Getting Things Done

Organizing Action Reminders 

If you’ve emptied your in-tray, you’ll have created a stack of Pending reminders for yourself, representing longer-than-two-minute actions that cannot be delegated to someone else.

You’ll also have accumulated reminders of things that you’ve handed off to other people, and perhaps some things that need to be placed on your calendar or in a Someday/Maybe holder.

Next you want to sort all of this into groupings that make sense to you so you can review them as options for work to do when you have time. You’ll also want to divide them in the most appropriate way physically to organize those groups, whether as items in folders or on lists, either paper based or digital.

The Actions That Go on Your Calendar 

There are two basic kinds of actions:

  • those that must be done on a certain day and/or at a particular time, and
  • those that just need to be done as soon as you can get to them, around your other calendar items (some perhaps with a final due date).

Calendared action items can be either time specific (e.g., “10:00–11:00 meet with Jim”) or day specific (“Call Rachel Tuesday to see if she got the proposal”).

Based on old habits, you will want to put actions on the calendar that you think you’d “really like to get done next Monday”, say.

Resist this impulse. 

You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be noticeable at a glance while you’re on the run. That’ll be much easier if the only things in there are those that you absolutely have to get done, or know about, on that day!

Organizing As-Soon-As-Possible Actions by Context 

Over many years I have discovered that the best way to be reminded of an “as soon as I can” action is by the particular context required for that action—that is, either the tool or the location or the situation needed to complete it.

For instance, if the action requires a computer, it should go on an “At Computer” list. If your action demands that you be out and moving around in the world (such as stopping by the bank or going to the hardware store), the Errands list would be the appropriate place to track it.

Categories will need to be will depend on (1) how many actions you actually have to track; and (2) how often you change the contexts within which to do them.

If you are that rare person who has only twenty-five next actions, a single Next Actions list might suffice. It could include items as diverse as “Buy nails,” “Talk to boss about staff changes,” and “Draft ideas about committee meeting.”

If, however, you have fifty or a hundred next actions pending, keeping all of those on one big list would make it too difficult to see what you need to see; each time you got any window of time to do something, you’d have to do unproductive re-sorting.

Another productivity factor that this kind of organization supports is leveraging your energy when you’re in a certain mode. When you’re in “phone mode,” it helps to make a lot of phone calls—just

The Most Common Categories of Action Reminders 

You’ll probably find that at least a few of the following common list headings for next actions will make sense for you:

  • Calls
  • At Computer
  • Errands: It makes a lot of sense to group together in one place reminders of all the things you need to do when you’re out and about.
  • At Office (miscellaneous)
  • At Home
  • Anywhere
  • Agendas (for people and meetings): Invariably you’ll find that many of your next actions need to either occur in a real-time interaction with someone or be brought up in a committee, team, or staff meeting.
    •  These next actions should be put on separate Agenda lists for each of those people and for that meeting (assuming you attend it regularly). Professionals who keep a file folder to hold all the things they need to go over with their boss already use a version of this method.
  • Read/Review

If you participate in standing meetings—staff meetings, project meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, parent/teacher meetings, whatever—they, too, deserve their own lists, in which you collect things that will need to be addressed on those occasions.

Often you’ll want to keep a running list of things to go over with someone you’ll be interacting with only for a limited period of time. For instance, if you have a contractor doing a significant piece of work on your house or property, you can create a list for him for the duration of the project. As you’re walking around the site after he’s left for the day, you may notice several things you need to talk with him about, and you’ll want that list to be easy to capture and to access as needed.

Read/Review:   You will no doubt have discovered in your in-tray a number of things for which your next action is to read. I hope you have held to the two-minute rule and dispatched many of those quick-skim items already—tossing, filing, or routing them forward as appropriate.