Projects vs. Next Actions
June 14, 2012 1:06 PM   Subscribe

What are your most useful "next-action" and "project" verbs for GTD?

I've looked at Merlin Mann's list and it's good but I'm looking to expand it. Still a newbie at GTD and hoping that a longer list will help me parse out the differences between Projects and Next Actions. Thanks!!
posted by luciddream928 to Work & Money (10 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
A project is anything you can't do in one single, physical step. It's not always totally obvious until you sit and think about a given thing for a minute - for example, "paint the bedroom" is a single step if and only if you have the paint cans ready, the furniture moved, the dropcloths laid, the brushes lined up, etc.

Next-action stuff tends to be "call," "email," "buy," "sort," "write," and sometimes "come up with Next Action." But really, almost anything can require more than one step, and that moment of thought - "what has to literally, physically happen next" - comes up on almost everything.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:28 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The way I distinguish the two is that if, upon taking the next action, it is going to be totally obvious what I should be doing next, it's not a Project.

E.g. I could make "Mail application" a project, but, if the Next Action is "Get a manilla envelope for application," and once I have that envelope in my hand I know I'm going to immediately walk to my desk, write the appropriate address on it, put my application inside it, and walk over and drop it in the outgoing mail, then the Next Action "Get a manilla envelope for application" is all I need to put into the system. (But, notice, if I don't have manilla envelopes right at hand, this is the appropriate Next Action, not "Mail application.")

On the other hand, say I have a complex application that is going to take many steps to complete, and especially when those actions have dependencies on one another, it makes sense to make a project called, "Complete Application for Program Foo," and have the following Next Actions listed under the project:
  • Request letter of recommendation from Jean for Foo.
  • Request letter of recommendation from Fran for Foo.
  • Complete application form for Foo.
  • Update CV for Foo.
  • Request transcript from Undergrad U for Foo.
  • Get manilla envelope for Foo application.
To answer your question more directly, here are some of my current verbs: enter, download, print, list, call, email, archive, fix, get, measure, weed [garden, and file cabinet :) ], take.
posted by BrashTech at 1:33 PM on June 14, 2012

One that has got me unstuck with poorly defined projects where it's unclear what to do next but it's clear that something has to be done is "review". It can be as short as 10 minute scrawling on a pad, but usually after that you have some more specific things that can be actioned.
posted by crocomancer at 1:40 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the responses! I have resistance to creating projects that are so specific, I think it's because I have a few that can be broken down separately. For instance, what do you do when you have a project that is an "umbrella" with several smaller projects underneath? I use Evernote and the system is working quite well, I just get "in the weeds" (nod to BrashTech) when I have *too many* projects. I get overwhelmed. I guess that's another question, but I think getting the NA vs. Project verbs figured out will help a bit.
posted by luciddream928 at 1:43 PM on June 14, 2012

Yes, crocomancer - that makes a lot of sense. The review is really helpful, I should do it more often - and give myself the permission to change the layout of the "umbrella project" if it needs to be organized better
posted by luciddream928 at 1:44 PM on June 14, 2012

Buy X @errands unstuck me several times.
posted by michaelh at 1:45 PM on June 14, 2012

The David makes a big deal that to get the Mind Like Water you must WRITE DOWN ALL THE THINGS. I've really backed away from that, because it turns out all the writing down and the organizing etc. was getting too anxiety-provoking, especially during my weekly review. I hates the weekly review—hates it—and it works better for me if I can keep that dang thing to 10 minutes or less. (Heresy, I know.)

My Project list is working if, when I do my weekly review, I feel comfortable that all my ongoing projects have entries in the system, whether they're Next Actions or entries on my Waiting list.

Some projects are complex enough that you really do have to have them written out, with goals and plans and nested lists of subprojects, etc. etc. etc.

Some projects are simpler, and just have to have a one-line entry on your Projects list, so that when you do your weekly review, you remember, "Ah, yes, I did some work on that this week, so next week my Next Action should be..." and you put the next NA in the correct context list.

And some "projects" are so straightforward or so routine, you don't need even that memory-jogger on your Projects list.

What level of detail do you need on your Project list? Depends on you. If you're looking at a project on your list and thinking "Crap, wait, what am I supposed to do for that again?" you need to write more. If you find that you're dropping balls on routine tasks, maybe those tasks need projects. (Aside: GTD sucks for routine, repetitive tasks, amirite?) If you're getting overwhelmed by your project list and you're stressing yourself out at your weekly review as a result, maybe look at trimming it down and simplifying.

