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  • Too many Next Actions!

    I've totally bought in to the GTD principles but I'm finding it hard to implement and reach the nirvana of "stress-free productivity" because I end up with more Next Actions than I can possibly manage.

    I'm a Sales Director for a major software company and I'm responsible for more than 25 key accounts across Europe as well as new business development. My GTD system is based on Outlook 2007 with the Jello 5 dashboard and a fantastic little Outlook add-in called SimplyFile which helps with filing email and creating tasks and calendar items with a copy of the email embedded. I work tirelessly to keep my inbox empty and my next actions collected and categorized with project and context.

    I have projects representing each of my accounts but these are really just place holders. I then have projects under each account which map to each sales opportunity in my pipeline, e.g. "Close upgrade deal" or "Close New License deal". This feels right to me as I need to ensure there is a next action defined to keep each of my opportunities moving. Since a typical sales cycle can be anything from 3 to 24 months, my opportunity projects will generally have multiple sub-projects, such as "Deliver successful Proof of Concept", "Deliver compelling budgetary proposal" or "Deliver RFP response". I use Jello to manage these project hierarchies.

    My problem is that with 25+ accounts, each with multiple opportunities, each of those with multiple sub-projects at a given sales stage, and each of these sub-projects having next actions e.g call X, email Y, I regularly end up with 50-100 next actions!!!

    Now imagine I'm sitting in my office with my laptop, my phone and internet access, in theory I'm able to tackle most of my next actions as many fall into my @email, @call, @office, @laptop, @review contexts.

    Now assuming I have the time and the mental energy, I have a perfectly legitimate list of 50-100 next actions that I could do in the contexts I'm in.

    Firstly, I really struggle with quickly reviewing this list directly in Outlook. I generally use the To-Do Bar in OL2007 but just end up scrolling up and down my next action list for right thing to do. I could do the same in the OL Task view or Jello Dashboard but I'm still just looking at a long list. I've tried printing out my next action list so I can scan and cross things off more easily, but then new things keep coming in during the day and then I still end up looking at both the printout and new tasks in OL.

    I've tried doing a daily review of my next action list and assigning dates to the things I think I need to do today. Of course then I just end up with a daily to-do list that I don't always manage to get through and then feel guilty about as I keep rolling over next actions from one day to the next. Not very GTD.

    So basically I'm drowning in next actions. Even when I focus on, say, my top 10 customers in terms of pipeline that will get me to my quota, deciding which next action to tackle at any given moment is still my biggest challenge.

    I still enjoy my job and thought that GTD was the answer to helping me be as productive and efficient as I need to be to keep so many balls in the air, but as I said I'm struggling to make it work for me.

    Any help or advice from the GTD community would be much appreciated!

  • #2
    Welcome to the community! Hopefully we can be helpful.

    I don't use Outlook for this sort of thing, so I can't really say anything about that.

    What I'd recommend doing is deciding on a context for a period of time. Something like "I feel like making some phone calls or writing some emails for the next half an hour." And then grind through your context list for whatever you decide to do.

    It's easy to get wrapped up too much in trying to decide on the perfect Next Action to engage with; if they're all more-or-less the same, pick one at random and get on with it.


    Hope that helps,
    Roger

    Comment


    • #3
      I agree -- decide on a context and stick with it for a while...

      I agree. I too have many areas of responsibility and multiple projects and receive close to a hundred emails a day. All of these have to be processed for potential projects, next actions, etc. Then of course is the work I have already defined. We are indeed very busy professionals.

      One thing I do is to decide on a context -- say @Computer-Office, or email, or whatever, and work through just that context for a period of time. One can even set a timer and say, okay -- 30 minutes in this context, 30 minutes in that one, etc. Don't schedule too much because your position sounds like mine -- new work appearing constantly and one has decide if this is more important than what I was going to work on.

      There really is no magic solution. Take deep breaths, look at your horizons, and make sure you are not getting pulled too much in one direction and neglecting an important area of focus.

      Hang in there....there are so many of us like you out there....

      -David

      Comment


      • #4
        Thanks Roger and Longstreet.

        I thought I got the concept of contexts, as in "There is no point thinking about things you need to buy when you're not in the store or calls you need make when you're on a plane etc", but when I'm in the office and I really can do most things on my next action list, I guess I missed the point of contexts lists in these circumstances.

        The idea to focus on contexts for a set period of time seems like good advice and I'll certainly give it a try. Rather than focussing on my next action list, I guess I need to try and sort or filter my context lists so that my next actions are at the top. I've got other actions, not flagged as !Next but still assigned to projects and contexts and I don't want these to swamp me either.

