive unless the deadline is really tight and I really do need that extra clarification in order to get everything done on time efficiently.

This suggestion isn't meant to add extra to your workload. "Clarifying work" should be about making decisions that you would have to do anyway, and about saving time and energy by batching, or by just cancelling projects outright.

Note that you don't have to clear out a context list completely in one sitting. I never buy more at the grocery store than I can carry home. So in the "grocery store" analogy, while yeah, I want to minimize trips there, but if I can only buy 20 things I don't have to list 80 things.
 

2097

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Put differently, I want the contexts to have enough next actions on them that I can visit them meaningfully. That desire can be satisfied with just a few actions per project if I have many projects, or it needs a lot of actions per projects if I have few projects. I try to focus my life and make a lot of progress on a handful of projects so I go more towards the latter. I break projects down with an outliner to fish out for immediately-actionable things to put as actions on the appropriate context lists.
 

RobertWall

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My point just now is that for me, the factor that eliminates something from the Next Action list doesn't need to be "can't do it until I do X" or "can't do it currently, period" but can also/instead be "not gonna do it because higher priorities will crowd it out."
If you're doing pure GTD, that should really be something that eliminates it from the project list too.

Projects are, first and foremost, outcomes you're committed to that require more than one action step.

And that's really the key - "outcomes you're committed to". If you know you won't be doing it, then it stops being something you're committed to - and it stops being a project.

In this situation, I would say that "garden" is an area of focus. Now you brainstorm projects related to that area of focus, and do the thinking about what you're going to do with your garden.

You decide that of your 15 beds, you want to plant 15 types of flowers, one per bed. So now you have a bunch of projects like:

Bed 1 - Petunias
- Buy soil (Due March 19th)
- Buy seeds (Due March 19th)
- Start seeds indoors by late March (Due March 20th)
- Prep bed
- Transplant seeds to outdoor bed

The first two are next actions, and they go on the list now - unless you know there's going to be a great sale in February, in which case you'd schedule them for later. When you're at the garden store, you can knock out dirt + seeds for your whole garden in one fell swoop.

The third is a deferred task, since you've decided to do it in late March. It might become a workable "next action" on March 13th. Throw it in the tickler file, or use your computer software to defer it. The fourth can be done whenever the weather is amenable, which you'd probably set a date for - or at least a date for making a smarter decision. You could defer that with the seed starting tasks. And the fifth is actively blocked until the seeds grow, so that's indeterminate - but based on experience, you could punt that out into the future as well. Maybe to April 30th.

If you use the list like this, you'll always have a solid "next actions" list of things that will move projects forward, your thinking will be reflected in your system (i.e. you'll get the seed planting / transplant reminders at appropriate time), and you don't have to constantly re-think things.

If you don't want to think it over until later, maybe you just kick a "plan garden" task out into late February. You can do the thinking then, and plan appropriately.

But the idea is that you *first* commit to some sort of action, *then* use the system to help you do the actions you've specifically committed to.

Have fun with your garden. :)
 
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