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  • Is there a good, universal way to identify next actions for complex tasks?

    I've been a GTD acolyte for a few years now and am very happy with it. There is one major nagging problem I have though, and it seems to be rarely if ever mentioned in GTD discussions.

    In my opinion, the main source of GTD's power is the idea of having all your projects and life goals, no matter how complex, distilled at all times into one or more bite-sized next actions. However, I often find it difficult to identify bite-sized next actions for projects. In some cases, it takes more work to identify next actions than to actually perform the actions.

    A good example is a book reading project i.e., I want to read book X, which has 1000 pages. It's obviously a major project, but what next action can I take to move forward toward the overall goal? I typically have next actions like "read book X for 15 minutes" but that is very unsatisfying and seems to defeat the main purpose of GTD, especially when most of my complex projects end up with next actions like "work on project Y for 20 minutes."

    What do others think about this issue? Can anyone give examples of a better next action for something like the book reading project? Thanks for your help.

  • #2
    Originally posted by andrew732 View Post
    especially when most of my complex projects end up with next actions like "work on project Y for 20 minutes.
    I would suggest "work on project Y for 20 minutes" isn't really a next action. What do you have to DO? If you haven't decided that yet, you could spend the first 10 minutes of the 20 minute slot just trying to figure that out.

    When I work on an ongoing project, I set my next action at the end of the previous slot, almost like a bookmark to remind me where to pick up when I next continue working on it. It's easier to figure out that real next action when you're actually working on the project.

    For the book reading project, I'd break it down into chapters or sections, and cross it off when I've completed that section. That means I may take 3 or 4 'bites' at each next action before I can cross it off, but that's ok. It's more satisfying than "read for 15 minutes"

    Comment


    • #3
      Bite-sized is not an exact measurement

      You need to break it down to a size that you can understand and act upon without hesitation. No need to break it down further. If you can understand perfectly what you need to do if you just write "read all books on shelf A", then that's all you need to write. No need to make it complicated. But if you do not know where to start, then it's different. Break it down until you begin to see what you need to do in concrete terms.

      Typically, we can handle quite large bites when it is about something that we are very familiar with, but often need to break it down much more when we are on unfamiliar territory.

      (Side note: reading a book is something that I would not make a project of, and usually not even make a task of unless it is something that needs to get read for a particular purpose. Reading is not an end in itself in my world. But I do read a lot, mainly non-fiction, just for fun.)

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      • #4
        Originally posted by andrew732 View Post
        I typically have next actions like "read book X for 15 minutes" but that is very unsatisfying and seems to defeat the main purpose of GTD, especially when most of my complex projects end up with next actions like "work on project Y for 20 minutes."

        What do others think about this issue? Can anyone give examples of a better next action for something like the book reading project? Thanks for your help.
        People differ, but I have found that "next actions" like "exercise for 15 minutes" or "read 50 pages" or even "process email inbox" suck the life out of me more often than not. Either I process my email today or not. I do most days. If it gets too bad (I'm not revealing my average inbox size!), I will certainly do it. If I have a book to read for book club, I might have a next action like "Finish book for Book Club 2-19" that starts up again the day after I check it off. I'm not committing to 20 minutes or 20 pages- why should I? Do I fail because I only read for 15 minutes or 15 pages? I might not even finish the book if I don't like it enough. For real projects, the most important thing is to have a good next action. Because I do a lot of technical writing, good next actions are things like "add equations to section 2" or "get latest references on large-N equivalence" or "revise abstract." I may do more at one sitting, but these provide me with a way back into the project, a bookmark. In the same way, writing a new next action when I am done with a project for the time being forces me to evaluate the status of the project at a time I have a good, detailed view of it.

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        • #5
          I basically agree with the previous comments. I do have a question, however. Is the book reading for pleasure or do you have to write a review or similar?

          If the former, then I would agree with those who would not characterize it as a project. IF the later, then you have deadlines and I would work backwards from there. Having said that, if it is work related with a deadline, 15 minutes here and there probably isn't going to cut it. (I am speaking for myself, YMMV and should.)

          Personally, pleasure/self edification reading, is something I would schedule for a particular time of day. But that is me.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by andrew732 View Post
            What do others think about this issue? Can anyone give examples of a better next action for something like the book reading project?
            Sometimes GTD seems more like literature than a process and people seem to come up with different interpretations of what GTD "means", buttressing their arguments with quotes from the source (David Allen). Anyway, that's a lead-in to saying that my take is different from what others have posted.

            To me it sounds like GTD is working perfectly for you, giving all it can. You have visibility over what you need to be doing now. You're not going to sit down to read that 1000-page book while neglecting filing your tax returns or making reservations for your vacation this summer because you know all the things that you can be working on.