        Any more thoughts from other GTD'ers are also very welcome. It's great to know that I'm not alone with my struggles to make this work.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Leonadial View Post
          Now imagine I'm sitting in my office with my laptop, my phone and internet access, in theory I'm able to tackle most of my next actions as many fall into my @email, @call, @office, @laptop, @review contexts.
          No clue on Outlook, I'm mac based here. But... In addition to the excellent advice to stay in a context for a set period of time, personally I do best with 45 minutes chunks, you might also look at your contexts in terms of what program or software package or other tool or space you need to use to do them. For things that are all @office, do some need a clean whiteboard or a big conference table? Perhaps splitting the contexts into smaller pieces so you can feel as if you might finish a context in 45 minutes will work better for you.

          For me I just learn to live with my long lists. Right now I have about 100 next actions I can do at any given time because I work and live at the same place. My total system is over 600 projects and over 2000 actions defined although many are either on hold or waiting for something to happen before I can work on them. Because of the nature of my work I often define many more actions than the next action when I do my project planning and I keep all that info in my system because it's easier for me that way and my system supports that way of doing things.

          You'll need to just keep at it to see what works best for you.

          Comment


          • #6
            Some semi-random thoughts:

            - Are you possibly going perfectionist, determined to pick the "right" action? I'd suggest just marching down the list, doing the actions in the order that they appear. If you're concerned that this means that all of your priorities will fall on the floor, you could just try it occasionally - maybe one day a week, maybe for a couple of hours a day - to see how it works.

            - Are the actions in the list short and pithy enough to save you from having to puzzle over them? Even a tiny bit of puzzling for each action can lead to a lot of tiring and unnecessary brainwork when repeatedly scanning a list of many actions.

            As a detailed example: Imagine that I have an email from John Smith with a subject line "Problem on Friday". I've already read it, and I already know that on Friday a data upload failed due to a network downage, and I just need to manually trigger that upload.

            But while scanning my list, I don't want to have to dredge up that much from memory about each of dozens and dozens of items. So when processing the email into the system, I don't use the email itself as the action placeholder - I write an action, "Re-run Friday Widget Project data upload." If I might need the email for reference, I'll also add enough information to allow me to find it again. But emails are never, ever action placeholders for me.

            - Are you running into a lot of "I can't do that because..." or "I can't do that until..." actions as you go down the list? If so, then I'd say that the actions are too large. If you can't sit down and "just do" the action, when you're in the context, then it should be redefined to be something smaller that you can "just do".

            - Are you running into a lot of "I don't want to do that because..." actions? If so, then maybe your contexts need some tweaking to account for what you feel like doing. For example, I have a "mindless" context for time-consuming actions that will bore me silly when I have any mental energy, but are just right when I don't. Sometimes I have a "procrastination" context for actions that for one reason or another are just distasteful. If I'm feeling energetic and brave, I'll go to that list and knock one off.

            - If you keep stalling on what looks like a doable action, the action may still need splitting into something smaller, even if you're absolutely sure that you _could_ just sit down and do it. If you haven't done it, for a while, there's a reason.

            So, as another example, if you're not scheduling that meeting and you're not sure why, you could try sneaking up on it - make yourself a action to brainstorm a list of invitees, and another to brainstorm about the agenda, and keep edging up on it, with bite-sized actions, until you either hit what's not right about it, or you've made the bites small enough that you can get it done.

            - It is, as you mentioned in your later post, important to filter to only _next_ actions, to actions that can actually be done.

            OmniFocus, my GTD software of choice, will do this for me - it gives me the option to show only available next actions and hide everything else. And in addition to letting me view only certain contexts, it will let me view only certain projects, in the Context view. So I can, for example, hide entire areas of focus, so that they disappear as if they ceased to exist, until I'm ready to see them again.

            So, you may want to look at GTD-specific software. If you have a Mac, I recommend OmniFocus, but odds are you have a PC, and there I know nothing.

            - In spite of all this, when I started using GTD, I still had more actions than I could wrap my brain around. I _should_ have been able to start at the top of the list and work down, but somehow I couldn't.

            So I started making some of my actions go into the future. After I finished a weekly review, or any time that I was feeling list overload, I'd show the list of available actions and start setting Start Dates on the ones that I realistically wasn't going to do in the next couple of days. I'd keep doing this until the list was of a reasonable length.

            This way, the actions would quietly reappear in a few days, and since I wasn't setting due dates, I wasn't destroying the due date/calendar element of the system.

