Updated on 11.11.10

Making It All Work – Getting Perspective on the Runway: Next Actions

Trent Hamm

This is the eleventh entry in a twenty part series discussing the wonderful time and priority management book Making It All Work by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings through December 10.

making it all workStarting with this chapter, Making It All Work spends some time focusing on how to determine what’s actually important (and unimportant) and how to prioritize things at each level of focus in one’s life, moving from your to-do list all the way up to your overall life goals. For me, these chapters were the real value of the book, because they gave me a framework to step back and really re-evaluate what my priorities were in each area.

The first chapter focuses on your “next actions” – in other words, your immediate to-do list of stuff you need to get done in the next few days. Allen, on page 210:

Wash the car, call your mom, draft a proposal, talk to your boss about a new idea, surf the Web for a gift for your brother, buy nails at the hardware store, check your voice mail.

This category refers to all the physical, visible actions that you can take. They could be the next things to do on your projects or larger outcomes, or simply single-step eventsthat you pursue because of some area of interest or responsibility.

To put it simply, this is the kind of stuff that your to-do list should be composed of each day: specific tasks broken down so that you don’t have to think about what to do in the heat of the moment. Your only decision should revolve around which one to do next.

How can you make that decision easier? Interestingly, Allen points to having a complete to-do list on page 211:

You will automatically feel better about what you’re doing if the invesntory of defined actions available to you is as complete as possible. At the risk of stating the overly obvious, the more aware you are of what you’ve told yourself you need to get done, and the more accessible the options are for you to consider, the more you will trust your plan of attack and your choices about the actions you’re not taking.

Think about it this way. Imagine you’re looking at your to-do list and it’s as complete as you can possibly make it. You know everything you need to do is on that list, so you can just look through the items, pick the one that feels the most important or relevant to the moment, and run with it.

On the other hand, imagine you’re looking through your to-do list, but as you’re looking, your mind is constantly coming up with things that you need to be doing that aren’t on your list. Should you do something on your list … or one of those ideas that popped up in your head?

This is why the list preparation process is so important and why it’s well worth investing the time in getting a system rolling that can create this kind of thorough list for you. By doing it, you no longer have to think in the heat of the moment. You can just glance at your options and move forward with great confidence.

That sounds great, but it feels unapproachable. How can a person be that organized? Allen touches on this question on page 213:

In our two-day intesnive coaching with individuals, usually 90 percent of the program is focused on this horizon, simply because its approach is so unfamiliar and the volume of material to deal with is so sizable.

Trust me, it can be done, but it takes a lot of upfront work. In fact, it takes so much upfront work that for a long time, I didn’t believe that the work would ever be worth it. Yet, in the end, I find that every single day, my day is made smoother by having this list of genuinely important specific tasks. I am able to move from item to item much, much faster than before and I can focus on the item while I’m doing it with a depth that didn’t happen before.

The startup time was immense, but the rewards I get from all of that effort – turning all of the stuff in my life into a to-do list – is something that rewards me greatly every single day.

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  1. Valerie says:

    Hi Trent- Amazing timing, given I emailed you a similar question this week! But… the question remains. Once you have that massive to-do list assembled over two days, how do you prioritize it? Sure, I’m glad I have it all on paper and not in my head, but the list itself is also pretty overwhelming. How do you prioritize and organize the list so it is useful, and not just a really, really long list that is tough to use.

  2. Melissa says:

    Hi Trent, I haven’t really had much to add to the discussion so far, but wanted to say thank you for doing this. I am getting A LOT out of this review (in conjunction with the previous GTD posts) and just haven’t spent the time to truly digest it all. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading these as I jump in more fully. Thanks!!

  3. Chris says:


    I’m a big fan of David Allen so thought I might pipe in here. I would highly suggest reading David Allen’s first book Getting Things Done (although Making it all work is useful too). Once you’ve done all the brain dumping / mind sweeping of ALL your to do’s it can be overwhelming, but the idea is that you should sort all of them into different contexts (@email, @calls, @errands, @home, @office, @internet, etc)…. that way you can knock them out in the most efficient way possible…. also some of them will be projects. In a lot of respects David Allen’s system is really about just being as efficient (read lazy) as possible!

  4. Valerie says:


    Thanks! I have read the book, and I tried the context organization suggestion. The problem I have is that some of my next action steps actually have a higher (or much higher) priority than others. When I have bits of time, the context works fine for hammering out calls or emails or things like that. When I sit down with several hours that I could theoretically use on any of the categories, I’d actually like to do the more important next action steps. I (and my most important/pressing next actions) tend to get lost in the huge list of all the steps, even if organized categorically. How do you make sure the more important next actions get done sooner?

    Thanks again for your reply, Chris!

    (By the way, I am also generally a fan, and despite this problem definitely increased productivity after my first pass through GTD).

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