            I also find that sometimes next actions are mundane and repetitive. If my project is to paint my house there are steps like pick colors, evaluate doing it myself vs hiring a contractor, etc. Checking them off and moving to the next action feels like I'm making progress. But at some point (if I paint it myself) the next action boils down to "paint a wall!" and its going to be stuck on that for a while.

            As opposed to an earlier poster, I'd say that reading a book is a project to me. It means it comes up at my weekly reviews and I pause for a moment to think about whether given what I have on my plate whether its really something I should be actively doing or if it should move to a someday/maybe item. And since I review my someday/maybe items at the weekly review its a chance to think about it in light of other diversions; perhaps I shelve it for a while to do something else on my lists, or perhaps I add some other entertainment items to the list for variety's sake.

            If you feel like something is missing perhaps this is an issue for a higher level review. Maybe you want more variety in your life, spending time reading and working on your regular projects isn't sufficiently fulfilling. But that's not the GTD system, its the things you've identified as your current projects & goals.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by andrew732 View Post
              In some cases, it takes more work to identify next actions than to actually perform the actions.
              I wanted to come back to this point. Sometimes we just have things we want to do: exercise, brush our teeth, read a book. "Oral hygiene" doesn't sound like a very good project, and it's not a very good 50K goal ("I want to die with no regrets about my teeth."). Most of us have a toothbrush in our bathroom, and we use it. It's a habit, but the presence of the toothbrush in the bathroom is a reminder. If we want to read a book, we may put at our bedside or by a favorite chair and read it at appropriate times. It's ok to do this: we want to have habits and patterns that makes our lives easier and more pleasant. It's not about lists. The list is just a tool to get stuff off your mind and in most cases to get it done. If it helps you to put "read book" on a list, do it. If it isn't helpful to you, try something else. I don't want to spend more time managing my reading list than I do reading.

              Comment


              • #8
                Thank you to everyone. I've enjoyed reading and reflecting on what you have to say. Here are some specific comments and questions I have:

                Originally posted by vbampton;
                I would suggest "work on project Y for 20 minutes" isn't really a next action. What do you have to DO?.
                Originally posted by mcogilvie;
                People differ, but I have found that "next actions" like "exercise for 15 minutes" or "read 50 pages" or even "process email inbox" suck the life out of me more often than not.
                Exactly. My problem is identifying good next actions that are concrete, specific, and that minimize my resistance to doing them. Even if the problem is shifted to identifying a next action that's about planning, then I find next actions end up looking like: "spend 20 minutes planning a next action for project X." Maybe I'm just not accepting the fact that at some point, so little is known about a project that the next action must necessarily be no more specific than "brainstorm approaches to project X for 20 minutes." That still doesn't seem to cover things like the book reading project though.

                Originally posted by JerseyDoug;
                Is the book reading for pleasure or do you have to write a review or similar?
                Originally posted by mcogilvie;
                Sometimes we just have things we want to do: exercise, brush our teeth, read a book. "Oral hygiene" doesn't sound like a very good project, and it's not a very good 50K goal ("I want to die with no regrets about my teeth.").
                The book is for pleasure, but under my interpretation of GTD, I would consider this book reading project as fundamentally different from something like brushing teeth. If I didn't place "project 37: read book X" under the control of the GTD system, I would never get around to doing it and I would be disappointed that it was not something that I was able to accomplish in life. For me, brushing teeth falls outside the scope of GTD simply because it's something that I don't care to manage with GTD.

                On that note, it's clearly impossible to micromanage every aspect of life with GTD. If we tried to do that, we would have next actions like "type one character on the keyboard", "inhale", "type another character on the keyboard", "inhale", etc. I'm not disagreeing with anything anyone has said, I'm just clarifying my view on the "pleasure and/or mundane" items vs. "work and/or important items" issue.

                Originally posted by Mike L;
                If you feel like something is missing perhaps this is an issue for a higher level review. Maybe you want more variety in your life, spending time reading and working on your regular projects isn't sufficiently fulfilling. But that's not the GTD system, its the things you've identified as your current projects & goals.
                I see what you mean, but on the contrary, I'm very happy with the projects and goals that I've identified. The problem seems to be with (my implementation of) the GTD system itself.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by andrew732 View Post
                  If I didn't place "project 37: read book X" under the control of the GTD system, I would never get around to doing it and I would be disappointed that it was not something that I was able to accomplish in life. For me, brushing teeth falls outside the scope of GTD simply because it's something that I don't care to manage with GTD.
                  I think David Allen phrased it well. Although I cannot remember his exact words, the essence is that if something keeps bugging you, then it constitutes "stuff" that needs to be collected and processed etc. So, if there is something about your reading or toothbrushing habits or whatever that won't stop grinding in your head, write it down and treat it as per GTD. There simply is no objective definition of what belongs in the GTD system. It is highly personal and subjective. Personally I have no worries about my teeth or my books or my showers or my food, so these things are quite absent from my lists. Others may have tasks for all of those. And it follows the same rule. If it worries you, write it down.

