Improving your ‘next action’ and ‘project’ descriptions

As GTD-ers, we are intimately aware of the challenge posed in consistently formulating well defined next actions and project descriptions. Making sure a next action is actually actionable or writing a project definition you still understand two days after, when you are processing your inbox, requires diligence and attention.

Like most of us, I presume,I find myself falling into the trap of non-executable next actions or not adequately defined projects over and over again. Luckily, by no real creative work of my own, using what Merlin Mann wrote on 43Folders combined with a text expansion snippet based on the work of Chris Holscher, I found a way to “force” me to consider the quality of the inputs in my action lists. Here goes …

Project and action verbs according to Merlin Mann and GTD

Merlin Mann’s post I link to below is the key starting point. In this excellent blog post over on his 43Folders blog, he describes the difference between project verbs and action verbs. It is of course based on canonical GTD, but it is highly accessible.

It’s a great explanation and a very usable list of verbs I found myself coming back to again and again … and again and again and again.

For experienced GTD-ers, the tool switch issue inherent in needing to look away from an activity to consult a blog article is apparent.

It costs time and effort that is better spent elsewhere. Every time I wanted to create a good next action or a well defined project, I went back to the blog post just to consult the list. Yes, I had it captured in my reference files (for which I use Evernote). But still I failed to either learn the list by heart or create some kind of mnemotechnic technique to remember … And this is where the magic of text expansion comes in.

Note that what I am about to describe is specific to Mac. However, I am quite convinced this is easily replicable on a Windows machine as well. I am just not familiar with Windows software.

Something borrowed …

I borrowed the Textexpander snippet Chris Holscher described in this post and adapted it for my purposes … I now have two Textexpander snippets which I invoke with either ‘;pr’ or ‘;nxa’ to indicate my intent to Textexpander to formulate either a project or a next action. You can find screenshots of both snippets below, but the basic idea is this:

I use the text expansion software to offer me a dropdown list of next action or project verbs as well as a fill-in form to document the rest of the next action or the project description. My text expansion software shows me a dialog box where I can select the project or next action verb (depending on the snippet invoked, of course).

I consistently use this when I am generating my next actions or projects. I can pretty much generate them anywhere, as I will describe below, but the idea is that I only allow myself to input in my ‘to do’-list (in my case, my Omnifocus inbox) using this approach where available.

Mac specific basic entry and extra credit

Now, I usually invoke this Textexpander snippet when I am in the quick entry dialog of Omnifocus, which is a very easy way to work. That’s just basic operation.

For extra credit, when I am writing in a text editor(for Windows people: Word is not a text editor), I will invoke the snippet in the editor and after I have defined the project or the next action, I will move it to Omnifocus using Popclip and the Omnifocus Popclip extension.

How relevant is this?

Now, if you look at it from a distance it is only a snippet invoked from a text expansion software. However, if you consistently apply this approach when entering new next actions or new project descriptions, you force yourself into a constrained situation in terms of input requirements and you find that you actively start thinking about what it actually is that you will be tasking yourself to do in the future. It eliminates unclear next actions and unclear projects to a significant extent.

May I suggest you try it?

Next action snippet
Next action snippet
Project formulation snippet
Project formulation snippet