Need some help from those that are masters of the "next action"

Discussion in 'PUBLIC: Discuss the GTD Methodology' started by KW7, Mar 1, 2019.

  1. KW7

    KW7 Registered

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    Most of my work is probably some kind of project (2-4 tasks) but I'm still having a hard time just placing the next action in my contexts. I can't resist the urge to put a list of the steps to complete the project there. I use Evernote so I will often have a checklist of perhaps 4 items in the note which is in my context folder. I think this is because I'm afraid I'm going to forget a needed step, which seems unlikely, but I suppose it's possible. The result, of course, is a context that has too much information to digest rather than the simple Next Action that David Allen espouses. Which then causes me to reprocess and waste time.

    If anyone out there has tackled this issue and beaten it or can help me with encouragement about "taking the leap" to use just the very next action in my contexts please fire away.

    Many thanks for the help.
     
  2. John Forrister

    John Forrister Moderator Staff Member

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    You are way ahead of most people just by being aware that reprocessing wastes time. Pat yourself on the back for recognizing an improvement opportunity.

    A couple of thoughts. It's fine to have more than one next action for a project, as long as they are truly next actions, and not dependent on any other action happening first. The first thing I look for if someone says their lists are too long, is whether there are any dependent actions that don't belong on next actions lists. You can store dependent actions in your project notes. That way you know you won't forget them, and you can bring them forward as next actions when they can be done.

    In a sense, it won't matter if you forget a dependent action. As long as you are focusing on the outcome ("What will be true when this project is complete?"), then the distance between current reality and the future when the project is complete will reveal the necessary action(s) to take.

    In another sense, as long as you've invested some time in identifying necessary future actions, might as well add those to the project notes so you don't have to redo that planning. Which gets back to your original wise observation that reprocessing wastes time.

    Note: I'm on the journey to become a master of the next action, but I'm not in any way claiming to have reached the destination yet.
     
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  3. Gardener

    Gardener Registered

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    I use OmniFocus, which allows you to have a list of actions, but see only the Next Action. However, that only helps a little--those extra actions don't annoy me in my context lists, but I've still spent time entering them, and if they're no longer relevant, I still have to delete or change them.

    So I try to:

    1) Trust myself to remember the obvious next action.
    2) OR, create a project plan as project support material, NOT as part of my action lists. In the unlikely event that I finish a task and truly don't know what to do next, I can go to the project support material and find it. Or if I'm worried, I can make a habit of always glancing at the support material when I review a project in the weekly review. But since the support material is probably a casually written set of notes, it's a lot easier to edit, delete, or just ignore it if it's no longer relevant--easier when compared to the action lists.

    My general philosophy is to keep my actual action lists--the things that I theoretically look at several times a day--as lean as humanly possible.
     
  4. taradee

    taradee Registered

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    I find it so intriguing to read that people operate like this, because I just can’t.

    - trusting myself to remember what to do would make me stressed and not get the project off my mind (I know this from experience)

    - I do a lot of complex projects, it does matter if I forget to do something and I don’t wish to make future me work to remember what I did or didn’t do (if I have 3 literature searches on the go I need to know where they’re up to)

    - I am utterly baffled that people put things in project support then move them over because that is reprocessing, no? I know it’s what DA says to do, it just makes no sense to me and I can’t do it (plus I like an indication of how much is left to do).

    I just set future tasks to waiting or someday. If I don’t know I will need to do them, then and only then do they go in the notes of a task on which they depend.

    Separating my projects, actions and next actions would give me a nervous breakdown. I know some people would say that means they belong in project management software but they don’t - they can live in one place, just need to be managed right.

    I don’t want to keep things in my head and don’t understand this aspect of GTD that would force me to. It’s different if you don’t know what needs to be done but often you do. Or I do.
     
  5. ERJ1

    ERJ1 Jedi Master

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    Taradee, what's your setup like? I really find myself in a place where separating out the Next Actions from Projects causes me some resistance too, mostly because of the system I am working with. But I find that I do really see the value of the flat Project and Next Actions lists overall.

    As it stands, the way my software works is that my Project List is full of Projects with nested subtasks and only the Next Action from the project is in my context lists (unless of course there are tasks that can be done in parallel). When I finish that Next Action, I go back to my Project List, find the appropriate Project, and click and drag a subtask (i.e., the Next Action) in the Project to the appropriate list.
     
