Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)
The Power of the Key Principles
The Power of the Next-Action Decision
When a culture adopts “What’s the next action?” as a standard operating query, there’s an automatic increase in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus.
I HAVE A personal mission to make “What’s the next action?” part of our global thought process. I envision a world in which no meeting or discussion will end, and no interaction cease, without a clear indication of whether or not some action is needed—and if it is, what it will be, or at least who has accountability for it. I envision organizations adopting a standard that anything that lands in anyone’s field of awareness will be evaluated for action required, and the resulting decisions managed appropriately. Imagine the freedom that would provide for people and organizations to focus their attention on bigger issues and opportunities.
Over the years I have noticed an extraordinary shift in energy and productivity whenever individuals and groups installed “What’s the next action?” as a fundamental and consistently asked question. As simple as the query seems, it is still somewhat rare to find it fully operational where it needs to be.
One of the greatest challenges you may encounter is that once you have gotten used to “What’s the next action?” for yourself and those around you, interacting with people who aren’t asking it can be highly frustrating. It clarifies things so quickly that dealing with people and environments that don’t use it can seem nightmarish.
We are all accountable for defining what, if anything, we are committed to make happen as we engage with others and ourselves. And at some point, for any outcome that we have an internal commitment to complete, we must make the decision about the next physical action required. There’s a great difference, however, between making that decision when things show up and doing it when they blow up.
The Source of the Technique
Doing a straightforward, clear-cut task that has a beginning and an end balances out the complexity-without-end that often vexes the rest of my life. Sacred simplicity.
I learned this simple but extraordinary next-action technique more than thirty years ago from a longtime friend and management-consultant mentor of mine, Dean Acheson (no relation to the former U.S. Secretary of State). Dean had spent many prior years consulting with executives and researching what was required to free up the logjams many of them had regarding projects and situations they were involved in, in order to release and galvanize energy for significant change required in their organizations. One day he just started picking up each individual piece of paper on an executive’s desk and forcing him to decide what the very next thing was that he had to do to move it forward. The results were so immediate and so profound for the executive that Dean continued for years to perfect a methodology using that same question to process the in-tray. Since then, given what I’ve developed using Dean’s insights, hundreds of thousands of people have been trained and coached with this key concept, and it remains a foolproof technique.
This thought process is not something we are born doing, nor does it seem to come to us naturally. When you were born, it probably didn’t occur to you to ask your mother, “So, what are we doing here, and what’s the next action, and who has it?” It is a learned technique of thinking, decision making, and consciously directed focus. It will happen automatically for you when the situation obviously demands it, as in a crisis, or when the pressure in a situation (from the boss, a client, your child, or the unexpected circumstance) forces a next-action decision to avert painful consequences. But incorporating this as a proactive behavior, before the circumstances are so obvious and actions so immediately necessary, is an acquired practice.* Making it a part of your personal and organizational life never fails to improve both your productivity and peace of mind.
Creating the Option of Doing
How could something so simple be so powerful—“What’s the next action?”
To help answer that question, I invite you to revisit for a moment your mind-sweep list (see page 115)—or at least to think about all the projects that are probably sitting around in your head. Do you have a sense that any of them haven’t been moving along as consistently and productively as they could be? You’ll probably admit that yes, indeed, a few have been a little bit stuck.
If you haven’t known for sure whether you needed to make a call, send an e-mail, talk to someone, surf the Web about something, or buy an item at the store as the very next thing to move on, it hasn’t been getting done. What’s ironic is that it would likely require only about ten seconds of thinking to figure out what the next action would be for almost everything on your list. But it’s ten seconds of thinking and decision making that most people haven’t done about most things on their lists.
For example, someone will have something like “tires” on a list.
I then ask, “What’s that about?”
He responds, “Well, I need new tires on my car.”
“So what’s the next action?”
At that point he usually wrinkles up his forehead, ponders for a few moments, and expresses his conclusion: “Well, I need to check the Web for stores and prices for the tires.”
That’s about how much time and cognitive investment is required to decide what the “doing” would look like on almost everything. It’s just the few seconds of focused thinking that most people have not yet done about most of their still unfinished stuff.
The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
It will probably be true, too, that the person who needs tires on his car has had that on his radar for quite a while. It’s also likely that he’s been on his computer hundreds of times, often with just enough time and energy to take that action. Why didn’t he do it? Because in that state of mind, the last thing in the world he felt like doing was considering all his projects, including getting tires, and what their next actions were. In those moments he didn’t feel like thinking at all.
