Why ‘What’s the Next Action’ is the Most Important Question

By Leo Babauta

One of the fundamentals of GTD is to ask yourself, with any item that you are processing from your inbox (physical or email or voicemail), with any project that you have on your projects list: “What’s the Next Action?”

And it is this question, this simple little four-word question, that can be transforming for many people, even if they don’t realize it. Here’s why.

1. A project can sit on our to-do list for a long time without getting done
. David Allen points out that that’s because you can’t DO a project — you can only do a physical action. You can’t do a website redesign or a home makeover. You can’t even do your taxes. Each of those is a multi-step project that should not be on your to-do list, but should be on a separate projects list (meant to simply keep track of projects, not to be used for daily action). So GTD defines projects as anything that takes more than one step — a much different definition than many of us use for the word “project”.

Allen tells us to look at that project, and ask ourselves, “What is the very next physical action that can be taken with this project?” With the above examples, I might start a website redesign by finding five other sites with looks that will inspire my new design. The action could be to simply bookmark (and print) five sites with inspiring designs. With a room makeover, I might first stop by the paint store and get a color pallet. For taxes, I could simply gather my 1099 forms, or download the new 1040 form. There could be a number of “next actions” but the key is to choose one and put that on your to-do list. That’s something you can do.

2. Other items might not be projects, but they might not exactly be actions either. My to-do list might contain the item “Figure out color scheme”. Well, figure out isn’t really an action. Getting a color pallet is an action. So is listing five possible color options. After that, I might “choose one of the five color options”. Each of those is an action, but figure out isn’t. When we ask “What’s the next action” we are ensuring that we have actual actions, and not vague, fuzzy terms.

3. GTD is action-oriented. We’ve all sat through countless meetings where a topic was discussed, and we walked away without really deciding anything. But now, when I have to attend a meeting, I ask everyone as the meeting is wrapping up, “OK, so what’s the next action?” This forces everyone to clarify what must be done next, and who must do what, and then we are accountable for doing those actions. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of talk. The question is powerful because it forces the issue and demands action. Things actually get done.

4. Non-doable actions are removed from the list. By asking what the very next action is to move a project forward, we are eliminating from our to-do lists all other actions that cannot be completed right now. If I cannot choose a color scheme until I’ve obtained a color pallet, well, “choose a color scheme” shouldn’t be on my list. It clutters up the list and distracts me from what I can actually do right now. All that should be on my list is “get color pallet from paint store”, because that’s all that can be done. Once I’ve crossed that off, I should add the new next action. Now my list only has stuff that can actually be done, right now, instead of bogging me down with a whole bunch of other stuff. If your list is overloaded with non-doable actions, you must continually process that list each time you look it over, and decide what can be done right now (and when you do this, you are always asking yourself “what’s the next action?”), and what can’t.

5. It requires and encourages quick decisions. Many times, we put off action on something because there are things that have to be decided that we don’t want to think about. And the more we keep putting it off, the less we want to think about that thing. But by asking the very simple question, “What’s the next action?” we are not faced with a million decisions, but one. That makes the decision-making process very easy, and very simple. We don’t need to plan out an entire project (ugh!) … all we need to do is decide what we need to do next. And that’s a decision we can make very quickly … which means we’re past the “thinking about” stage and into the action stage.

Even if you don’t implement the entire GTD system today, asking “What’s the next action?” is one simple and powerful tool you can implement right now. Next action: go through your to-do list and ask this question of every item on the list.