  6. mcogilvie

    mcogilvie Registered

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    A couple of thoughts:
    • Taradee, you wrote that you do a lot of projects with 2-4 tasks, then later you wrote that you do a lot of complex projects. This suggests to me that you may not be realizing the value of the next action as capturing a single, atomic, very next thing to do. For example, if you have a task on a list like “Lioterature search” that might span hours, this is not a next action. The next action would be a “bookmark” that tells you what the next search is, e.g., “Search papers citing Jose et al. for references to topological effects.”
    • ERJ1 is right: tools matter because workflows matter. It’s not the intrinsic features of paper, Outlook, Omnifocus or whatever, but how they assist us in providing what we need to know when we need to know it. Project support material is by definition project “stuff” that is not next actions. A little can be tucked into a note field, a lot may be stored elsewhere.
    • Over the years I’ve been using GTD, I have repeatedly and stubbornly ignored the advice David Allen provides, mostly in over-complicating my workflow and forgetting basic concepts. It turns out David Allen’s advice is really very good, and works very well for a lot of people once they get the hang of it.
     
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  7. Oogiem

    Oogiem Registered

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    I nearly always put many more than the single next action into my project but I use a tool that allows me to easily see or hide those actions with no friction. For most of my projects if I do the planning correctly the first time the steps don't change and for those that do I often find it useful to have the original plan thoughts in there anyway. I use Omnifocus and I have the pro version that allows me to set up custom perspectives or ways of looking at my data.

    My initial reaction is that clearly the tool you have chose, Evernote, isn't suited to the way you work. I see Evernote and DEVONThink and similar things as places to store reference materials, someday/maybe lists and stuff like that but not a place to run my GTS next actions or projects out of but that is me. If that is the friction you are having you might try some other tool instead and see if that solves your issue.

    What I would NOT do is stop planning out and listing all the steps. For me at least that is an important part of keeping things off my mind so trying to ignore that need for me would result in more stress and duplicated effort. So I require a system that supports the way I think.
     
  8. Gardener

    Gardener Registered

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    I think that this tends to depend on the person, the work, and the work style. But I do think that sometimes what looks like wasted effort is saving a lot of other wasted effort. That's definitely true for me with putting most things in project material and then wasting time moving actions over to my lists.

    I do realize that trusting yourself to remember stuff negates much of the point of GTD. I tend to do this for things where that freedom is a bonus rather than a source of stress--certain hobbies, for example.

    See, complex projects are situations where I would absolutely use project support material rather than making any effort whatsoever to put a large percentage of the project into my GTD lists. For one thing, as I explain with my garden example, the best way to track the project and choose tasks may not be any sort of list.

    If I don't do that, then I do a whole lot more reprocessing.

    I used to have long lists of tasks in OmniFocus, but it was rare that any of those lists survived past two or three items without having to be redone. The problem was bad enough that a next action of "Clean up this action list" was a very regular event for many of my projects. When I didn't have time to do that cleanup, I often found myself looking down at the mess that was the old list of actions, choosing one, and dragging it up to be the next action. In other words, I was using the long list of actions AS project support material.

    Redoing the lists in OmniFocus was a lot more work than just editing or retyping a "project support material" list in a regular text editor. In a text editor, I can just scroll the old list down, type the new one while glancing at the old one, and delete the old one. And since the list exists purely as a reminder, the things that make the items OmniFocus-ready for me--careful ordering, context-independent phrasing, choosing a context, etc., etc.--were unnecessary. I could make the list as manicured or as rough as I wanted.

    So long lists in OmniFocus used to cost me far more time than I spend just glancing at project support material and then adding an action to OmniFocus.

    Also, every item in OmniFocus costs me. This is me--it may not be true of anyone else. I need my everyday lists to be very simple and streamlined. If they're not, they distract me. I have yet to find the perfect OmniFocus settings that keep them from distracting me.

    Also also, often the actions aren't reliably listable, or productively listable. I'm in the middle of getting my vegetable garden (120 beds) ready for the year. I could have created an elaborate master plan for that, with hundreds of actions, marching across the garden and the seasons. But the sequence depends on weather, on my schedule, on the progress of the season, on whether we want to pay the Garden Man for certain tasks, and so on.

    It's far more useful, for me, to have a plan of the garden, the status of the beds, and the plan for each bed. I stare at the plan and create the next two or three actions. If certain goals were critical and trying to remember them was distracting me, I'd also have a list of priorities and a list of "too late" dates.

    I just reorganized my personal OmniFocus to be EVEN SIMPLER than before. Eight active projects, 22 Someday/Maybe projects, and the dozens and dozens of other projects are in various forms of project support material. For example, those 120 beds could in theory be 120 projects--or a lot more; one salad bed could involve growing seedlings of multiple kinds of plants. But those projects are represented by the garden plan and some notes until they're on the verge of becoming reality.

