The Next Action: The Key to Actually Getting Things Done

crop students doing homework together

As a business leader, have you ever walked out of a meeting telling youself, “That went well. I went over the project, asked inputs from my team and assigned deliverables. This project will be different than the rest!”

Then a few days later, when you checkin with your team, you realized there’s nothing acomplished. They are at a loss on what actually needs to be done.

Does this seem familiar?

When I was starting out in my professional career, I experienced this from both ends—as an attendee and as a team lead. I kept asking myself, “why aren’t they working on what they should be doing?”

“How come we spend so much time in meetings, but actually get little to no work done?”

After a few years of struggling with this, I finally cracked the secret.

The answer is so simple you’ll shake your head you didn’t realize it sooner. The answer is having a proper definition of the deliveralbe. Or to be more specific, the next action.

What Is the Next Action?

I learned the next action concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) a few years back and it has changed the way I do things. Literally. From taking down notes, writing my to-do lists, to running meetings, and managing other people.

It’s one of those things that you “can’t unsee.” Once you understand the concept, you’ll never go back.

The official definition of the next action is this:

The next action means the next visible physical activity to move something forward.

Let’s say you’re talking about creating a content calendar, or hiring that new content writer. All these are projects. According to GTD, a project is simply a big collection of tasks grouped together.

Here are a few other examples:

  • Publishing a blog post
  • Running a quarterly marketing campaign
  • Buying groceries

It doesn’t matter if you can finish them in one hour or may take a few weeks, as long as it’s composed of two or more tasks related to each other, it’s a project.

Now, let’s look at a few examples how the next actions ensure your projects are always moving forward.

Example 1: Next Actions on a Simple Project

Let’s say we’re talking about publishing a blog post. Assume you already have a content calendar to follow and you know what to write and when to publish.

So what’s the next action to move it forward?

It depends. It could be to assign a writer (if you have other writers) or block out half an hour in your calendar to write the outline yourself. See the difference?

You don’t just go from wanting to publish the post (the output or result you want) to making it immediately happen. You have to go through a series of steps or tasks in order to do that.

This matters a lot more when you work with other people.

You have to define the next action clearly. More on this below.

Example 2: Next Actions During Meetings

Are you guilty of this? Or perhaps been part of meetings like this?

Here’s the scenario. You are in an ad-hoc meeting to brainstorm on what topics to publish on your blog for the next quarter. Bill, Carrie, and Jon are all parts of your team.

You go on with your announcements and talk about this new project. Then you say something like this…

“Bill, can you take care of this article?”

Bill looks up from his table. Nods along and says, “Sure.”

“Thanks Bill,” you replied back. “Next, let’s talk about…”

Then a few days later, you check up on that article you assigned to Bill only to find out nothing was taken cared of.

Sound familiar?

Here’s actually what happens when you do that.

Bill is caught off guard and just nods along. The manager (you) just moves on to the next item in her list without discussing the details.

“Take care of the article” might mean to publish in your head, but to Bill and to everyone else, it might mean I’ll do the research. Or it can mean okay, I’m in-charge of this. What do I do?

Defining the next actions will greatly reduce the chances of your projects getting delayed because you already know what you need to do.

Why You’re Not Moving Forward

You don’t need a degree to manage projects effectively in your organization. If you know this secret, you will be a rockstar.

Just answer this: “who does what by when?”

If you do that for every single task, and follow up, you will finish your projects on time.

Look at this and it’s prevalent. You’ll find it during meetings, inside task managers, and your to-do lists.

  • “You’ll take care of this article, right?” — missing a clearly defined what and a when. What does take care actually mean? When will this need to be taken cared of?
  • “Complete research” — complete research on what? When is this research needed? Who needs to do it?

When you don’t define the task properly, nothing gets done.

All it takes is an extra 5 to 10 seconds to think through it properly and complete the “who does what by when” criteria.

Won’t you prefer than than stressing why all your projects are always late? Why you’re not making progress?

Over to You

As a professional, it’s your job to get things done. Activities don’t matter. Results are what you are paid for.

If you’re a manager, whether in an official corporate setting or leading a group of volunteers, always think of the next actions. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the correct one or will lead to the best outcome. What matters is you keep moving forward.

If you’re working for yourself or working with clients, the only way to get those projects down is to break them down into smaller tasks that meet the next action criteria.

Do this consistently and you’ll find your projects will often get easier and less stressful.

Have you tried this concept of next actions before? When you assign or write down your to-do lists, do you use the who does what by when convention? Either way, I’d love to know.

Surviving the Post Pandemic World: How Your Business Should Adapt

happy ethnic coffee shop owner standing at entrance door

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nelson Mandela

Education, in its broadest sense, is continuously learning new things. This includes things about the world, economy, your business, and yourself.

It’s also one of the best traits we have as humans—learning from others.

Instead of making the same mistakes others already did millions of times, we learn from them and take a different path.

This also holds true for the post-pandemic world. If you want your business to thrive, not just survive, you have to learn from others and adapt.

Why Making Your Own Mistakes Is Stupid

We now live in a time where mistakes are celebrated. That making one is courageous.

That’s outright stupid.

This was, for the most part, popularized by the notion of fail fast, fail often.

I have nothing against making mistakes. I’ve made them over and over. But I don’t celebrate it. I don’t like it. In fact, I hate it.

The problem of having to make your own mistakes is it’s costly. It not only consumes your limited resources but also prevents you from creating additional value (opportunity cost).