                  Originally posted by andrew732 View Post
                  My problem is identifying good next actions that are concrete, specific, and that minimize my resistance to doing them. Even if the problem is shifted to identifying a next action that's about planning, then I find next actions end up looking like: "spend 20 minutes planning a next action for project X." Maybe I'm just not accepting the fact that at some point, so little is known about a project that the next action must necessarily be no more specific than "brainstorm approaches to project X for 20 minutes."
                  Why do you need to specify the duration? You could write just "Brainstorm" or "Draft some possible next actions". If you find it hard to draft next actions straight away, you might want to try first listing some of the problems or worries or uncertainties that you feel make it hard to get moving with this project, and then see if you can convert some of those questions into next actions (i.e. define what you need to do to solve and eliminate them). And obviously, unless you have already done so, you should define the desired final outcome of the project - not in terms of "what you will have finished doing" but in terms of "what the state of affairs will be" (regardless of how you did it).

                  And I'd like to point out - for better and for worse - that this is neither the beginning nor the end. The same situation can arise again during the course of the project. You may run dry of actions anytime, and need to rinse and repeat. This is something a thorough weekly review will safeguard against, but you should probably do it as soon as you notice that a project is out of next actions.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    I'm puzzled about the problem with "spend X time reading book Y." I suppose that there are different ways to cut that work:

                    - Spend an evening reading book Y.
                    - Spend two hours reading something from Current Book Stack.
                    - Clear schedule for a reading evening.

                    but it all adds up to more or less the same thing. At least, it does to me--are any of the above any less unsatisfying than the others? I'm not saying that it's Wrong to find it unsatisfying, I just don't understand, and I like to understand things.

                    For some projects I do indeed often have actions like, "Spend twenty minutes brainstorming about blah." If the problem seems to be one of kicking my thoughts out of a stall, I might try different things:

                    - Spend twenty minutes writing a fake blog post about blah.
                    - Spend twenty minutes explaining blah to the duck.(*)
                    - Think about blah when I walk to lunch.

                    (* Explaining to the duck is an exercise intended to take advantage of the fact that often when you explain something to someone, you realize that in putting the thoughts into words, you've solved your own problem. Someone realized that the other person is not actually necessary to the process. And they had a rubber duck on their computer monitor, all yellow and squeaky and ready to listen. Or something like that.)

                    But sometimes the problem isn't that I can't think of an action, but that the actions are rejected before they're fully formed, because they somehow feel insufficient or too small. I'm trying to think of an example, but apparently my brain is rejecting examples because they feel insufficient.

                    Well, OK, one example: Let's say that I have to program a really messy report, and I know that it's going to require a whole lot of searches and processing, and I can't quite get my mind around that, and I know that it will be slow and I'll have to find a way to speed it up and I can't get my mind around that. And I just stare at it and don't know what to do. I want to sketch out a big tidy battle plan, but I'm not ready.

                    But I realize that for every report I write, I do some standard things--call it, spool it, return it, blah. I know that I'll be copying that stuff from the last report I wrote. So that's my next action:

                    -- Create report skeleton for ScareyReport

                    So I've got an action. Yay! I work it, and I have a report that's identical to the last report I wrote. It runs. Yay? Now what? Ah!

                    -- Change report titles in ScareyReport

                    Action! Yay! Now I have a report identical to the old report, with titles for the new one. Now what? Ah!

                    -- Create data arrays for ScareyReport.

                    I don't have the faintest idea how to fill those arrays with data, but I've got 'em. And now the next actions start to flow:

                    -- Write code to fill ScareyReport data arrays with fake data.
                    -- Present fake data arrays on ScareyReport.

                    Now I've got a report that shows stuff! It's fake stuff, but it's stuff.

                    So I'm sneaking up, step by step, on the actual hard work of putting real data in the report. And each step is easy. And quite often I find that the steps stay easy, even when I get to the part that I thought was the hard part.

                    And I got myself moving with a couple of really stupid actions. I could have said, "What's the point of duplicating code that just produces a report I already have?" And, "What's the point of putting the titles for Report A on Report B?" And, "What's the point of printing fake data?" But there was a point. They got me in motion.

                    I'm not sure if I'm actually addressing the original question, because I'm still not sure about the problem. Is the problem the prosaic nature of many of the tasks?

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      I don't have actions for reading but I tend to do it in the evening when I start running out of energy or enthusiasm for other actions. If you have a braindead list maybe it would be a good place to park a reading reminder. Word it so that it sounds attractive to you. I might write the action as "Allow yourself to unwind with a book". I wouldn't cross it off as done but eventually I might develop a reading habit and no longer need it on my list.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Making your next action attractive

                        There is some great discussion in this thread. I'm one of those who would not see reading a book as a project - I just love to read. I do have lists of books I want to buy/read etc but the actual reading just happens: at lunch, on the couch during a game, while my son is having a bath, before bed with a glass of wine etc.

