How to Find the Next Action for Your Project

Next Action Road

If you’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you’ve encountered the idea of a “next action.” If you haven’t read the book or encountered the GTD productivity system, understanding the idea isn’t difficult: a next action is the very next task you need to complete to make progress on your project. So if you’re planning to take a vacation, the next action might be visiting a travel website or blog you trust to brainstorm places you might like to visit. That is a manageable action that can be done in one sitting. “Plan the vacation” is not a single action, and can be pretty daunting if that’s your next task.

Even though next actions look nice and small, sometimes creating them can become tedious or annoying. If you’re following GTD closely, you’re constantly trying to find the next action (or a set of next actions) and add it to one of your highly organized, specialized lists. That process can grow tiresome and sometimes discourage you from doing it.

However, in reading 25 Quotables from the 99% Conference, I stumbled upon a line that puts finding next actions in a slightly different light. It’s from Jason Randal.

“Reduce everything you want to do, to an action you can do right now.”

Randal captures the reason why finding next actions is so important. They enable you to take action. Instead of thinking, stressing, or wishing in the direction of your goals and future achievements, you can boil everything down into one thing you can do right this second. You don’t need to build Rome in a day: you just need to find a quarry where you might be able to get the stone to pave the roads that will all, someday, lead to it. And at this present moment, that’s more than enough.

So how do you go about identifying a next action? After you do it for a while it becomes easier, but if you’re just starting out, here are a few tips.

Brainstorm for Actions

Start out by brainstorming for small pieces of your project—pieces small enough that you could do them in a sitting and are, start to finish, only one thing. Then try to find the action earliest in your project process. Could you do it right now? If yes, you’ve found your next action. If not, you need to do a little more digging.

Find the Prerequisites

If you’re looking at the next thing you want to be doing, but you know you can’t do it yet, you need to find the prerequisites you have for that task. Take the Rome-road quarry example: maybe I can’t find a quarry because I don’t know what type of stone I want to make the roads out of. Deciding which stone to use is a prerequisite to choosing a quarry. Perhaps before I decide which stone to use I need to learn more about common types of stone. If I already have a resource to learn about stone, my next action could be something like this: “Read about building properties of igneous rock types.” To find your next action you just need to work backwards to an action that has no prerequisites.

Record the Action

After you’ve found the next action, ideally you would complete it right away. However, we all have constraints on our time, and most of the time your efforts are spread across multiple projects, each with its own next action. Once you’ve found the next action, make sure you record it on your task list so the second you’re able to work on your Roman roads, you know exactly where to begin.

After you’ve found your project’s next action and you sit down and complete it, it’s normally fairly easy to find the next one. You just have to ask yourself what, after having completed the task you just did, is the next logical thing to do. If that next thing has no prerequisites, then you’ve found yourself the very next action you can do right now to move your aspirations forward.

Image by Michal Marcol via

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