Will Umbrella Projects help you with your weekly review? Or can you just list the "subprojects" individually? It all boils down to how your brain works. What seems tidy and efficient to you? What helps you visualize your final result clearly and allows you to formulate your next actions quickly and easily?
posted by BrashTech at 7:00 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

"what do you do when you have a project that is an "umbrella" with several smaller projects underneath? I use Evernote and the system is working quite well, I just get "in the weeds" (nod to BrashTech) when I have *too many* projects. I get overwhelmed."

Create a Master Project List (or Top Level Project List or Umbrella Project List) that only has your top-level projects on it.

For example:

Umbrella Projects
* write great American novel
* start grilled cheese restaurant
* build dream house
* learn French

Now, before we go on, let's notice that "learn French" is pretty vague and doesn't have a clear outcome. This could be okay - maybe you'll be happy just as long as you're doing something related to learning French every week - but you might find it works better to make it more concrete, with a clearly-defined success, such as "learn French well enough to read Candide".

Now then. Each of your Umbrella Projects will have lots of sub-projects:

write great American novel
  • find a literary agent (project)
    • make a list of possible agents (next action)
    • send letter of inquiry to agent 1 (next action)
    • send letter of inquiry to agent 2 (next action)
  • set up my writing room (project)
    • draw up a plan/layout (next action)
    • buy fabulous desk (next action)
    • buy mini-fridge (next action)
  • write the book (project)
    • write the outline (next action)
    • write 2 pages of backstory for the main character (next action)
    • write key dialog with love interest (next action)
What I do is make sure I'm doing at least one Next Action on each of my Top-Level projects every week. So I might not get to work on finding a literary agent and setting up my writing room this week, but I'll definitely do something toward the novel. If I can get to more than one sub-project, great; but I'm most concerned about just moving the project forward.

(Of course, if you have one or two projects that are especially important, it's definitely possible to get several Next Actions for those projects done every week; you could certainly try to do something on each sub-project within that extra-important project every week. But assuming a project hasn't moved to the Someday/Maybe list, just focusing on doing one thing on each top-level project each week makes me feel like I'm making progress on all my many and varied projects.)

Back to your original question:

"What are your most useful "next-action" and "project" verbs for GTD?"

I don't worry too much about verbs for projects; whatever comes to mind seems to work pretty well (although, again, I'll mention that including a concrete outcome helps me a lot).

For next actions, though, here are some I've been using recently:

clear off (for decluttering)
complete (a grammar exercise, a problem set ...)
figure out
take notes on
write about (blog about)

Also, when I start to feel overwhelmed, I find that trying to define Next Actions that require 5-10 minutes (ideally) up to 25 minutes (max) helps me feel more focused and less overwhelmed.

One thing I find helpful in the Weekly Review is to ask myself:

What's working well?
What could be working better?

GTD is about habits, and you're not going to become a GTD guru in a week - and it can be somewhat individualized, and what works for me (or David) might not be what works best for you. So maybe try the Top-Level Projects approach and see if it works for you. If not, try something else. For me, the important question isn't, "Did I do everything on my list this week?" - because I NEVER do everything on my list, because my list is about a million miles long. For me, the question is, "I want to choose how to spend my time well. Am I doing better at that now than I was a month or two ago?"
posted by kristi at 7:19 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the great answers everyone! It really helped to reorganize my lists as kristi & BrashTech suggested. Yes, GTD isn't the best at repetitive tasks - and I use Evernote which doesn't support that functionality. One workaround might be to create a daily/weekly checklist to make sure that the stuff that repeats gets done. Googling this now to see what has worked for others.
posted by luciddream928 at 9:18 AM on June 15, 2012

Does Evernote support cloning/copying an item?

For my repeat tasks, I've just developed the habit of copying it as part of doing it. So when "pay bills" rolls around, I copy the task (putting it back on the list), do the actual task, and cross off the original item as done. (This gets a little trickier with things that aren't weekly - although it's easy to just ignore that task in a week when I don't have any bills to pay. For things that you don't want to look at every week, a tickler file can be handy.)
posted by kristi at 1:06 PM on June 15, 2012

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