We all want to be doing more. To track what we should be doing. To make lists. To mark things as complete. And yet, many of us still go without a structured system of action. A system of action is a way to organise and prioritise those things that need to be taken care of, by you or someone you are working with. This article will detail how to develop, maintain and work with your own System of Action.
Many actions are the result of some idea or “thing” being captured. As we discussed earlier, some of these things that are captured, which are not (directly) actionable, find their home in your system of reference. Often, items in your reference system are related to actions. In fact, one action may be related to any number of reference items.
Building your System of Action
David Allen’s GTD productivity system (recently updated for 2015) suggests that an action, or task, begins its life at the “in” state. This is very similar to the “inbox” described in the system of capture. As new actions are identified they end up in your head as something inside your actionable inbox. Just like when working through your system of capture, these actions need to undergo a process of sorting.
There are many questions that you should ask of a task in the “in” state. Consider asking the following to identify and refine each action.
Is this the real next action?
Given the current task in the “in” state, can it be done immediately, or do other actions need to be completed beforehand? Have any of these precursory actions already been completed? The real next action is something that you can complete without any additional information. If, for example the current action is “Write Report”, the real next action is “Collect Data”. The process of defining and understand the real next action is iterative. You may find that from a single new task a number of additional actions are spawned, and for each the question must be asked, “is this the right thing that needs to be done next?”
What is the context?
The term “context” as it relates to productivity is thrown around a lot, and has adopted many different meanings. I use context to better understand where a task or action belongs. Others, such as my good friend Mike Vardy, uses context to denote the energy/brain power needed to complete a task. In fact both the interpretations are valid and can be applied simultaneously.
On any given day you’ll likely need to action a number of tasks. However those tasks are not all of the same nature. Some will be related to a certain project; some to another, and others relate to your personal life. These so called Areas of Responsibility provide context around the work that needs to be done within that area. So let’s say, for example, that at work you are currently involved in exists in two projects, Project A and Project B. A new task appears with status of “in”. After understanding the real next action, the task must be allocated to the right project (context). Just as you sorted your inbox in your system of reference, so too must these new tasks be organised. Now consider that one of the tasks is to make a phone call to someone. You may wish to work by “mode” and make all your calls at once. In that case the task would exist within two contexts – a project and a call list. However, completing the task once should warrant it as complete the in both contexts. The best way I have found to work in this way is by managing your actions and projects with Asana, an online and mobile task and project management utility. A single task in Asana can exist within multiple projects. So the task may exist within Project A and a Calls project. Viewing the calls project will list all calls that need to be made while providing details of the additional context, being Project A. Alternatively, Asana supports the use of tags. This method will see the task appear in Project A and tagged with #call. Using a search it is then quite simple to see all calls that need to be made and what projects they exist in.
There is no limit to the number of contexts a single task can be part of. However, to keep things easy for your brain, this should be limited as much as possible. Creating too much granularity with contexts can make it difficult to actually determine which context applies right now.
How can I do this?
This is a similar question to “is this the real next action.” Here you will need to understand if you have everything at your disposal that is needed to see the task complete. If you don’t yet have everything that you need, it’s not yet possible to complete this task. In this event a new task should be created to ensure everything that is required is first obtained.
What happens next?
Once a new task has been properly processed it follows that you should be able to identify what task, or tasks, should happen next. Like a mini brainstorming session, think about what you would need to do once this task is complete. Add any new actions that crop up to your task list in the “in” state and process them accordingly. The ability to see what needs to happen next will help keep your projects moving along smoothly, avoiding delays and stalling while the project is continually reassessed for completeness to understand what still needs to be done.
Working in your System of Action
Your system of action has a very important requirement – that it be organised and prioritised. We have already looked at organising tasks through projects and contexts, what’s needed now is a means to organise these tasks by priority. This will then allow you to understand what actions you can do today, without floundering around with tasks that are not ready to be actioned.
There are a lot of ways that tasks can be prioritised, but ultimately it comes down to what works for you. Here is my strategy for prioritising tasks so I can get the right things done. My strategy is a mashup of few different ones and is largely influenced by a regular weekly review.
With all the tasks you have to do now properly organised review them all, holistically. Identify your top three to five priorities for the day. If any one of those tasks should take more than one day, it should be broken down into smaller parts (by asking what the real next action is). Move those top tasks to the top of your list, or even move them to be a separate group. You might do this by tagging them with #today, for example. These tasks are those that you should absolutely get done today at a minimum. That’s not to say that if you get through them you should pack up for the day. Instead, think of these tasks as those things that must get done in order for you to declare your day a productive one.
Next, go back to the main list and look for all the tasks that need to be done or worked on in the current week. Group these together, again either in a separate list or with a tag. The order of the tasks does not matter so much. Each day, when you start with no tasks marked for #today (because you completed them all yesterday), review this #upcoming list and pick the three to five tasks for today and group or separate them as above. If you get through your tasks for today, dive into what else you have upcoming and take a task from this list.
All remaining tasks should be set aside. Not trashed, just set aside. If you’re able to hide these tasks from your immediate view, even better. Or, tag them with #later. These are the tasks that do not need your attention in the current week.
At the end of the week, perform a weekly review of all your tasks. Update your #upcoming group from the #later group and ensure any newly created tasks are processed accordingly.
My system of action has been in place for a number of years now. I certain try tweaks and changes as I discover them if I believe they have value, but for the most part my personal system works. Your action is to take what you have learnt and develop your own system of action; something that works for you. Don’t feel constrained by what a particular piece of software or technology, or even a blog post or methodology wants you to do with your tasks. Figure out a system that works for you and stick to it. Personally, my system of action resides completely in Asana. I find that with Asana I can manage all my tasks, from multiple projects and areas of responsibility in a single place, and engage with collaborators seamlessly.
How do you manage your actions? What would you change after reading this article?