What is Your Next Action?

One of the most fundamental moves in productivity is identifying your next physical action.

You may have heard this statement before especially if have studied Getting Things Done (GTD). In fact the question is at the center of the David Allen’s famous workflow diagram. Why is it so important to identify your next action in a very specific way? Because vagueness is the antithesis of productivity.

The reason is simple to understand. When our actions are undefined the mind has nothing to focus on. Sure it may have a sense of what our completed projects will look like in the end, but to get there involves a series of steps. Most of the time our next actions are self evident and require little thought. However when a project becomes stuck it creates stress and avoidance. That is when defining the next physical action is vital to forward progress. Getting specific forces the mind to focus through visualizing success. Often it only takes a minute to figure out an appropriate next action.

In the book Getting Things Done David Allen provides a classic example of what it means to think this way. Imagine you are overdue to take your car in for an oil change. The next action for almost everyone is not “change the oil” unless you are a DYI car mechanic ready for grease. The next physical action might be any of the following:

  • Call to schedule an appointment at your favorite garage
  • Talk to your colleague down the hall who recommended a shop
  • Search the Internet for local oil change deals
  • Check your calendar for an open day/time on your vehicle in
What is your next action?

Not having clarity on the next action could mean that oil change will not happen for a long time. Deciding on the next physical action creates greater clarity and makes it far more likely for the project to be completed.

Your challenge is to identify all the stuck projects in your life and decide on a next action for all of them. Taking these steps will boost the odds of completing them while reducing your stress level at the same time. Sounds like a win-win!

Taking Better Notes

The secret to success in knowledge work lies in successful note taking. In my article for Public Libraries Magazine I defined a note as an information artifact of perceived value. Notes are necessary because we simply cannot rely on our brains to remember everything of importance. So the art and science of note taking is a field worth studying.

In an article by Kenneth A. Kiewra called A Seven-Step Guide to Taking Better Notes, the author starts out by focusing on why it is important to take notes in the first place, especially in an academic setting.

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Students who take notes during a lesson achieve more than those who listen to the lesson without note taking. This is because the act of note taking staves off boredom and focuses attention on lesson ideas more than listening without taking notes.

The primary value of note taking, though, is more in the product than the process, more in the reviewing than the recording. Students who record and then review notes almost always achieve more than students who record but do not review notes.

Read the rest of the article on the Quartz web site. If you haven’t done so already, learn the best techniques for digital note taking over at Forte Labs and their signature course, Building a Second Brain.

Second Brain Crash Course

Recently Forte Labs launched their first ever Second Brain Week. Bringing in experts in digital note taking from around the world, founder Tiago Forte lead a free week of training on how to up your electronic productivity game. Their promise was simple:

Come join us to learn about digital note-taking, organizing, productivity, knowledge management, and online education, and how creating a system of knowledge management for yourself can help you do all of them far more effectively.

While the live sessions are over, everything was recorded and available for free on the Forte Labs web site. So if you want to take your productivity up to the next level, take advantage of the free Second Brain Week sessions available now on demand.

The Missing Link?

How easily can you decide on what to do next at work? The answer to that question goes a long way towards determining your daily success.

The basic building blocks of knowledge work are next actions and projects. The two are deeply connected. Projects themselves are essentially the outcomes we want, such as finishing a report, losing weight, buying a home, or hiring a new assistant. The next actions are the physical things we do to move projects forward, such as call Joe, read the article, draft an essay, or schedule the next gym class.

In a recent piece piece on the GTD web site, the connection between projects and next actions was explored. It discussed why sorting actions by context rather than project is more helpful than first apparent.

Sorting next actions by context, not by project, can initially seem awkward. Some people are used to having multiple files, piles, notepads, documents, and spreadsheets related to a project, with next actions for the project buried amongst all of that information. Next Actions lists don’t replace project plans—we would just call that data “project support.” In our experience, it rarely works to have current next actions stored with project support for day-to-day action management.

Read the rest on the Getting Things Done web site.

The Ninety Minute Self Help Book Challenge

Below is the opening of a new article that can be found on the Efficient Librarian web site.

Last month I highlighted a strategy by Darius Foroux. He claimed a reader could get just about everything useful out of a self help book in only ninety minutes.  To explore his technique I tested it out on Joy at Work by Marie Kondo & Scott Sonenshein.  Here’s what I found.

Step One in Foroux’s method was to pick the book wisely.  I choose Joy at Work. It is a follow-up to Marie Kondo’s best selling The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up which focused on the home. My family had fun applying the Konmari principles to our house last summer, so I was curious to see how the philosophy could be transferred to the workplace. Given that I am a firm believer in GTD, I was also interested in learning how her techniques complimented and contrasted David Allen’s classic approach to getting things done. 