What he needed was to have already figured those things out. If he gets that next-action thinking done, then when he happens to have fifteen minutes before a meeting, at his computer, and his energy is about 4.2 out of 10, he can look at the list of things to do and be delighted to see “Research new tires” on it. “That’s something I can do and complete successfully!” he’ll think, and then he’ll actually be motivated to surf the Web about it, just to experience the “win” of completing something useful in the time and energy window he’s in. In this context he’d be incapable of starting a large proposal draft for a client, but he has sufficient resources for searching the Internet and getting simple information quickly. It’s highly probable that at some point he’ll look at a new set of tires on his car and feel on top of the world.
Defining what real doing looks like on the most basic level and organizing placeholder reminders that we can trust are master keys to productivity enhancement and creating a relaxed inner environment.
Without a next action, there remains a potentially infinite gap between current reality and what you need to do.
Often even the simplest things are stuck because we haven’t made a final decision yet about the next action. People in my seminars often have things on their lists like “Get a tune-up for the car.” Is “Get a tune-up” a next action? Not unless you’re walking out to your car with wrench in hand, dressed to get greasy.
“So, what’s the next action?”
“Uh, I need to take the car to the garage. Oh, yeah, I need to find out if the garage can take it. I guess I need to call the garage and make the appointment.”
“Do you have the number?”
“Darn, no … I don’t have the name and number for the garage. Fred recommended that garage to me, and I don’t have that information. I knew something was missing in the equation.”
And that’s often what happens with so many things for so many people. We glance at the project, and some part of us thinks, “I don’t quite have all the pieces between here and there.” We know something is missing, but we’re not sure what it is, so we quit.
“So, what’s the next action?”
“I need to get the name and phone number. I guess I could get it from Fred.”
“How could you do that?”
“I can e-mail Fred!”
So the next action really is “E-mail Fred for info re: the garage.”
Did you notice how many steps had to be tracked back before we got to the real next action on this project? That’s typical. Most people have many things just like that on their lists and on their minds.
Why Bright People Procrastinate the Most
It’s really the smartest and most sensitive people who have the highest number of undecided things in their lives and on their lists. Why is that? Think of how our bodies respond to the images we hold in our minds. It appears that the nervous system can’t tell the difference between a well-imagined thought and reality.
Bright people have the capability of freaking out faster and more dramatically than anyone else.
To prove this to yourself, picture walking into a food market and approaching the brightly lit fruit-and-vegetable section. Are you there? OK, now go to the citrus bins—oranges, grapefruits, lemons. Now see the big pile of yellow lemons. There’s a cutting board and a knife next to them. Take one of those big yellow lemons and cut it in half lengthwise. Smell that citrus smell! It’s really juicy, and there’s lemon juice trickling onto the board. Now take a half lemon and cut that in half, so you have a quarter lemon wedge in your hands. OK, now—remember how you did this as a kid?—put that quarter of a lemon in your mouth and bite into it! Scrunch!
If you played along with me, you probably noticed that the saliva content in your mouth increased at least a bit. Your body was actually trying to process citric acid! And it was just in your mind. If your body responds to the pictures you give it, how are you likely to feel physically when you think about, say, doing your taxes? Are you sending yourself easy, let’s go, completion, success, and “I’m a winner!” pictures? Probably not. For just that reason, what kinds of people would logically be the most resistant to being reminded about a project like that—that is, who would procrastinate the most? Of course, it would be the most creative, sensitive, and intelligent people—because their sensitivity and creativity give them the capability to produce in their minds lurid nightmare scenarios about what might be involved in doing the project, and all the negative consequences that might occur if it isn’t done perfectly! They just freak out in an instant and quit!
I am an old man, and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
Who doesn’t procrastinate? Often it’s the insensitive oafs who just take something and start plodding forward, unaware of all the things that could go wrong. Everyone else tends to get hung up about all kinds of things.
Do my taxes? Oh, no! It’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be different this year, I’m sure. I saw the forms—they look different. There are probably new rules I’m going to have to figure out. I might have to read all that damn material. Long form, short form, medium form. File together with my partner? File separate? We’ll probably want to claim some new deductions, but if we do we’ll have to back them up, and that means we’ll need all the receipts. Oh, my God—I don’t know if we really have all the receipts we’ll need, and what if we didn’t have all the receipts but we claimed the deductions anyway and we got audited? Audited? Oh, no—tax fraud! Jail!
