Do you have a sense that things aren’t moving along in your life as quickly as they should? Does it seem like forward progress is slowing despite the fact that you are working more than ever?
If this rings true for you, it might be time for you to start asking yourself one simple question…
To get out of your productivity slump, you can start to ask yourself this question hundreds, possibly thousands of times a day. It will be asked whenever you come across new information in the present, are reviewing old information from the past or are trying to plan events for the future.
The question is…
“What’s the next action?”
Universal acceptance and use of the ‘what’s next?’ question is productivity expert David Allen’s personal mission. He wants “What’s the next action?” to become, “part of the global thought process.”
Why is asking this deceptively simple question the first step to getting unstuck from an unproductive slump?
Well, let’s think about it. Have you ever come out of a meeting and not have a clue of what – if anything – you were expected to do? Same with an email or a conversation?
When that happens, your go-to first step should be to ask yourself , “What’s the next action?”
Let’s take a deeper look at email, meetings and conversations to see how you can apply ‘what’s next?’ to become more productive in your work and life.
Next Actions For Email
We’ll start with email because that is one of the most common places people get their marching orders from within organizations.
Opening your inbox can be a bit like walking through an old WWI battle site in the French countryside. It may be pleasant. You might even find some wonderful surprises like a wild blackberry bush or a $5 credit to Amazon.com.
Or you might step on a land mine and get your leg blown off/have your entire week thrown off by an unexpected change in circumstances.
Because of this uncertainty, it is important you protect yourself by staying on a worn, narrow path when walking through the ‘French Email Countryside’.
The narrow path for email is a predetermined set of actions that will determine you and your email’s faith. And believe me, these actions are much safer for you than your email.
To stay on the productive path – after asking yourself the all important “What’s the next action?” – you will either:
Do – respond or begin the requested action
Delegate – give action to someone else
Defer – put the event in your calendar or the action on your to-do list
Delay – re-negotiate timeline of action
Delete [or archive] – if there is NO ACTION
Reference Material Within Email
“What about reference material?”, you may ask. “That’s not actionable, and I need to keep it in a safe place.”
I’d press you on this issue. Do you really need to store the emailed attachment or message in another location outside your email client? Sometimes a sense of insecurity makes people apply too much structure to their information.
I understand some industries have strict record-keeping guidelines. In those cases, you should take action to store supporting documents in their legally-mandated place. But from my experience with helping business owners organize their digital information, 9 times out of 10 they did not need nearly the amount of information they were trying to save in folders on their desktop.
Additionally, if you do end up needing the information, the message can be easily searched for if you choose to achieve the email instead of deleting the message completely (which would require emptying your email’s trash file).
I’d say, for 90% of the workers out there, your archive folder is plenty safe for non-actionable, unlikely to be used reference material.
Next Actions For Meetings
Meeting are a huge source of action ambiguity. If it is not in your culture to do so, try to become the person who takes a meeting filled with ‘what-ifs’ and ‘maybe we coulds’ and ask the group “What is the next action (and who’s responsible for them)?”.
Be sure to speak up at least 10 minutes before the scheduled end to the meeting because it is likely going to take a few minutes to figure out what actually needs to happen to move forward – and you don’t want to be the person that makes the meeting go over time… nobody likes that person.
Next Actions For Conversations
Finding next actions within conversations is a bit less straightforward than with email or meetings.
My rational mind always tries to figure out what the next action is going to be… especially when presented with a problem. In the workplace this is great. Somebody’s complaining about the new cover page on the TPS report and you can chime in with a “What’s the next action?” either there isn’t a next action and the gripe-fest should be finished or there is and you can start working towards the solution.
However, in your personal life, it does not always work so smoothly. I have gotten into a lot of hot water with girlfriends who have come to me with their problems because they needed somebody to talk to and NOT because the were looking for a solution. Many lonely nights gave me the impetus to create a more gentle way to ask “What’s the next action?”.
It goes, “How can I best support you?”
This question leaves the door open for either helping solve to problem or just being there to snuggle up with.*
Do The Right Next Action
Once you start to implement “What’s the next action?” in your life, you will be much clearer on what needs to be done and when. Now you can take your clear, actionable to-do’s and start knocking them out in order of priority.**
A Final Note
Success comes by doing the right next actions in small increments over time. By filtering information through the “what’s the next action?” lens, you can get clear on your next actions and jumpstart your productivity and get your projects moving along at greater speeds than you thought possible.
*You’re welcome gentlemen.
**Making sure you are doing the right actions at the right time is easier said than done. A task management tool like OmniFocus or Trello can be used to keep track of your tasks and setting personal, financial, social, etc. goals can help you prioritize your actions. Look here and here for task management and goal setting advice.
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