Example: Starting Your Own Business

Let’s say you want to start your own eCommerce store. For most people, this will start with investing in designing the website and everything you need (like web hosting, themes, etc.). After spending a few thousands, they read that email is essential, so they get an email marketing software. After a while, they aren’t getting enough sales, they then spend on advertisements.

If you go all-in on “making your own mistakes,” you’ll invest heavily in building the business. You’ll buy inventory, or hire people, or spend an enormous amount of time “doing” or maybe even put up a corporation as one of your first few steps.

You’ll definitely make mistakes along the way. And that’s fine, right? Because you have to do it and make your own mistakes.

Again, that’s stupid. So much that I cringe whenever I see this type of behavior. So much that I actually wrote about it and labeled it as the number 1 mistake people make when starting a business.

For most people outside the Silicon Valley hype, we use our life savings to fund the business. We don’t have access to investors. If we make a mistake, we lose everything.

The fact is thousands of people already made the mistakes. Why must you follow in their footsteps? Why not just learn from them?

Key Takeaway

Counting on one of the best traits we have as humans, we can minimize our risks by learning from others’ mistakes. Take the time to learn different frameworks and tools, instead of starting off with “market research.”

If you want to start your own business, whatever industry or niche you pick, you’ll most likely find some incumbents, or at least, similar to what you are thinking of doing. Instead of simply looking at popular brands, look into the smaller ones. Spend more time researching on businesses that failed.

Find out which ones worked and, more importantly, understand why they worked.

Focus on the principles. Don’t get caught up with cool-sounding strategies and names.

Question All Your Assumptions

Next is to start questioning your own assumptions.

Just like when Sheldon did when he found out he was wrong about super-asymmetry, he started reevaluating every decision he’s ever made.

  • What held true before is clearly different now
  • this is true for big businesses where they neglected digital channels and relied on physical locations but have now switched over
  • Disney case study
  • Find research on what behavior will stick after pandemic

Don’t take anything for granted. If you want to succeed in your industry, you’ve got to stop making assumptions. Instead, ask yourself, “what’s different now?”

Answering this honestly will often result in new insights that can help you navigate through tough times.

Case Study: Disney

Disney doesn’t need any introduction. But if you look at their revenue breakdown, you’ll find that majority of their income comes from their parks. But when COVID hit, well, you know what happened.

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They, then, switched their focus on Disney+, their streaming platform. At just over a year old, Disney+ is growing at a pace so fast that Netflix CEO said in an earnings conference call, “I’ve never seen such a good execution of the incumbent learning the new way and mastering it”

What Held True Yesterday May Not Hold True Tomorrow

No one predicted this pandemic. Well, except for Bill Gates.

But because of this change, Disney accepted and adopted. They didn’t just try to force open their parks. They found ways to make up for it. They reallocated their resources to what is working.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, Disney is a big company. They have a lot of resources while you have little.

While that may be true, it’s not a valid excuse. Because there are countless of other small businesses that have pivoted. There are thousands of new business that opened during the pandemic as well.

And if you haven’t done so, here are a few resources to help you get started:

  • Buyer utility map—find hidden opportunities in you industry that competitors are taking for granted. You can also use this to look into other niches.
  • Strategy canvas—identify which factors the key players in any industry are competing on and what buyers get from them
  • Business model canvas—discover how businesses work, how they earn revenues, what makes up their expenses, and other resources and activities that are key to their entire operation

Sticking with status quo is okay. But know that everyday, people are always changing. We are all adopting new behaviors. If you don’t do something about it, you will get left behind.

And one thing that has been true for several years now is the need to be online. To have a digital presence. The pandemic has only made this more apparent.

Digital Is More Important Than Ever

When the world was in lockdown, only a few essential businesses were open.

If you aren’t part of this group, then you were only faced with two options:

  1. Complain
  2. Do something

Most businesses did #1 throughout the beginning of the pandemic. But they soon realized that they need to do something about their situation. Otherwise, they’ll close shop forever.

Yet there are still those who keep complaining and haven’t done anything to adjust to what’s happening now.

We are finding two very different attitudes among companies adapting to the current acute disruption—those that are using this time to plan their place in the “next normal” and those that are treading water, waiting for the world to go back to what it was. We expect that the companies that emerge stronger from the crisis are those that innovate through it, using the current crisis as an opportunity to digitally transform their company.


But you you’re not in this camp, here are a few tips to help you get started:

Create a Solid Online Foundation

Having a great foundation online starts with having a website. The reason is simple: if you are not found on Google, you do not exist. Take a look at the four website capabilities you need. Anything more is just fluff.

If you already have one, check out these articles:

Be Present in the Conversation Early

I alluded this earlier, but if potential buyers can’t find you on Google, how will they purchase from you?

This is the main intent behind search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing.

By being present early in the conversation, i.e. when people are researching, you can build goodwill. You can create awareness for your brand.

If you are not part of that process, and your competitors are, which one do you think people will buy from?

And if you want to dive in deeper, here are a few more resources to help you:

Over to You

The pandemic isn’t over. It may have disrupted everyone’s lives, but that doesn’t mean the world will stop for you.

You don’t need to make mistakes others already made. You can learn from others. All it takes is careful planning and research.

What worked before is no guarantee it will work today, much more tomorrow. Always question your assumptions.

Lastly, digital is the way to go. With everyone heading in that direction, it is a requirement. Success without an online presence is rare. Chances are, you’re not that lucky.

As a leader, you are left with a choice: which one will you choose?

Be comfortable where you are knowing you will get left behind or do something you haven’t tried before.