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  • 2nd Level Inboxes - Action Lists

    OK, let's say that we've managed to get control of our email inboxes, paper inboxes, voicemail, etc and are clearing them each day. That is progress and at least we have an opportunity to notice each item at least once.

    We have deleted, completed (if quick), filed and sorted into action lists made up of:
    1) Stack of paper items that require action
    2) A couple of action needed email folders
    3) Other items are on the ToDo list or Appointment calendar if time related
    4) Few items on my daily note sheet

    Here's where I'm having trouble - keeping control of these action lists. How do I keep these action lists from becoming big dumping grounds, too awesome to confront?

    The four criteria for choosing actions in the moment (p. 49 GTD) are:
    1) Context
    2) Time Available
    3) Energy Available
    4) Priority

    I'm not sure how to appy the criteria to my hard to confront action lists with lots of items. I'm loosing control and creating stress without action at this point. The action lists seem like a vast sea.

  • #2
    Weekly Review.

    Suppose you have 100 items on your actions lists. You are unlikely to actually do more than 20 or 30 in a given week. (Random numbers, pick whatever numbers fit your situation.) The Weekly Review is when you decide what's not going to get done.

    If a project is on the Someday/Maybe list, then all actions associated with it can also be moved off your current list.

    Right now, my biggest context list has 15 current items in it. That's actually too many. I'd like for it to be 10 or less, but I'm letting myself be sloppy because many of them are related to one particular project.

    Katherine

    Comment


    • #3
      Hide them!

      Are you using a software application for your action lists? Filtering the actions by context/energy/etc. should help you focus on the tasks you can realistically work on at any given point.

      The action list is supposed to be a vast sea - it's the "trusted" system that makes sure your psychic RAM's been dumped and does not get lost. But the system as a whole is not a great operational tool. Operationally, you need to be able to hide the stuff you can't do at the moment.

      Comment


      • #4
        Consoidate, separate, and do your thinking ahead of time.

        I think that in the GTD scheme the best next steps are to is to:

        a) CONSOLIDATE your next-action lists in as few places as possible.
        Do you really need multiple action-needed email folders, plus a non-calendar ToDo list, plus a daily note sheet, plus a stack of paper items? Cal you get all of these into one or two places and formats?

        b) SEPARATE your action lists by context.
        If you do this, then the first of those four "action choice" criteria is made ahead of time, and you don't have to look at everything on your big list all at once. Not at a computer? Don't bother looking at your "@ Computer" list. Got five minutes and a phone? You could choose to take a look at your "@ Phone" list and not bother with any of the others. Right now I've got 173 "Next Actions" on my lists, things I could do productively without any prerequisite action, but I rarely have to look at a list of more than a dozen or two items to decide what to do next.

        I do this by keeping all of my lists on a PDA whose "ToDo" application supports categories. Each context is a category, so I can choose to look at only those marked "@Phone", or "@Internet", or @Home", and so on. But context lists could be kept anywhere, from email folders (one for each context) to planner pages to manila folders with scraps of paper in them. Whatever is going to work for you.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Denver Dave
          The action lists seem like a vast sea.
          The action lists are supposed to be a vast sea -- they are meant to be a comprehensive inventory of every single thing you have to do.

          If you have overcommitted yourself, you can and should renegotiate some of your agreements with yourself or others.

          Originally posted by Denver Dave
          The four criteria for choosing actions in the moment (p. 49 GTD) are:
          1) Context
          2) Time Available
          3) Energy Available
          4) Priority

          I'm not sure how to appy the criteria to my hard to confront action lists with lots of items. I'm loosing control and creating stress without action at this point.
          GTD says to organize your actions into separate lists for each context ahead of time. That takes care of criterion #1. Now, say you have a single list of all the actions you need to do in your office. Read through all the items in your @Office list and pick the highest-priority action (usually the most urgent thing). That takes care of criterion #4. Do you have the time and energy to do that action now? (criteria #2 and #3) If so, do it now. If you don't have the time or energy to do it, pick the next highest-priority item, and so on until you find one you can do.

