GTD: How to pin down the Next Action

Isn't Getting Things Done (GTD) easy? Whether you're at home, in the office, on the phone - in every context, you pull out the respective list of next actions, pick one and...

...then you ponder what exactly you wanted yourself to do now. Obviously, the note wasn't as precise as you had imagined. What went wrong? Why is it so difficult to phrase a Next Action?

Carefully worded Next Actions

David Allen's definition of «next action» is (taken from Getting Things Done. The Art of Stress-Free Productivity):

the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.

How can you tell, then, whether a Next Action phrase is ok?

  • It states which concrete, physical activity is required;
  • an activity that - in theory as well as in practice can be completed in a single run (the Next Action, not the Next Actions);
  • an activity that gets you closer to the goal.

Pitfalls and how to escape from them

Pitfalls abound whenever you leave the path of the one and only purpose of a Next Action List. Your system loses reliability, because you start to wonder what exactly you expected yourself to do now. ToDos look gigantic and stay unfinished forever. Meaningless amusements get done instead of the necessary stuff.

Awareness ribbons

What's the difference between a shopping list and a list of Next Actions? A shopping list contains just nouns. That's fine for the shopping purpose. Next Actions, however, require a verb, a clear hint what you should do now.

Imagine every list of next actions was a box full of awareness ribbons: orange ones, yellow ones, red ones, and so on. Would you like to, or would you have enough time to, ponder for every ribbon what it really means? Again and again? Even when you're in a hurry or tired? A few examples:

Ponder or know?
summer tires or call Joe's garage to arrange for tire change
weekly meeting minutes or ask Frank: weekly meeting minutes doc available?
bike tour around Lake Geneva or google for bike repair shops in Geneva

If your lists do not contain verbs, you've either skipped step 2 («Process») of GTD or you didn't record the result.

Maybe you simply dislike verbs in the imperative, because you think a keyword will automatically remind you of the Next Action. Anyway, the verb was the result you had been working for so hard. If you don't like to throw away your achievements, you shouldn't start doing it while GTDing.

Insist on a verb.

Projects in sheep's clothing

So your Next Actions are phrased using verbs, and still you ponder what you should actually do? Maybe there is no Next Action looking at you, but a project in sheep's clothing?

The GTD community calls this problem the difference between «Project Verbs» and «Next Action Verbs». A «Project Verb» is actually a project in sheep's clothing: to mighty to be a single activity. Anyway, Project Verbs are quite popular, because they bail out of concrete actions and can be written down in an instant:

Whole project or next action?
«do» 2006 tax declaration or sort and list 2006 bills
«present» ITIL concept or Call reception desk: reserve beamer and room 15 for Thu 15:00-18:00
submit article or mail Harry: OpenOffice file format acceptable?

It is so easy to go astray, I know, but a whole project does not belong onto any list of Next Actions. Projects, especially the tricky ones, can only be managed like a journey through a desert: from oasis to oasis.

Train yourself to spot «aloof» verbs.


Do you always keep the ultimate goal in mind, the one that your next step shall get you closer to? Even if you know that goal - maybe you feel uncomfortable with it, maybe it feels burdensome to try to get there? That's when, instead of the logical next action, a thousand other ones creep in, that «must» be completed before:

Eyes closed or open?
Check out document binders (calfskin) at Wendy's Leather Shop or download advance directive template from dep. of aging websit
google for stylish alternative to manila folders or Order via phone: 50 manila folders, letter size (Jack's Office Supplies)
Pay bonus into savings account or Research (internet) low-risk investments > 4% interest p.a.

You've chosen Getting Things Done (GTD) to achieve your goals. If you spot constant digression, dare to discuss your lists of Next Actions with somebody you trust and ask for honest feedback.


It's my hope that during your next weekly review, you'll have plenty of ideas for careful wordings. Maybe you'll find out why some list items went stale already weeks ago?

If you know one more pitfall, I'm looking forward to hearing about it in the comments.



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