Learn what happened in Steps Two, Three and Four by reading the rest of the article at the Efficient Librarian web site.

Is this what Productivity is Missing?

Let’s be honest, if you search for productivity books in Amazon, the majority of titles shown in the results are written by men. Why is this so? It can’t be that men are the only ones worried about getting things done quickly and efficient. Also, what does this mean for our understanding of productivity itself? Is there something missing if only men are writing about it?

In a recent article at Forte Labs, Lauren Valdez explores this question. She believes one reason for this result is that books written by women are placed into the “organization” category. For example a search for decluttering books in Amazon produces almost the exact opposite result with women being the predominant authors. However, Lauren believes the truth runs deeper than just a matter of odd cataloging.

Productivity is not about optimizing every aspect of your life or being well-versed on the latest and most flashy new app. The point of productivity is to do what brings you pleasure and to have more freedom. We aren’t machines. We are humans.

To be productive, we all need to balance the logical, technical side with the emotional, intuitive side. These can be understood as masculine and feminine energies. I define masculine-energy as associated with logic, order, and the technical, whereas feminine energy is associated with intuition, self-awareness, and creativity.

Another way we can think about this is using the left-side and right-side of the brain. Most productivity advice lies on the masculine side, but you need the yin and yang balance between both these energies. No matter where on the gender spectrum you fall, we all can tap into our masculine and feminine energies.

Read the rest of the article on the Forte Labs web site.

What is Killing Your Focus?

Have you ever been distracted?

We are often our own worst enemy, as it is very easy to be enthralled by the next shiny bauble. However, sometimes it is other who distract us. The ability to focus is key to getting anything done well. There are many possible reasons for our inability to focus. In his recent article The Two Things Killing Your Ability to Focus published in the Harvard Business Review, writer William Treseder narrows down the culprits to two specific causes, our electronic devices and meetings.

First, we increasingly are overwhelmed with distractions flying at us from various connected devices. Smartphone and tablet use is spiking, and we now use digital media for an average of over 12 hours per day. This hyper-connected state does not allow us to process, recharge, and refocus.

Second, we rely excessively on meetings as the default form of interaction with other people at work. Studies indicate that we spend anywhere from 35–55 percent of our time, and sometimes much more, in meetings. If we want to stay focused on truly meaningful activity, something has to change.

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How do we get around these obstacles in order to better focus? Treseder suggests several approaches. For example, to make meetings more useful he suggests we shrink the number of people in attendance.

Countless studies, starting with this 2015 HBR research, have shown the benefits of smaller teams. Focus and responsibility are more challenging with too many people — which is how you end up with folks staring down silently at their laptops for an entire meeting. To stay focused, keep your team focused. Limit the number of people in any meeting to eight or fewer unless it is a meeting that is purely informational.

Read the full article to learn the other suggestions that will

Speed Reading Self Help Books

Even though I am a librarian, it has been a struggle lately to read books cover to cover. Perhaps it is due to age, or the pandemic stress, or simply competing demands on my time, but sitting down with a book is not simple anymore. Yet there are still many titles I want to read for self development. What can I do?

The answer might be to follow the advice in the article How To Read A Self-Help Book In 90 Minutes by Darius Foroux. He outlines a simple four step plan to quickly identify and deploy the most useful pieces of advice from any book. For example the first step is to choose wisely:

Why do you read a book? Is it because someone recommends it? Or because it’s an NYT bestseller? Those are lousy reasons to pick up a book and invest your time in reading it.I have only 1 question that helps me to decide reading a book: Is this book currently relevant to me? In other words: Will this book help me now? If the answer is no, I don’t read it. … You can’t expect to retain the information you read forever. That’s why you want to read books that are relevant to you.

Darius Foroux

I am going to use his approach to tackle Joy at Work by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein. In a future article I’ll share my summary of the key points and my experience using Foroux’s system.

The Art of Stress Free Productivity

Today I want to share a classic David Allen video.

When I first discovered GTD back in 2011 I searched for anything related to David Allen and his teachings. One of the most impactful pieces was a video of his first TEDx talk from Claremont College. I have lost track of the number of times I have watched it, but it always yields something new on repeat viewings.

Right off the top, David shares a central theme of GTD. It is the idea of appropriate engagement:

“Getting things done is not about getting things done. It’s really about being appropriately engaged with what’s going on. Appropriate engagement is the real key here. Many times not getting something done is the way to appropriately engage with it. … There is some key, something unique about being appropriately engaged. Why does a crisis get us there? Because it forces us to do the behaviors that get us there.”

The video is twenty two minutes, but it is time well spent. Share in the comments your biggest insight from watching it.