Monday, March 10, 2008

Action Oriented: Create Meaningful To-Do Items

By Matt:

A great stumbling block for many GTD-ers lies in a disconnect between how they construct their to-do list items and the true "next actions" that need to be accomplished. I have to remind myself everyday as I add items to my to-do list that I need to think "action oriented". When your to-do items are not action oriented they don't lead you to accomplish anything, and more often than not they sit there for weeks on end as you wonder why nothing is getting done.

Being action oriented requires us to use certain verbs, and construct our to-do lists in a way that clearly defines WHAT needs to happen next:

BAD: This Item Is NOT Action Oriented:
Think about ways to increase sales

GOOD: This Item IS Action Oriented:
Create a list of 5 new sales strategies
The difference in the example above is that there is a clear outcome to "creating a list of five strategies", whereas "thinking about new strategies" will have you staring blankly into your cube wall for the better half of a day. A good to-do item will lead you to accomplishing the end goal by giving you a framework to work within.

Structure Of A To-Do Item-
Any given to-do item will read about the same way:
  • First it needs to include a verb - the "action" that needs to be accomplished.
  • Second, it needs a measurement - generally in the form of a number or a dollar amount.
  • And finally it needs a noun - the object of your goal.
A good to-do item is all about the verb, and it can't be chosen haphazardly. Write it poorly, and you may as well forget about ever getting that item done. I make a habit of using a small handful of action verbs in all of my to-do items... verbs that I can easily attach a measurement and a noun to. By keeping the list small I'm able to increase efficiency because I don't spend a ton of time trying to word my to-do items.

These words may not capture all the actions that are specific to your job, but should give you a starting point in "verbing" your to-do items.
Action Oriented Words:
More than anything I try to avoid what I call "empty verbs"... words that are technically verbs but leave you a little mystified as to what defines accomplishment. This isn't an exhaustive list, but I find it hard to create actionable to-do items out of words like this...
Empty Verbs:
You can "think" about your account presentation all day... you can "review" your monthly sales report until you're blue in the face, but what are you really getting done? Answer THAT and you're on your way to writing a to-do item that makes sense.

Merlin Mann, founder of 43 Folders, has some even more in depth analysis on building smarter to-do lists that serves as an excellent resource for writing "next actions". And finally, take some additional time this week during your weekly review session to look closely at your existing to-do items. Ask yourself, are these Action Oriented? If not, re-write them using some of the verbs listed above as a starting point.


Jaclyn said...

Very well-constructed post. I don't know a single person that isn't looking for better ways to get things done. I really like your blog, it's very useful! Looking forward to future reads.

SynJunkie said...

I just stumbled across your blog and like Jaclyn I think the posts are really well put together and very informative. I struggle with this sort of thing so getting to grips with GTD is proving to be very useful indeed.

Looking forward to more.

Matt @ Corporate Hack said...

@ jaclyn & synjunkie: Thanks so much for the supportive comments guys... appreciate that very much! We hope you continue to find the posts useful, and let us know if you have any topic ideas that you would like to hear us write about.