And so a lot of people psychologically put themselves in jail, just glancing at their tax forms—because they’re so smart, sensitive, and creative. In my many years of coaching individuals, this pattern has been borne out more times than I can count—usually it’s the brightest and most sophisticated folks who have the most stuck piles in their offices, homes, e-mail, and heads. Most of the executives I work with have at least several big, complex, and amorphous projects stacked either on top of a file cabinet or on a mental shelf. There always seem to be hobgoblin thoughts lurking inside them—“If we don’t look at or think about the projects, maybe they’ll stay quiet!”
Ceasing negative imaging will always cause your energy to increase.
So what’s the solution? There’s always having a drink. Numb it. Dumb it down. Notice what happens to many people when they get a little alcohol in their brain. It should drop their energy immediately, because it’s a depressant; often, though, the energy lifts, at least initially. Why? The alcohol is depressing something—it’s shutting down the negative self-talk and uncomfortable visions that are going on in these folks’ minds. Of course my energy will increase if I stop depressing myself with overwhelming pictures of not handling something successfully. But the numbing solutions are temporary at best. The stuff doesn’t go away. And unfortunately, when we numb ourselves, we can’t do it selectively—the source of inspiration and enthusiasm and personal energy also seems to get numbed.
Intelligent Dumbing Down
No matter how big and tough a problem may be, get rid of confusion by taking one little step toward solution. Do something.
—George F. Nordenholt
There is another solution: intelligently dumbing down your brain by figuring out the next action. You’ll invariably feel a relieving of pressure about anything you have a commitment to change or do, when you decide on the very next physical action required to move it forward. Nothing, essentially, will change in the world. But shifting your focus to something that your mind perceives as a doable task will create a real increase in positive energy, direction, and motivation. If you have truly captured all the things that have your attention during the mind sweep, go through the list again now and decide on the single very next action to take on every one of them. Notice what happens to your energy.
Everything on your lists and in your stacks is either attractive or repulsive to you—there’s no neutral ground when it comes to your stuff.
You are either attracted or repelled by the things on your lists; there isn’t any neutral territory. You are either positively drawn toward completing the action or reluctant to think about what it is and resistant to getting involved in it. Often it’s simply the next-action decision that makes the difference between the two extremes. Thinking and deciding require energy. And when you notice something unfinished in your world but haven’t determined what the next action is yet, you’ll tend to be reminded of your fatigue and sense of being overwhelmed! Hence most people’s reaction to their own lists and organizers is negative—not because of the contents per se, but rather because sufficient appropriate thinking has yet to be applied to them.
In following up with people who have begun to implement this methodology, I’ve discovered that one of the subtler ways many of them fall off the wagon is in letting their action lists grow back into lists of tasks or subprojects instead of discrete next actions. They’re still ahead of most people because they’re actually writing things down, but they often find themselves stuck, and procrastinating, because they’ve allowed their action lists to harbor items like:
“Meeting with the banquet committee”
You can only cure retail but you can prevent wholesale.
In other words, things have morphed back into “stuff” instead of starting at the action level. There are no clear next actions here, and anyone keeping a list filled with items like this would send her brain into overload every time she looked at it.
Is this extra work? Is figuring out the next action on your commitments additional effort that you don’t need to expend? No, of course not. If you need to get your car tuned, for instance, you’re going to have to figure out that next action at some point anyway. The problem is that most people wait to do it until the next action is “Call the Auto Club for tow truck!”
So when do you think most people really make a lot of their next-action decisions about their stuff—when it shows up, or when it blows up? And do you think there might be a difference in the quality of their lives if they handled this knowledge work on the front end instead of the back? Which do you think is the more efficient way to move through life—deciding next actions on your projects as soon as they appear on your radar screen and then efficiently grouping them into categories of actions that you get done in certain uniform contexts, or avoiding thinking about what, exactly, needs to be done until it has to be done, then sputtering through your actions as you try to catch up and put out the fires?
Avoiding action decisions until the pressure of the last minute creates huge inefficiencies and unnecessary stress.
That may sound exaggerated, but when I ask groups of people to estimate when most of the action decisions are made in their companies, with few exceptions they say, “When things blow up.” One of our global corporate clients surveyed its population about sources of stress in its culture, and the number one complaint was the last-minute crisis work consistently promoted by team leaders who failed to make appropriate decisions on the front end.
The Value of a Next-Action Decision-Making Standard
I have had several sophisticated senior executives tell me that installing “What’s the next action?” as an operational standard in their organization was transformative in terms of measurable performance output. It changed their culture permanently and significantly for the better.
Why? Because the question forces clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment.
Too many discussions end with only a vague sense that people know what they have decided and are going to do. But without a clear conclusion that there is a next action, much less what it is and who’s got it, more often than not a lot of stuff gets left up in the air.
