Making “Next Actions” work for me in GTD

As many of you might know, I’m a proponent of the GTD time-management, personal productivity system. I’m doing much better than I have in the past at a couple of the areas that have consistently tripped me up – such as the ubiquitous capture part. I found myself the other day searching Amazon for a shower-friendly whiteboard because I keep getting ideas in the shower and have no way to write them down, but that is a topic for another day. Today, I’m going to talk about how I’m improving my Next Actions.
Next Actions
In the GTD world, Next Actions are the *very next thing* that needs to be done to move a particular project along. They can also be singular, one-off tasks that need to be done without regards to a project as well, but either way – it should be a single, atomic-level task that can be completed without any further delay. No more research needs to be done (that is what you were supposed to have “checked off” your next actions list before you put on the task that is the current next action), no decisions need to be made (see above about checking off these tasks) nothing more needs to be done but that next action. My problem has been that I don’t always do the thinking required to distill my projects down into the correct next action.
The other day, I was looking at my next actions list and discovered “write G-Apps article” on it (I’m considering an article about our year’s experience with using Google Apps – if you are interested in reading something like that, send me some motivation, will ya?). This is not a next action. The proper thing would have been to add that as a project, then consider the very next action to make that project a reality – namely, gathering statistics about our use of Google Apps – along with all the other tasks (gathering anecdotal stories about staff use, pulling together cost comparisons, writing up a mind-map “outline” of the article, writing the first draft, second draft, ad nauseum). I can’t just sit down and “write G-Apps article”, because I don’t have the information I need to start. That makes this particular “next action” something that is never going to happen unless I do the thinking and make the changes.
The next action – in this case gathering statistics about our use of Google Apps – is atomic. It can be done without me having to think about anything else that goes before it. I can log into our G-Apps dashboard and start pulling usage stats immediately, then check that action off and put the next “next action” onto my list for when I have time to do it.
This probably excessively long contemplation of next actions in GTD was inspired by Web Worker Daily’s article on Unambiguous To-Dos. In it, Amber Riviere says

The intention for the time slot has not changed, but the outcome has. I know now exactly how to use the time. I’m not contemplating what needs to be done; I already know that part. Instead, I focus on actually getting the work done, and at the end of the day, I can say that I’ve completed real steps that move me a little further in the direction I want to go.

This is the goal that I’m setting for myself with my next actions. Each and every one will need to be atomic – self-contained and un-splittable (please don’t email me with details on quantum physics – I’m making a metaphor here, not stating scientific fact, I know…). Once I can automatically phrase my next actions in verb-subject, atomic form, then I’ll be ready to move on to perfecting another part of my GTD process. Like ordering one of those shower-friendly whiteboards…

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