And the common complaint that ‘I don’t have time to _____’ (fill in the blank) is understandable because many projects seem overwhelming – and are overwhelming because you can’t do a project at all! You can only do an action related to it … I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they themselves may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are.”
David Allen, Getting Things Done
This idea was probably the biggest “aha” moment for me when reading the fantastic little book – Getting Things Done. Managing actions, not time, has been such a big, helpful idea in my life.
You can’t create any more time in the day. You can’t manage away too much information. All you can do is get clearer and more organized about what you’re doing (action management).
To really get this, you must differentiate between a project and an action. Most to-do lists are filled with projects like “buy groceries,” “get insurance for 123 Green St,” or “start direct mail campaign to buy houses.” None of these should be on the to-do (action) list. These projects are definitely important, but they should be tracked separately.
Only action items should be on your to-do list.
For example, what’s the next action needed to buy groceries? Simple, get in the car. So “drive to the grocery store” would be an action you can do. You can’t just magically “get insurance for 123 Green St.” What’s the next action? Call the insurance agent. Calling is something you can do. You can’t do a direct mail campaign. You can, however, drive to the store to buy envelopes. You can sit in front of the computer to collect the mailing list.
The difference may seem subtle, but it makes all the difference in flying through your to-do list on a daily basis. Although you’re not aware of it, your mind resists the multi-step projects on your to-do list because they’re not actually actions. This leads, again, to stress and not getting things done.
InGetting Things Done, David Allen spends much of the book teaching about the two different types of action management you will typically be engaged in.
1) Horizontal Action Management:
Horizontal control helps you balance and handle activities across all of the different aspects of your life. This system includes collection “buckets” like email in boxes or other places you collect paperwork or projects, separate to-do lists organized by where you’ll do activities (computer, errands, calls, etc), and a calendar to track time sensitive commitments.
For horizontal management think about the variety of tasks you do on a daily basis: exercise, prepare a lunch, drop the car at the mechanic, meet with a client, look up real estate properties online, go to a dentist appointment, mow the lawn, etc. Effectively managing actions in this field helps you keep track of everything, access tasks when you need them, and seamlessly shift from one task to the next.
2) Vertical Action Management:
Vertical control helps you think in-depth about one particular commitment. This is also called “project planning.” Vertical action management is all about getting projects under way, getting clear on the desired outcome and on necessary action steps.
If even this action management itself sounds a bit overwhelming, just keep in mind that you can start small and build from there. The purpose is simply to get things off of your mind so that you can focus and take action effectively right now. If you can start managing your actions even in a small way, like with a basic to-do list or a calendar, you will notice very positive results.
What do you think? Do do you find action management a helpful idea? How do you manage actions in your work and life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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