    That way I don't spend ten hours in December planning an elaborate ten-bed spring salad garden that gets outprioritized and ends with me just broadcasting a cover crop over that soil until I get back to the salad garden next year.

    Now, you'll see that my examples tend to be personal stuff. I'm still struggling with a work system that works for me, given the very limited set of available tools, the fact that I can't have work data anywhere but work machines, etc. If I didn't have those issues, I'd use the same system for work.

    Well, I don't think that you'd have to keep things in your head--you could keep them in project support material. It's the task-moving, which you see as reprocessing, that's harder to avoid.
     
  9. taradee

    taradee Registered

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    I use Things - I have projects and tasks, I use tags for contexts and I mark things as anytime or someday etc. If I had to keep moving tasks around I would go mad!

    I have tried flat lists. They don’t work for me!
     
  10. taradee

    taradee Registered

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    Sorry, I don’t recall saying I do a lot of projects with 2-4 tasks? My projects have more like 20-30 tasks in them. I understand the concept of the next action it’s just that it doesn’t act as a bookmark for me - it means leaving everything in my head or scattered in multiple places and feeling stressed.

    I didn’t say literature search was a task. That’s a project with tasks inside it :) I don’t know how I would keep track of this if I had to keep moving it from project support.

    It’s great that DA’s advice works for so many people. I’m afraid on this I’m not one of them and if I did things the way you all do I would go mad.
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2019
  11. taradee

    taradee Registered

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    It’s no effort to put things in. I have templates I keep in Drafts 5. Keeping things in project support is like keeping it in my head to me I’m afraid. And I don’t spend much time processing anything.

    Still it’s good everyone does what works for them. I understand the next action this system just doesn’t work for me.

    I wish you all the best of luck as I won’t be back after my trial ends.
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2019
  12. Oogiem

    Oogiem Registered

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    Most of my projects when I first started GTD had 25+ actions in them. Then I realized that for me, things like subprojects were causing me problems. So I ended up splitting those humongous projects into a bunch of smaller ones, often with dependencies (start project B as the last action listed in project A , for example). Even so I still have many projects with lots of different next actions and they are all listed in my Omnifocus system.

    Gardener likes small tight lists, I like lots of choice. But GTD works for both of us.

    You say keeping things in project support is like keeping it in your head. I'm curious as to why? Is it because it's harder to reference, or some other reason?

    I do think a system that allowed you to enter in all the various steps or actions, and maybe with notes about each one that are more details, but that can hide all but the current top next action, would benefit you. I'd at least I'd give it a try with a subset of your current projects.

    Let's take the literature search one, I'm going to take a total guess here but will use something I tend to do. I have several projects to search for information on an ongoing basis about some key areas I am interested in.

    One is Keep up with changes in ewe estrus synchronization research. That is basically a lit search for published papers. Now it's harder for me because I do not have any relationship with a university with research privileges and my local library charges for access to many of those databases. So my list of actions is more like contact person X to see what they've found in the last month, and check on web site Y to see if anything new has been posted, and so on. The total sum of those is maybe 20 different next actions that repeat on a regular basis. I enter them all into my OF system and then just check on each one as it comes up, some are in the context of phone business hours, some are computer Internet so they show up in different places for me and that makes it easy to move them all forward. When I need to see the scope of the entire project I look in the project view not the action view in Omnifocus.

    I don't separate my projects, next actions and future actions. They all live in my single tool, Omnifocus. Project support for me is typically physical things like, the physical pattern for a garment I am sewing, or the blood tubes, needles and syringes to collect blood samples from the sheep for DNA testing, or the printed photos and scrapbook pages for a scrapbook project. It can also be paper stuff like the instructions on how to do a FEC test. Or it can be digital reference, like an ebook on DAM for the big photo project, or my typed notes and thoughts on the flowchart for the code to handle processing a sale of a sheep with a location move in LambTracker. (new owner record, new location record and collect sales data) I put links as to where the project support material is located in my Omnifocus system so I don't waste time looking for it but can go right to it if I need it.
     
  13. frank F

    frank F Registered

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    Personally I think that GTD works for not too complex projects in particular where there are mainly parallel actions which can be mapped out early and subsequently. Very complex projects are better suited for other methods which allow a more three dimensional view of the project as a whole. I usually use mindmaps. Trello (Kanban) also works for in between complexity. Good mindmapping software includes all of this.

    Of course you should pin down actions when you think of them. This is the whole idea, right? If they go into next actions (either parallel, or as a follow on next action) depends on complexity of project. IF I use a mindmap I might also put a next action into my GTD system, with reference to the mindmap as project reference.
     