                        So - why do you want to read? When do you enjoy reading? When do you have time? What are your ideal surroundings?

                        I think it was hinted at up there but another option is to get it off your next action list and actually put it on your calendar. Make an appointment with yourself to read for half an hour or an hour or whatever. It would stay on your project list to make sure you've got a next action or calendared item.

                        Some thoughts that may or may not apply to your life situation but may give you ideas:
                        - get up half an hour early and read while drinking a coffee (I'm longing for the spring days when I can do this out on the porch!)
                        - put on some favourite classical music, pour a glass of your favourite potion and curl up in front of a fire/window
                        - use that half hour after you get home from work but before everyone else does to read and start your evening routine afterwards
                        - plan a slow-cooker/roast meal once or twice a week and read while food is cooking
                        - take your book to the Laundromat and read while the machines are working
                        - take a vacation day and just stay home to read - make your favourite lunch and enjoy
                        - go to bed fifteen minutes early and read

                        Another thought - are you sure you've got a book you want to read? It took me many years to finally be ok with not finishing a book I've started, but life is too short to read (for pleasure) something you are not enjoying!

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          And double-check your desired outcome again ...

                          If "Read book X" is a something that you will do (an action), then what is "Will have read book X"? Is that an outcome? In my opinion, definitely no. It is still an action, expressed in the future perfect tense. I am sure there are those who disagree with me about that, but the distinction between action and outcome is classical and well documented.

                          So if you want to be fussy, and really want to define your desired outcomes properly - which sometimes can be very challenging but also very rewarding - what is the desired outcome of having read that book? What will you be? How will the world be different? What is it you are trying to achieve by reading that book? When you have defined that, you are much better off. Let's say your desired outcome, after having given it some consideration, is to "be able to discuss classical Italian political ideas with average Italians at any time." then you have a basis for defining (as tasks) which particular books you should read as a part of that project. And perhaps some tasks that are not reading tasks, too, e.g. lectures, debates, relevant clubs or associations etc. Or maybe it is all part of a language exercise? To improve language X in order to ... something? Or maybe the desired outcome is to put you to sleep quickly? Or impress or provoke fellow train riders? How to choose a book, if any, and get started with it, will depend very much on the kind of outcome you have in mind.

                          But this thread was not about books specifically. It was about defining next actions generally. A clear view of a desired outcome can often be a great help.
                          Last edited by Folke; 02-20-2014, 07:33 AM.

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                          • #14
                            I assume you use a bookmark so you can continue reading from where you left off. I usually just leave the book lying around in the place I'm likely to be when I'm likely to have time to read it. You might try various ways of wording a next action, for example just "read book X" (without specifying for how long), i.e. start at your bookmark and read until you decide to stop. I find that specifying a length of time usually makes an action unattractive. You can try out various wordings and see what appeals to you. Also play around with what context you list it in and what sorts of situations tend to lead to having time for reading. I often read while eating, while waiting for a bus, etc. Try to word your next action so that it leads you to visualize yourself opening up the book and picking up the bookmark.

                            For a book, just "read book X" should be specific enough if you already have a bookmark in it. For a project, "work on project X for 20 minutes" is likely not specific enough. Do you know exactly what you'll do first? I like to identify the first few seconds of what I would consider actually getting something done on the project. For example, maybe when I re-start work on that project that day I would first spend a minute or so reviewing my notes and navigating to the right directory and file on the computer and reading part of the file, then I would start typing something useful. The typing counts as making progress. The reviewing notes etc. is also useful but in a sense doesn't count because if that was all I did, I'd have to re-do it again the next time I worked on that project. So my next action would be about the first few seconds of typing, e.g. "start making chart of XYZ" (or "continue ..."). I only have to mention starting, because once I start I'm involved in the project and will naturally tend to continue working on it. Just before leaving work in the evening I can easily and quickly write down some actions like that, and they save time in the morning because then I know exactly where to start and can jump right in. I visualize myself doing those first few seconds of real progress. That's the image the wording of the next action should invoke.

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                            • #15
                              Thanks again for all the replies. I suppose the answer to my original question is probably no, and like many aspects of GTD, a lot of the art in identifying next actions depends on trusting our intuition.

                              The consensus here seems to be that at least in cases where it is difficult to come up with a more specific action, there is nothing inherently wrong or un-GTD-like with next actions of the "work on project X for 20 minutes" type. Like others, I tend to have considerable resistance to performing next actions of that type, but this can be alleviated by making the next action more attractive if not more concrete. Some techniques for doing that are clarifying the desired outcome and phrasing the action in a more inviting manner.

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