“Next Action” a misnomer?


It just occurred to me when reading awebber’s second post in the Tom Peters thread, and his reference to NAs in the context of that post: is Next Action a misleading description? Does it obscure/belie its real purpose: to tell us where to begin when we take up a particular project again?

I know this sounds like hair splitting, but speaking for myself, I find that when I read my list headed “next actions” I feel an impulse to try to do them all. (I know some of them are context specific: @hardware store, or @boss for example, but the bulk of them are centred on the desk).

Awebber said he reviews his list of NAs each morning, and then picks out the 3 or 4 projects he feels he should try to move forward that day. It was this easy transition from "NAs" to "projects" in the same sentence that made me realise he was using the NAs to identify the projects: picking up certain rope-ends as it were.

The insight made me realise that I had developed a mental image of GTD as being like a very wide snow plough that catches all of my projects and tries to move them all forwards simultaneously.

It’s a bit like David’s own example of the garage that needs cleaning – every time you walk past it a voice in your head says “Clean the garage now!”, “Clean the garage now!”, “Clean the garage now!”, over and over. GTD should knock that voice out, but I find that the NA list can have the same effect – all the actions in front of me on the list are crying out to be done NOW.

I think the concept of “bookmarks” catches the true intent of NA lists more accurately, and plays down the "imiediate action" tone.


You make a valid point here, and I suppose it is a question of semantics. We agree on the meaning of "Action", but what do we mean by the word "Next"?

If we lapse into thinking it means "immediately, right now", then I suggest that defeats the purpose of relaxed focus once we have more than one "N/A" listed.

On the other hand, if we regard it as "next thing to be done on X project when I get to it", taking into account context, time available, and energy level then the term is serving what I see as its purpose.

When I first started GTD about 4 months ago, I didn't care for "@Someday/Maybe" and my choice for that list is simply "@Possibilities". Purely semantics, IMO...


I think DA says it, though it has been a while since I have read the book, but a Next Action attached to a project is just the next step. In my morning review I do look at both Next Actions and Projects, for some of the same reasons and for different reasons. For example, I review my NA’s to quickly check and ensure that there are no singular actions (not attached to a project) hanging out on my lists that did not have a deadline to them, but now do. If that deadline is today, it goes on my Today list on a 3x5 card that I carry. I also look at the project based NA’s (though I don’t separate them like this, only by context) for what is feasible to accomplish on my projects in the context of my day. It maybe that in the context of my calendar that I only have two free hours and the next action on a critical project requires four hours; I will shift appointments and skip certain meetings if the project is that critical, and add it to my card.

By making my Today list, I am internally acknowledging that I cannot accomplish everything on my NA lists – or even move a majority of them forward – but that I can focus on what is critical, and allow my mind to flow into the tasks that are. Maybe it is nothing more then semantics, but this little trick has kept me from being repelled and overwhelmed by my lists, and has allowed me to continue to be efficient and effective.



3x5 Card

awebber said:
it goes on my Today list on a 3x5 card that I carry.
On a laterally related topic, I was watching a preacher, Pastor Charles Stanley recently; he spoke of achieving goals, he said he puts his committements for the day on a 3 x 5 card which he carries in his pocket.

I too find that when am in a stream of semi-consciousness that prevents me from really doing this life with black belt focus that I need some prompts to help me at least get done what matters the most. I am unable to hold on to the discipline of Getting Things Done with the intensity I feel it needs on a consistent basis. And so rather than getting discouraged I maintain a certain bottom line which inevitably creates frustration & then the cycle of desiring perfection drives me to shake it off & get back into the adult world of 'drive'.


For me "Next Action" refers to the project, not the actor, so I've never inferred a sense of urgency from the term. It's simply the action the has to happen before other actions can follow. You can't have dental work done until you call and schedule an appointment.

I can see how, if you think that "Next Action" refers to the actor, you will feel like you're failing the system when you backslide. But if you think of them as referring to their project, and if they're faithfully written down, then, if anything, they should relieve anxiety, not increase it.

There's a DA newsletter where he talks about how the GTD black belt remains calm despite any number of NAs on his list, knowing that they're captured in a trusted system. Allen has also said several times that the only way you can feel good about what you're not doing is to know what it is you're not doing. Keeping a full account of what needs to be done is the essence of the system, but it's you, not the system, that does the work. A Next Action list only give us a clear sequence of what actions we must choose to carry out for a project to get done. It can't give us timetable for doing them.