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Summary:

David Allen’s Getting Things Done personal productivity scheme suggests you track the next physical action you need to do for each of your projects. Once you finish that action, you immediately identify and record the next. This leads you inexorably towards your goals at the same […]

David Allen’s Getting Things Done personal productivity scheme suggests you track the next physical action you need to do for each of your projects. Once you finish that action, you immediately identify and record the next. This leads you inexorably towards your goals at the same time it clears your brain of “open loops,” outstanding and amorphous need-to-dos that distract and disturb you. But might there be benefit in postponing deciding what the next step is until you’re ready to act?

Kevin Rutherford puts the lean programming principle “decide as late as possible” in practice on the to do list he maintains for software changes. He’s recently switched from identifying actual code changes on his to do list to listing the problem he needs to address. He finds it gives him better results:

I have no idea how, why or when this change happened, but I’m pleased it did. Between the time I write a particular to-do item and the time I finally get around to executing it, I may significantly change the code in that area. Or I may learn something about the code and where it wants to go next. Or the problem may disappear, as a side-effect of some other change. Either way, the solution I might have on my to-do list has a chance of being inappropriate now that the code and I have moved on. So by listing the problem as I originally saw it, I’m giving myself a much better chance of creating the right solution for it – because I’m deciding on that solution in the presence of the full facts.

Perhaps this applies to more than just software development to dos. Postponing decisions on what action to take allows you to optimize the action at the time you do it. For many tasks this isn’t necessary. If you need to go to the grocery store, it doesn’t make much sense to write “problem: refrigerator is empty” on your task list. For more creative projects, however, it might allow you to move forward with more agility and less angst at the time you update your to do list.

  1. I suppose David Allen would call these problems “Projects” which need to be reviewed weekly.

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  2. Calling each one a project would be excessive in the case of many programming todos. I’m guessing the items are more like “No one can find the help page for our site”. You could add “put link to help page in navigation bar” to your list, but maybe something else in the site layout will change before you get that far and the task won’t be relevant. So it could be more effective to write down the problem to fix, and then find an appropriate solution when you have time to work on the issue.

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  3. So it’s a specialized list… and lists are what GTD is about after all…

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  4. For me simply restating that I have an issue that needs to be addressed will do nothing to get me forwards in implementing a solution.

    I do agree with the idea of leaving some space between identifying that an issue exists and deciding on a solution. It give the sub (un) conscious time to mull over the problem and come up with innovative solutions that might be quashed if I think I’ve identified the solution and written it into my to do list.

    In this cast my Next Action is to brain storm and record possible solutions. The too can be reviewed at a later date (the next Next Action) before implementing the best.

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  5. That’s a good point, David — the next action can be brainstorming a solution. Doesn’t have to be merely stated as a problem.

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  6. I too use GTD for managing my projects and next actions. I didn’t think to make the connection in my article, because I was really talking about something different. The lists I grow during a programming episode (which typically last 30-120 minutes) are simply “don’t forgets”: reminders to myself to leave the workspace clean and tidy before I leave. I sometimes do the same when I’m working on my company accounts. These are micro-actions, and they only exist because I have a poor memory and a butterfly brain. The overall goal of the episode is indeed likely to have been a Next Action on some project; my “don’t forget” list is a serendipitious breakdown of that Next Action, grown as necessary.

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  7. As a programmer myself, I kinda combine the methods. Initially, I’ll tag an action with “bug” or “feature” in my list, and then when it’s closer to being worked on I’ll change it to an action, if I have a specific solution in mind.

    Also, those bugs etc really don’t need contexts…I’m fairly sure I know where I’ll be when I do them ;)

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  8. Actually, it’s a damn useful perspective shift, moving from “next action” to “next issue to face.” I teach personal growth courses to people in crisis, and circumstances change for them so quickly that sometimes the identified next action is impossible or inappropriate by the time it’s supposed to happen.

    Hey, for grocery lists for those on a tight budget, it makes no sense to write “go to store” but it makes plenty of sense to write “need breakfast cereal, entrees, milk for a week…” then buy what’s on sale instead of specifics you stuck on there days ago. This is the kind of flexibility that the shift can provide.

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  9. Paul Veltman Tuesday, May 1, 2007

    I like the idea of keeping a list of problems, but would not throw away the ‘Next Actions’ list yet.

    The ‘Next Actions’ are a list of thought-through actions designed to solve problems. All the thinking has been done, and the widgets just need to be cranked.

    To replace this with a list of problems which still need to be solved or thought about seems to undo the usefulness of this approach, and might be better described as ‘Getting Things Thunk About’ rather than ‘ Getting Things Done’.

    One is geared towards Action, the other geared towards Purpose and Direction.

    These need to be kept distinct, and as previous commentators have said, the Weekly Review of the ‘Projects’ list already provides room for this thinking and processing.

    PV

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  10. [...] Web Worker Daily » Blog Archive Tip of the Week: Try Listing Problems Instead of Next Actions « “Postponing decisions on what action to take allows you to optimize the action at the time you do it.” (tags: GTD lifehacks organization productivity self-improvement) [...]

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