            This isn't a good strategy, because it eliminates those low-priority tasks that might happen to be perfect for a particularly opportunity. So I'm pleased that I can finally start eliminating this step, but apparently for a while I just needed the "training wheels" of pre-trimming my list.

            Gardener

            Comment


            • #7
              Great post, Gardener! Many helpful insights.

              Originally posted by Gardener View Post
              It is, as you mentioned in your later post, important to filter to only _next_ actions, to actions that can actually be done.

              OmniFocus, my GTD software of choice, will do this for me - it gives me the option to show only available next actions and hide everything else. And in addition to letting me view only certain contexts, it will let me view only certain projects, in the Context view. So I can, for example, hide entire areas of focus, so that they disappear as if they ceased to exist, until I'm ready to see them again.

              So, you may want to look at GTD-specific software. If you have a Mac, I recommend OmniFocus, but odds are you have a PC, and there I know nothing.
              I agree wholeheartedly with this. I struggled using Outlook's Tasks (on Windows) for a while and now use Toodledo (web-based) with Todo (iPhone) for my system. These give the same type of capability, i.e. being able to filter using Contexts, Tags and other variables to get to a manageable list. I struggle if I have a really big list in front of me but with a smaller one, I seem more able to get cracking.

              Comment


              • #8
                I am in the same boat. I currently have almost 100 active sales opportunities which means 100 projects just for sales and then all the home and other work projects, and the calls, and the e-mails, and the...

                I'm using outlook with the GTD plug. I've created a few extra contexts that seem to help me.

                @quotes - for any quotations I need to prepare
                @contracts - for any contracts I need to prepare
                @Waiting for Contracts - self explanatory but keeps my them separate and off my waiting for list.

                Like others, I try to break off chunks of time to do certain tasks (45 minutes for calls, an hour for paperwork, etc.). I'm with you, it's overwhelming at times, and would love to find ways to make the lists seem smaller.

                Comment


                • #9
                  I'm a big fan of the timer method. I use an online countdown clock, which I usually set for an hour. I'm often interrupted, pause the timer and continue. The point is to work my lists at least for several such sets. I don't generally only work one context during the time, but I do tend to select something within a similar grouping. I've found that I get much more done if I'm in the mindset of doing all blueprint work for an hour, for example.

                  I've also found that just doing one action on my context list can take me further into the project, which means I'm not per se working my context lists. This doesn't bother me, since that really isn't the reason for my context lists. The goal for me is to work my projects or single actions which fit into my areas of focus and lead me to achieving my goals. Don't get me wrong though. The context lists are key to everything I have pre-defined to do.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    in addition to what everyone else has said, when we have huge amounts of projects and next actions, its a good time to bring in things like the 80/20 rule, elimination, focusing on the critical few. You can get a good understanding from books like The Four Hour Workweek, Eat That Frog, etc.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Leonadial View Post

                      Any help or advice from the GTD community would be much appreciated!
                      I've been using TimeTo for almost 5 years and don't have a problem with an overwhelming next actions list. Maybe it will help you too
                      http://www.procrastinationhelp.com/s...td-with-timeto

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        I have struggled with this in the past and still struggle with it -- just today!

                        What I learned is simply not be afraid to put things off, delay projects until a more opportune time, delegate, purge, re-think if I really need something or if I can do without it -- at least, at the present time.

                        Although it sounds scary that some things will be perpetually shoved to the back of the train, so to speak, you WILL get to them eventually -- most likely through your Weekly Review.

                        I am a procrastinator at heart, but I have learned to live with it. Just today, I have brought up a project that I have been delaying for months. And in hindsight, it hadn't been a bad decision. I got other things accomplished I wouldn't have time for otherwise..

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          My point is:

                          As long you KNOW what it is you are delaying/NOT doing, and you ARE doing something instead that is hopefully more beneficial to you in the meantime, and you have all your ducks lined up, and during your Weekly Review all your next actions and projects are accounted for and assigned to proper containers, you are fine... AND you can walk away -- knowing what it is you are walking away from!

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            work style?

                            I think this is the same advice I need to give myself, to make learning about my work style a project (tentative outcome="My stylistic aspects of work are optimized").

                            I am not sure yet how to do this for myself but too many next actions suggests that you might ask yourself the question "Too many next actions for what?". Perhaps it is "too many" because you do not like to review a lot of choices at one time and do better with assigning chunks of time to certain projects or areas of focus. It is fine to have that as part of project planning. Perhaps, it is "too many" for the amount of work time you can handle? Perhaps you have gotten to granular. Perhaps with so many n/as by the time you get to them your situation has changed.