  14. Gardener

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    What you're saying here goes contrary to my experience. That's absolutely not to say that it's wrong--there's a huge "matter of opinion" space here, and my opinion doesn't get to take charge. :) But my opinion diverges so strongly from yours that I'm curious for more detail about yours.

    I'm not seeing the above. Maybe you're saying that those are the projects for which GTD alone is a sufficient planning system? I do agree that GTD is not primarily a project planning tool, so for complex projects you'll want another planning system.

    Nevertheless, I'm still a bit puzzled about the "mainly parallel actions which can be mapped out early and subsequently". Would you mind explaining a bit more? I find GTD to be extra useful for the kinda-opposite--projects with dependent actions that can't easily be planned in advance.

    For me, the smallest "unit" of work tracked by Trello seems to be a great deal larger than the smallest unit tracked by GTD. The action size that I use for GTD in OmniFocus is too small to require the pending-doing-done structure--I prefer to create fairly atomic tasks that are usually either not-done or done-done. For that reason, I experienced Trello as too simple--the main value of OmniFocus for me is to track the line of small tasks tied to a project, and Trello doesn't really do that in any way that works for me.
     
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  15. TesTeq

    TesTeq Registered

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    People tend to blame GTD for being insufficient for planning (despite the whole section about the Natural Planning Model in the book) because planning is easier than doing. GTD encourages doing.
     
  16. Gardener

    Gardener Registered

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    It occurs to me that I'm falling into my usual trap of using the term "GTD" to refer to the GTD lists--projects, actions, contexts, etc. And probably also tickler procedures and calendars. But I keep thinking of project support material--including the use of fancy planning software--as being outside GTD.
     
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  17. ERJ1

    ERJ1 Jedi Master

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    True! I've also found that when breaking down Next Actions (as I think they really are meant to be broken down) can help that "doing" part get going... if the Next Action is truly a Next Action, it's almost always a pretty simple avenue into starting the project and getting the ball rolling.
     
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  18. frank F

    frank F Registered

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    I am in particular thinking of very complex projects for work, which are one large project in itself , and within this many subprojects, and subsubprojects. This is why I prefer to handle this through mindmaps. Maybe it´s the GTD system I am using (Nirvana) which does not allow this level of granularity. It does allow brainstorming of course but it is not that easy for me to get my head around these complex things both top down and considering all the interconnections. So yes I am considering GTD not the sole planning system for this - but I am still using for front end to dos , in the same way that I would take over to dos coming out of outlook, into my GTD system. Does this make sense?

    Regarding the parallel actions which can be mapped out easily from the start, I am for example thinking of admin chores where you need to submit plenty of forms which you need to organise, and for which you might have something else to do first. This is the level of complexity I am managing through GTD, but nothing much deeper .

    I am also not using Trello that much as is too simple and not as three dimensional as GTD. I have in the past used it for example for my tax declaration where I needed to memorise plenty of things but I might have probably done this through GTD as well .
     
  19. mcogilvie

    mcogilvie Registered

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    You do seem to be under the misapprehension that GTD is something rather small, as if one would say “I use Outlook for email and GTD for routine projects but Trello for bigger projects.” Outlook, Trello and Nirvana are software tools, and no software today encapsulates the full GTD system. GTD is a systematic approach to defining and doing what you want or need to do, and i am confident it is capable of handling any human activity, regardless of scale. Certainly GTD embraces mind maps, project planning software, and many more tools. I think this is the conceptual gap we seem to be having.
     
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  20. Gardener

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    This leads me to the terminology issue I keep having, between two uses of GTD. There's "GTD" as the name of the overall process of managing your work, and there's "GTD" as the name of the project/context/action lists part of that process.

    I keep using the term just for the lists, plus maybe the calendar, tickler, and a few related things, and it sounds like you're doing the same here? But arguably your use of mindmaps is GTD. If someone is using Nirvana and mindmaps and Microsoft Project and JIRA and Evernote, that's arguably all GTD--whether it's GTD is determined by whether they're using them in accordance with the GTD process. Or more or less in accordance.

    For what it's worth, OmniFocus supports nesting, both in folders and in projects. I mostly don't use that--I prefer that the many projects that make up a complex project to all be at the top level--but it's there, if OmniFocus is an option for you.

    So per my discussion above, I would say that that is the level that you're managing through Nirvana, but you may very well be managing it all through GTD--depending on how you define GTD. The use of an action list tool as the front end for a more complex back-end planning process seems entirely in line with GTD.
     

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