          When done your first action, repeat the process, picking the next highest-priority action. And so on, as long as you are in the context of your office.

          That is the pure GTD approach to "making the right action choices."

          If you do a bunch of your highest-priority actions as soon as you have the chance to do them, that's the best you can do, right? Hopefully, finishing several high-priority actions will alleviate the stress and replace it with satisfaction.

          Originally posted by Denver Dave
          We have deleted, completed (if quick), filed and sorted into action lists made up of:
          1) Stack of paper items that require action
          2) A couple of action needed email folders
          3) Other items are on the ToDo list or Appointment calendar if time related
          4) Few items on my daily note sheet
          Actions are scattered in too many places.

          1. A "stack of paper items that require action" does not sound like a Next Action list. It's terribly inefficient, at best, to read through all the papers to figure out which is the highest-priority action to do right now.
          2. Beware of actions in email folders. If you have a regular schedule of doing all the actions in the folders, this strategy may work well. But if not, you have to scan through both email folders, plus all the other action lists and stacks you have, to figure out what the highest-priority item is. Once again, this is inefficient.

          The GTD model tells you not to schedule or prioritize your actions in advance; instead, scan your Next Action list for the context you're in right now, pick the most important one you can do with your current resources, and do it. In order to pick the highest-priority action efficiently from this large menu of action choices, you need a single list to scan. Not a couple email folders, plus a ToDo list, plus a daily note sheet, plus a stack of papers.

          Comment


          • #6
            1. A "stack of paper items that require action" does not sound like a Next Action list. It's terribly inefficient, at best, to read through all the papers to figure out which is the highest-priority action to do right now.
            2. Beware of actions in email folders. If you have a regular schedule of doing all the actions in the folders, this strategy may work well. But if not, you have to scan through both email folders, plus all the other action lists and stacks you have, to figure out what the highest-priority item is. Once again, this is inefficient.
            I'm not questioning that this approach has its problems, but what would be more efficient? Currently I stack the papers in a next action inbox, sometimes note the next action (probably should always do if not obvious) or drag the email from the inbox to the next action email folder.

            If I tried to write down each of the items in a list, this would probabably take more time and I'd have to find the actual document in question anyway. Sometimes I do place a note on a page in the next action stack for items that are not feasible to place there.

            4 general categories of next actions does seem like a lot and it is sometimes stressful to play one off against the other:
            1) paper next action stack
            2) email next action folder
            3) Contact management calendar time related items
            4) Contact management system todo list

            How others catching their next action lists for the above types of items?

            Comment


            • #7
              What would be more efficient? Just about anything, honestly.

              With a stack of paper, you have to sort through it every single time you are looking for something to do. If you have, say, 15 items, that's 15 pieces of paper that you have to fumble through, every single time you need to decide what to do.

              Or, you can have one list with 15 items on it. It fits on one sheet of paper with plenty of room for notes like "see file in second desk drawer". You can review all the items in seconds. The time saved vastly exceeds the time it took to write the list.

              A more subtle problem is that if you collect items by throwing paper in a folder or dragging email around, you may be creating collections of "stuff," not true Next Actions. An email that says "Please call John about the widget sales forecast" is one thing, but how about one with meeting minutes, or three different documents to review? What's the Next Action for those? It may not be clear if you just stuff it in an action folder.

              Katherine

              Comment


              • #8
                Consolidate

                Originally posted by Denver Dave

                4 general categories of next actions does seem like a lot and it is sometimes stressful to play one off against the other:
                1) paper next action stack
                2) email next action folder
                3) Contact management calendar time related items
                4) Contact management system todo list

                How others catching their next action lists for the above types of items?
                Here's my approach:

                1) I don't keep a paper next action stack. If there is a paper related to a next action, then the next action goes onto the appropriate context-based list, and the paper goes into the project folder or, if it's not part of a big project, into the general "Action Support" folder I keep in my satchel. So the paper is still there, but it doesn't give me another place I need to look to choose an action.

