Yes, it is the next physical action that we list.
If the next action is something we can't touch, see or hear, e.g. thinking, we write the touchable, visible or hearable "companion" of the mental process on the list, e.g. "draft letter re: budget", whereas "draft" is the visible companion of the thinking process.
Listing only the next physical action makes sense, because it's the opposite of thinking without writing or talking, which is usually senseless, because without writing notes or talking to somebody else your ideas will often fall into oblivion.
the NA might be "Analyze" or "Brainstorm" or some other nonphysical word like that.
That's the sort of thing I was wondering about ... but maybe "thinking on paper" as David Allen calls it is kind of physical .... (I’m trying to minimize the amount of thought thoughts I have to hold in my head, if you know what I mean.)
Just a comment on "Analyze" and "Brainstorm" as "non-physical tasks".
I would argue that those are implicitly physical. You can not brainstorm in your head, you scrath notes, mind map, speak into a recorder, etc. and analysis is certainly a task, but I owuld encourage you to think "what does successful analysis look like?" If you are just analyzing to say "Yep, that's analyzed", I'm not sure that counts as getting something done. Chances are you are analyzing to choose a course of action, to research, to SOMETHING ... for example, I recently had "Analyze CSS template from XYZ.com" as a NA. It sat there for a while until it became "Take notes on CSS from XYZ.com for ABC.com site". Success defined and BOOM.... I was on my way. Analyze is an iffy NA because can you ever really know when you are finished? It's like an NA of "Improve Web Site" or "Regularly follw up with Bob" ... try "Redesign site navigation" or "Update Web Graphics" or "Check with Bob every Friday re: fishing" ... NAs need to be pretty specific (My first two examples cold easily be multi-step projects) ... and you have to know what a WIN look like.
Thinking, dreaming, deciding, analyzing, brainstorming, visualzing, mental arithmetic, reading etc are actions, mental actions, of course.
But we have to distinguish the actions from the words we use to remind us of these actions.
Different persons have different ways of reading, thinking, analyzing etc. One person may write notes while reading, thinking, analyzing. Another person may not.
The original question was "is it the next physical action that we list", and this question refers to 1. the definition of the next action and 2. the reminder for this next action that we write on a list. The next action is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion. We cannot write actions into lists, we can only write reminders or descriptions of actions into lists.
Because of the fact that actions can only be performed or not performed but not written (except the writing-action, of course) , we need to find words that are appropriate or apt to function as reminders of actions. Btw, actions cannot be recorded before they are performed.
When we use the word "think" we usually mean the mental process only, we don't mean "doing the mental thinking process and simultanously writing down the thoughts in an understandable language".
When we use the word "brainstorm" we usually don't mean the mental process only, but we mean "doing the mental brainstorming process and simultanously writing down the thoughts and maybe even draw a map or a diagram".
We could go on and analyze every word that is used to describe a mental process and find that for one group of words the single word usually only means the pure mental process (e.g. thinking and dreaming) and that for another group of words the meaning of a single word not only contains the mental process but also the physical activity that is involved in and accompanies the mental process (e.g. drawing a mind map) (mind-eyes-hand-feedback).
Why is the next action the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion?
Because the activity, the action must have a result, an outcome in the real physical world to move us forward to the project's goal.
The reminder written on the list should within the scope of its meaning contain some physical consequence to remind us of this necessity for a physical result of the action. So the reminder "think about letter re: budget" would not be a suited reminder, but the reminders "think about and write first version of letter re: budget" and "draft letter re: budget" would be apt.
"Decide what is the Next Action." Now, what does that mean? Throw dice? Launch a new project called "problem solving and decision making process regarding our budget"? Step into the "What is it ?"-trap in the processing step of the GTD-workflow? Or what? The word "decide" has many meanings and depending on the circumstances and the nature of the problem in front of us we have to define what "deciding" means to us.
... but is it the next physical action that we list?
From our experience, it's best to "over-do" this at first. That is, write down the next "physical, visible action" you will take to get started on something; and then, capture that on one of the context-based lists.
Over time, a system will emerge that works, has "enough" information, and is easy to not-think-about.
When I'm speaking to a group about these "next actions," I encourage them to write something down that they are pretty sure (ok, as David says, "99% positive") they can do in one sitting. There is a law of inertia here, one next action begets another next action, leads to something else.
Sometimes I use the analogy of reading a book. When reading a book, I will always put a bookmark in between the pages where I stopped reading, but I also put a small "dot" beside the "next paragraph" I will read. That way, I literally pick up the book, look for the dot, and start reading. A small thing I know; however, the payoff is huge when I'm managing multiple projects under varying deadlines.
When I go to write article "A," I need to know exactly where to start, because I'm sure to have article "B" in the queue.
whenever I have to read a book I copy the table of contents using a photocopier and use this copy as a checklist within the context where I need to read the book. I simple tick off the sections or chapters one after another.
If the task is to do more than just reading I use the SQ3R method to work through each chapter. The next actions for each chapter would be: survey, question, read, recall, review. Each action would be accompanied by taking handwritten notes.
In my opinion, the greatest thing about the GTD method, is there is not a "better way" general enough to answer this question.
Remember, Getting Things Done, the way we teach it, boils down to: "How are you keeping and managing your agreements?"
That really brings it to the level of, "How/Where/When/Why do you need to be reminded you're reading the book in the first place?" Then, leave a reminder in a system you trust; when you get "there," are you reminded (when you could do something) of the things you said you'd do while you are "here?"
How do you establish the next action when the project consists of the same action rinse repeat until done?
In the specific case of keeping up with reading, I've had good luck with two techniques. One, if I have something that has to be read (for work, school, not just for pleasure) I put it on a Read/Review list. This is a list I review just like any other, which keeps it in front of me on a regular basis. Two, I've gotten into the habit (after a bit of a struggle) of keeping this reading, along with pleasure reading, together in one place and taking all, or a portion, of it with me at all times. So I have the option of reading whenever I have time or opportunity. After I started taking it with me, I discovered many times and places to read. Such as when I get to my stepson's track practice 10 minutes early. Or finding out a client meeting is postponed by an hour, after I'm already underway - I made good use of the time by finding a cafe and catching up.
When I had serious amounts of reading in grad school, I had to structure my time like I had a job and schedule reading time. But other than this exeption, I haven't had luck making "read chap1" a NA or making "appointments" to read. By creating the Read/Review list and carrying the reading material with me, it pretty much became a NA I could do anytime, anywhere. And then I was right back to using the four criteria (Time, Energy,etc) in deciding what to do.