                            I wonder about starting out with the time you have in different contexts for a week or even just three days. Put in your appointments and known deadlines. Then, pretend, for the sake of this experiment, that each n/a will take 20 minutes. Limit your list to the number of N/a's that you have time for in each context.

                            A big mistake that I made when I first started out was to put on my n/a lists little bits of things that I just wanted to do but were not related to a project or a routine function that was committed to. Now, they are in lists or as they have coalesced around the "parent" projects that are in SDMB (as a note so that I can review and draw into my plan when I actually plan the project.

                            Finally, and this is more me than GTD is that if a project has a number of independent actions in one context, I will list some of them in parentheses next to the most vital one, e,g, sharpen 5 pencils (clean out the pencil caddy, clean out the sharpener, separate the colored pencils). The list does not look so long then.

                            One other thing is to look at your n/as and see of they are repeating, like daily, weekly, monthly. If so, in the ideal situation, they should be on a routine list.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Leonadial View Post
                              Thanks Roger and Longstreet.

                              I thought I got the concept of contexts, as in "There is no point thinking about things you need to buy when you're not in the store or calls you need make when you're on a plane etc", but when I'm in the office and I really can do most things on my next action list, I guess I missed the point of contexts lists in these circumstances.

                              The idea to focus on contexts for a set period of time seems like good advice and I'll certainly give it a try. Rather than focussing on my next action list, I guess I need to try and sort or filter my context lists so that my next actions are at the top. I've got other actions, not flagged as !Next but still assigned to projects and contexts and I don't want these to swamp me either.

                              Any more thoughts from other GTD'ers are also very welcome. It's great to know that I'm not alone with my struggles to make this work.
                              First of all, great thread to start. This is key information on getting the ball rolling. Personally i'll lack in productivity from time to time, and as others may have mentioned, testing/trying new methods out and tweaking them to your personal satisfaction are vital in your successful productivity.

                              I'm using OmniFocus on my Mac and for a long while only used my Next Actions list, in Context view. During my monthly "Horizons of Focus" review (In which I film myself talking @ each level of focus) I expressed (to myself) that I wasn't getting much done because I was overwhelmed by all of my Next Actions.

                              The following month I worked solely out of my Projects view which surprisingly helped me get things done. After completing one next action I would simply continue working on that project till it was completed or at least close to. The problem with working out of the Project View (for me) was that I was only working on the easy projects I had to deal with. The tough, big, important projects weren't being touched at all...and I remember hearing a quote somewhere that said if you tackle the biggest things first, the lesser ones will easily follow; as opposed to working on the easiest projects/NAs and expecting the harder/bigger ones to follow suit.(I'm still working on this myself)

                              I'm pleased to have found this thread, seeing as I haven't visited the forum for a while, because I've currently been working off a single Context list and its 10x's better. In OmniFocus I have a Perspective that shows only my Available Next Actions, under the context of my choice at any given time. For those important/big Next Actions I'll simply flag them.

                              Originally posted by Gardener View Post

                              But while scanning my list, I don't want to have to dredge up that much from memory about each of dozens and dozens of items. So when processing the email into the system, I don't use the email itself as the action placeholder - I write an action, "Re-run Friday Widget Project data upload." If I might need the email for reference, I'll also add enough information to allow me to find it again. But emails are never, ever action placeholders for me.

                              -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
                              So I started making some of my actions go into the future. After I finished a weekly review, or any time that I was feeling list overload, I'd show the list of available actions and start setting Start Dates on the ones that I realistically wasn't going to do in the next couple of days. I'd keep doing this until the list was of a reasonable length.

                              This way, the actions would quietly reappear in a few days, and since I wasn't setting due dates, I wasn't destroying the due date/calendar element of the system.

                              This isn't a good strategy, because it eliminates those low-priority tasks that might happen to be perfect for a particularly opportunity. So I'm pleased that I can finally start eliminating this step, but apparently for a while I just needed the "training wheels" of pre-trimming my list.

                              Gardener
                              I too make sure my inbox remains at zero and will export any relevant information from an email into my OmniFocus inbox. I'll take the vital information from any particular email and write the important stuff I need to know...however admittedly, after a long day and ready to crash I'll just copy and paste an email into my OF inbox.

                              Finally, I too will add a later start date to some actions/projects though I really don't like doing this. I do this because I find it disgusting to look at these available next actions that I haven't touched at all. For some reason a voice in my head will tell me that by deferring them my inbox will look cleaner/simpler/w/e and that when the day comes that it becomes available i'll be ready to do it, but the truth is...."blah."

                              Comment

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