This post originally appeared about 1 month ago as a guest post on whatsthenextaction.com.
We are all making lists. Especially if you are into Productivity in general and GTD more specifically, you will be very familiar with making lists. Odds are you are making these lists to keep track of all the things you need to do to make progress in certain (or all) areas of your life and to be reminded of them at the appropriate time.
But are you making the right list? Are you maintaining your list? Are you sticking to your list? And is your list encouraging you to actually get things done and achieve your goals?
From my personal experience and from what I see around me, I want to show you different lists and why one is better than the other for getting things done. More importantly, I will show you how to create an effective list which is attractive, encouraging and easy to maintain.
Let’s start with the least attractive, least encouraging and least effective list, the standard To Do list:
I have made countless lists in my life that look exactly like the one above. They are usually ad hoc in nature, very non-descriptive and basically nothing more than an amorphous blob of information. Take the example list in the screenshot above. It is a list alright. But it is a mix of things you’d like to buy (lawnmower), things that are on your mind (family trip) and things that belong on a calendar (workshop). It also contains items that could mean anything: garage, blog idea.
In other words, the standard To Do list is completely unsuitable for making (or even understanding!) a list of things you need to do to make progress on certain areas in your life. In my experience this kind of list is easily abandoned because it just doesn’t make sense and certainly doesn’t encourage you to actually get things done.
Now let’s look at an attempt to create a better list. The example below shows a more structured, more descriptive list of items:
This list is only marginally better than the first example I gave you. What is wrong with this list? If you look carefully at each item, you will notice that it doesn’t exactly define what the necessary steps are that you need to take to buy that new lawnmower or to get your car fixed. At least the items on the list are a bit more descriptive than the first example. In fact, this list is what I would call a Projects list. It is perfect as a reminder of all the projects you currently have in your life, but it is totally unsuitable for keeping track of the actual things you need to do to make progress on these projects!
OK, let’s take a big step in the right direction. The following screenshot shows a list that should look more or less familiar to GTDers. It is known as an Action list:
The big difference with the previous lists is that this Action list actually (potentially) describes exactly what needs to be done for each project in your life. In bite-size chunks. In fact, this example comes very close to the type of list I use as the core of my own GTD system (in ListPro). In true GTD style each item (action) starts with an action verb and shows the project it belongs to (if any) and the context in which it should be executed. Actually, this list is quite useful for getting things done and making real progress in each and every project in your life. It encourages you to take action, it is easy to maintain and it is effective for choosing the appropriate action to take!
So what is still wrong with the Action list? An Action list could easily become overwhelming because it contains more than one action for each project. A large, unwieldy list is not attractive and is easily abandoned because it is overwhelming. The solution lies in the last list I want to show you, the Next Action list:
Of course, this is exactly the kind of list that The David himself recommends. It has all the benefits of an Action list, with the additional advantage of showing only one action (i.e. the Next Action) for each project. I have found this to be the most attractive, most effective and most encouraging type of list for actually getting things done in my life. All the other actions you need to take for a specific project may be added to the project support material for that project. Don’t clutter your list with them. Only add the very next, physical, bite-sized action you need to take!
Finally, it takes skill to keep your Next Action list lean and mean. It is easy to fall back on traditional To Do lists. To prevent this from happening I recommend reading my article about “10 Tips For Pruning Your Next Action List”.