Productivity: The Next Step

I've become quite the disciple of the "Getting Things Done" methodology and it's many variations in the last few years. I've found it brings a clarity to one's obligations and goals that I've simply never been able to achieve through any other means. There are an innumerable number of tips and tricks one can use to manage one's tasks, but one of David Allen's best points was made almost as an aside in his book.

Covered in less than three pages is the concept I'll call "The Next Step". With any task of more than one step ("outsource the colo" versus "pick up milk"), there is always a Next Step. The problem with a complex task is that you will often not be certain what that is and are therefore frozen on the task. You look at it, not knowing where the handle is, your eyes glaze over, and you move on. The task makes you uncomfortable because of its ill-defined nature, and you end up avoiding it over and over, until it ages into an emergency.

The solution to the problem of a frozen task is to define a Next Step. Every task has one, even if it escapes you for the moment, and with a very small amount of thought, you can absolutely decide what is. Take for example the aforementioned colo outsourcing. Let's presume that the execs have determined that they want to pursue this and, by "they", they mean "you". But you've never outsourced a colo. You have no idea where to start. They didn't give you a specific due date, so it sits on your list, and you look at it every day, and then ultimately focus on something more obviously actionable. So, to unfreeze the task, you have to make it actionable.

If the Next Action for a task isn't obvious to you, you have to ask yourself, "Why?" Let's assume the problem is that you simply don't know enough about the task to know what to do. Then, the next step would be to address that. But "Research Colo Outsourcing" isn't actionable enough to be a real Next Step. You need some concrete, physical, and clear. Do you have a local resource who can help you out with this? If so, the Next Step might be "Schedule a meeting with Joe." If you have no actual humans to appeal to, the task might be as "basic" as "Google Collocation Outsourcing" with the goal of kicking up some ideas. Doing so just now netted me 2 million hits, the first of which was a free White Paper on the topic. In just a few seconds, I've went from stuck with no ideas to having 2 million of them, one of which was an obvious starting point.

In many cases, the Next Step, once identified, is as simple as rifling off a quick email or phone call asking someone for their essential input. These sorts of tasks, with key input in the hands of someone else, are usually among the worst for getting stuck. And yet, in almost all cases, the way to get them unstuck is simply to request the needed information.

Once identified, if the next step would take less than 2 minutes, David Allen suggests that you go ahead and do it now. If it's something you can delegate, now would be the time to do that, too. Otherwise, move the task into you prioritization and review process. The key is to not put the task away, or move on from any task, without first identifying what has to happen next.

Absolutely every one of us has more we'd like to do that we'll ever have time to complete. One of the best ways to avoid wasting what little time we have is to eliminate the practice of regularly reviewing non-actionable tasks. And the best way to do that is one step at a time, beginning with the Next Step.