There will probably be things in your in-tray about which you will say to yourself, “There’s nothing to do on this now, but there might be later.”
What do you do with these kinds of things? There are two options that could work:
- Write them on a Someday/Maybe list.
- Put a reminder of them on your calendar or in a tickler file.
It’s fine to decide not to decide about something. You just need a decide-not-to-decide system to get it off your mind.
The point of all of these incubation procedures is that they give you a way to get the items off your mind right now and let you feel confident that some reminder of the possible action will resurface at an appropriate time.
Whenever you come across something you want to keep, make a label for it, put it in a file folder, and tuck that into your filing drawer.
And If There Is an Action . . . What Is It?
This is perhaps the most fundamental practice of this methodology: If there’s something that needs to be done about the item in “in,” then you need to decide what, exactly, that next action is.
Let’s say that again: If there’s something that needs to be done about the item in “in,” then you need to decide what, exactly, that next action is.
“Next action,” again, means the next physical, visible activity that would be required to move the situation toward closure.
The next action should be easy to figure out, but there are often some quick analyses and several planning steps that haven’t occurred yet in your mind, and these have to happen before you can determine precisely what has to happen to complete the item, even if it’s a fairly simple one.
Although each of these items may seem relatively clear as a task or project, determining the next action on each one will take some thought.
- Clean the garage = . . . Well, I just have to get in there and start. No, wait a minute, there’s a big refrigerator in there that I need to get rid of first. I should find out if John Patrick wants it for his camp. I should . . .
- Call John re: refrigerator in garage.
And for the . . .
. . . I need to find out whether Sandra is going to prepare a press kit for us. I guess I need to . . .
- E-mail Sandra re: press kits for the conference.
. . . and so forth. The action steps—“Call John,”
“Waiting for documents,” “E-mail Sandra”—are what need to be decided about everything that is actionable in your in-tray.
The Action Step Needs to Be the Absolute Next Physical Thing to Do
Remember that these are physical, visible activities. Many people think they’ve determined the next action when they get it down to “set meeting.”
But that’s not the next action, because it’s not descriptive of physical behavior.
How do you set a meeting? Well, it could be with a phone call or an e-mail, but to whom? Decide. If you don’t decide now, you’ll still have to decide at some other point, and what this process is designed to do is actually get you to finish the thinking exercise about this item.
If you haven’t identified the next physical action required to kick-start it, there will be a psychological gap every time you think about it even vaguely. You’ll tend to resist noticing it, which leads to procrastination.
What if you say to yourself, “Well, the next thing I need to do is decide what to do about this”? That’s a tricky one. Deciding isn’t really an action, because actions take time, and deciding doesn’t. There’s always some physical activity that can be done to facilitate your decision making. Ninety-nine percent of the time you just need more information before you can make a decision. That additional information can come from external sources (“Call Susan to get her input on the proposal”) or from internal thinking (“Draft ideas about new reorganization”).
Either way, there’s still a next action to be determined in order to move the project forward.