I am frequently asked to facilitate meetings. I’ve learned the hard way that no matter where we are in the conversation, twenty minutes before the agreed end time of the discussion I must force the question: “So what’s the next action here?” In my experience, there is usually twenty minutes’ worth of clarifying (and sometimes tough decisions) still required to come up with an answer.
Talk does not cook rice.
This is radical common sense—radical because it often compels discussion at deeper levels than people are comfortable with. “Are we serious about this?” “Do we really know what we’re doing here?” “Are we really ready to allocate precious time and resources to this?” It’s very easy to avoid these more relevant levels of thinking. What prevents those issues from slipping away into amorphous stuff is forcing the decision about the next action. Some further conversation, exploration, deliberation, and negotiation are often needed to put the topic to rest. The world is too unpredictable these days to permit assumptions about outcomes: we need to take responsibility for moving things to clarity.
You have to have some experience of this to really know what I mean here. If you do, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Yes!” If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, I suggest that in your next meeting with anyone, you end the conversation with the question, “So what’s the next action here?” Then notice what happens.
The dark side of collaborative cultures is the allergy they foster to holding anyone responsible for having the ball. “Mine or yours?” is unfortunately not in the common vocabulary of many such organizations. There is a sense that that would be impolite. “We’re all in this together” is a worthy sentiment, but seldom a reality in the hard-nosed day-to-day world of work. Too many meetings end with a vague feeling among the players that something ought to happen, and the hope that it’s not their personal job to make it so.
The way I see it, what’s truly impolite is allowing people to walk away from discussions unclear. Real togetherness of a group is reflected by the responsibility that all take for defining the real things to do and the specific people assigned to do them, so everyone is freed of the angst of still-undecided actions.
Again, if you’ve been there, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, test it out—take a small risk and ask, “So what’s the next action on this?” at the end of each discussion point in your next staff meeting, or in your next family conversation around the dinner table.
There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.
—John F. Kennedy
Organizations naturally become more productive when they model and train front-end next-action decision making. For all the reasons mentioned, determining the required physical allocation of resources necessary to make something happen as soon as the outcome has been clarified will produce more results sooner, and with less effort.
Productivity will improve only when individuals increase their operational responsiveness. And in knowledge work, that means clarifying actions on the front end instead of the back.
Learning to break through the barriers of the sophisticated creative thinking that can freeze activity—that is, the entangled mental webs we spin—is a superior skill. “Productivity” has been touted for decades as a desirable thing to improve in organizations. Anything that can help maximize output will do that. But in the world of knowledge work, all the computers and telecom improvements and leadership seminars on the planet will make no difference in this regard unless the individuals involved increase their operational responsiveness. And that requires thinking about something that lands in your world before you have to.*
Perhaps the greatest benefit of adopting the next-action approach is that it dramatically increases your ability to make things happen, with a concomitant rise in your self-esteem and constructive outlook.
Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
—Saint Francis of Assisi
People are constantly doing things, but usually only when they have to, under fire from themselves or others. They get no sense of winning, or of being in control, or of cooperating among themselves and with their world. People are starving for those experiences.
The daily behaviors that define the things that are incomplete and the moves that are needed to complete them must change. Getting things going of your own accord, before you’re forced to by external pressure and internal stress, builds a firm foundation of self-worth that will spread to every aspect of your life. You are the captain of your own ship; the more you act from that perspective, the better things will go for you.
Asking yourself, “What’s the next action?” undermines the victim mentality. It presupposes that there is a possibility of change, and that there is something you can do to make it happen. That is the assumed affirmation in the behavior. And these kinds of assumed affirmations often work more fundamentally to build a positive self-image than can repeating, “I am a powerful, effective person, making things happen in my life!” a thousand times.
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.
—George Bernard Shaw
Is there too much complaining in your culture? The next time someone moans about something, try asking, “So what’s the next action?” People will complain only about something that they assume could be better than it currently is. The action question forces the issue. If it can be changed, there’s some action that will change it. If it can’t, it must be considered part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy and tactics. Complaining is a sign that someone isn’t willing to risk moving on a changeable situation, or won’t consider the immutable circumstance in his or her plans. This is a temporary and hollow form of self-validation.
Although my colleagues and I rarely promote our work in this way, I notice people really empowering themselves every day as we coach them in applying the next-action technique. It increases the light in their eyes and the lightness in their step, and a sparkle shows up in their thinking and demeanor. We are all already powerful, but deciding on and effectively managing the physical actions required to move things forward seems to exercise that power in ways that call forward the more positive aspects of our nature.
When you start to make things happen, you begin to believe that you can make things happen. And that makes things happen.