The Next Action: The Key to Actually Getting Things Done

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.

Ariel Lim

Ariel Lim

Management consultant / MBA / Inbound marketer who helps startups generate leads, create and execute strategies.

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