                3) If there is an item on my calendar, then (context permitting) it ALWAYS takes precedence over my context-based next action lists. Why? Because the calendar is used only to record things that MUST happen at a particular day or time. When I look at my calendar, no additional thinking is required about whether or not to do what I see there -- I already did the thinking before hand. Sure there's a bit of wiggle room for actions that are tied to a day rather than a specific time, but not much.

                4) I don't keep a separate contact management system to-do list. I'm not even sure what that is. Why keep such a list separate from your other context-based lists? If this is tied to some kind of contact management software, maybe you're letting your tools determine your methods rather than the other way around. There is probably some opportunity for streamlining here. Could you cut and paste these items into your other list-keeping tool, or make this your primary list-keeping tool, so you'd have one less place to look for next actions?

                2)Email next action folder. OK, this is the only exception I have to the ideal of just one place for NA lists. I do have an @actions folder in my business email program. That's because in my profession 95% of my work comes to me as email, and 99% of it has to be done on line, on the same computer I use for my email. So that little electronic world is its own context. If the computer is open and I'm online, I can do those things; otherwise I can't do them, so I don't even need to see the list of next actions.

                However, in order to make this work I make sure that ALL of my work-related next actions are in that @action folder, even the ones that don't come to me by email. If I get a request by phone, or come away from a meeting with a next action, I send myself an email with that next action so I can drop it into my @action folder.

                -T.
                Last edited by Tetsujin; 11-23-2005, 04:36 PM.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Denver Dave
                  I'm not questioning that this approach has its problems, but what would be more efficient?
                  When I first read this, I thought, "just about anything" (exact words) -- then I kept reading the thread and saw Katherine already said it. I second everything she said.

                  NA lists are supposed to be a comprehensive inventory of everything you are fully committed to do as soon as you can. It's like a menu of action choices: here are all your predefined actions to choose from whenever you get the chance. If you went to a restaurant that presented its menu in a stack of paper with every single menu item on a separate page, wouldn't that annoy you? Wouldn't it be hard to take the time to shuffle through all the pages and compare choices? Instead you want to see a list of appetizer choices, a list of seafood choices, a list of wine choices, etc. And it's much more stressful choosing NAs than food because NAs represent things you know you have to do, and some are time-sensitive so you can't afford to miss them.

                  Originally posted by Denver Dave
                  If I tried to write down each of the items in a list, this would probabably take more time and I'd have to find the actual document in question anyway.
                  You only need to find a document once -- when you decide to do its associated action right now. All the rest of the time, you don't need it, and it slows you down to keep looking at it. It's much easier and less stressful to make the action decision by looking at a list of all your specific NAs.

                  It may feel like it takes more time to write down the specific Next Action that the document requires, but in the Doing phase it will take much less time and cause less stress. If you are paralyzed into "stress without action," then it doesn't really matter how much time you saved not writing each action on a list.

                  A successful GTD system must make it easy to review and choose actions. It must be designed to be efficient in the Do and Review phases, not just the Organize phase. It does not matter how fast you can sort stuff into different piles if you're paralyzed and stressed when it's time to Do. Problems in the Do and Review phases must be solved, even if the solution requires a little more time during Process and Organize.

                  David Allen specifically warns against using an item itself as a reminder of what to do because when you look at the item, you may have to remember or even re-decide exactly what to do with it. Instead, he recommends you write down exactly what you decided to do so you don't have to remember or re-decide later.

                  I can't know for sure this is the case from just the post, but to me it sounds like your NAs are not fully processed. If it takes you even 4 seconds to look at a paper and remember exactly what to do, that's too long. GTD says to make a decision about a specific action once, during processing. The NA should be worded so specifically that when you look at it, you instantly know what to do. Using the paper or email itself as a reminder means you may have to keep revisiting the decision phase when it's time to Do.

                  In summary, you have stuff that may not be fully processed, or that you may have to remember about, scattered across 4 different places, one of which is extremely hard to review. This situation would predictably cause paralyzing stress for just about anyone. I know I would be stressed with this situation. In fact, I always was stressed when I kept a stack of papers as action reminders.

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