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|Stuff that is actionable must be made personal.|
Taking and organizing extensive notes aren’t worth the effort.
Use design-centric systems to stay organized.
Organize in the context of projects, not location.
Breaking Projects into Primary Elements
The Importance of Action Steps
Capture Action Steps everywhere.
An unowned Action Step will never be taken.
Treat managerial Action Steps differently.
A relentless bias toward action pushes ideas forward. Most ideas come and go while the matter of follow-up is left to chance. Next steps are often lost amidst a mishmash of notes and sketches, and typical creative tools like plain blank notebooks only contribute to the problem. For each idea, you must capture and highlight your “Action Steps.”
^ Putting one person in charge of managing next steps tends to not work. Making one person responsible for taking the notes and then sending them around to team members makes project responsibilities vague and impersonal. Each person needs to “own” their Action Steps. When tasks are written in your own handwriting, in your own idiom, they remain familiar and are more likely to be executed.
^ We have found that notes are seldom used and can actually get in the way of capturing and following up on Action Steps. The process of excessive note taking actually interferes with the bias toward action that is necessary for a productive creative environment. If you simply capture and then tend to the actions required for a project, you are already way ahead of the game.
^ The color, texture, size, and style of the materials used to capture Action Steps are important. People who have successfully developed personal systems for productivity over the years claim that their designs make their Action Steps more appealing (and thus more likely to be taken).
^ These days, your work doesn’t necessarily always happen at the office. Productivity is not about managing a single inbox or keeping different lists of what should be done “at work” or “at home.” Rather than using a location-centric approach to work flow and scheduling, we have found that a project-centric approach to productivity is a best practice among leading innovators.
The Action Method was developed taking all of these principles into account.
If you know anything about magic, you know that the best tricks are the ones that are the most simple to perform. Levitation relies on pulleys, floating dollars need thread, and the disappearing coin depends on hidden pockets; all of the most remarkable tricks have the most “obvious” explanations. Similarly, the best methods for managing projects are simple and intuitive. They help you capture ideas and do something with them—no more, no less. This simple efficiency keeps you engaged and on task with as little effort as possible.
The Action Method begins with a simple premise: everything is a project. This applies not only to the big presentation on Wednesday or the new campaign you’re preparing, but also to the stuff you do to advance your career (a “career development” project), or to employee development (each of your subordinates represents a single “project” in which you keep track of performance and the steps you plan to take to help him or her develop as an employee). Managing your finances is a project, as is doing your taxes or arranging the upcoming house move.
Like most creative people, I’m sure you struggle to make progress in all of your projects, with the greatest challenge being the sheer number of projects before you! But once you have everything classified as a project, you can start breaking each one down into its primary components: Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.
Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components. ^ are the specific, concrete tasks that inch you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc. References are any project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, Web sites, or ongoing discussions that you may want to refer back to. It is important to note that References are not actionable—they are simply there for reference when focusing on any particular project. Finally, there are Backburner Items—things that are not actionable now but may be someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it is something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen time in the future.
Let’s consider a sample project for a client. Imagine a folder with that client’s name on it. Inside the folder you would have a lot of References—perhaps a copy of the contract, notes from meetings, and background information on the client. The Action Steps—the stuff you need to do—could be written as a list, attached to the front of the folder. And then, perhaps on a sheet stapled to the inside back cover of the folder, your Backburner
list could keep track of the nonactionable ideas that come up while working on the project—the stuff you may want to do in the future.
With this hypothetical folder in mind, you can imagine that the majority of your focus would be on the Action Steps visible on the front cover. These Action Steps are always in plain view. They catch your eye every time you glance at the project folder. And, as you review all of your project folders every day, what you’re really doing is just glancing over all of the pending Action Steps.
We call it the “Action Method” because it helps us live and work with a bias toward action. The actionable aspects of every project pop out at us, and the other components are organized enough to provide peace of mind while not getting in the way of taking action.
Personal projects can also be broken down into the same three elements. If you take some time to look around your desk, you might find some notes or reminders that you’ve left for yourself. Perhaps you see a household bill that requires payment (an Action Step in the project “Household Management”), or a copy of your car insurance certificate (a Reference in the project “Insurance”). Maybe it is a cutout of a great vacation spot you want to visit someday (a Backburner Item in the project “Vacation Planning”).
Consider a few projects in your life—some work-related and some personal. The components of these projects are either in your head or all around you—sentences in emails, sketches in notebooks, and scribbles on Post-it notes. The Action Method starts by considering everything around you with a project lens and then breaking it down.
Perhaps you have an idea for a screenplay that you’d like to write someday. If so, make it a Backburner Item in the “New Screenplay Ideas” project or perhaps in a more general “Bold Ideas” project that you may review only a couple of times every year. While some projects realistically won’t get much of your focus, they will help store the Backburner Items and References that you generate.
Of course, your hope is that someday a few of these Backburner Items will be converted into Action Steps—which will, in turn, lead to a new and more active project, like producing your screenplay. Action Steps are the building blocks of accomplishment.
But sometimes, at certain periods of life, you can’t afford to take certain actions. For this reason, it is okay to have dormant projects filled with References and Backburner Items.
The time will come when some of these projects return to the surface with some Action Steps.
As you go about your day, you should think in terms of which project is associated with what you are doing at any point in time. Whether in a meeting, brainstorming session, chance conversation, article, dream, or eureka moment in the shower, you are generating Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items at a fast clip. Everything is associated with a project. Sadly, much of this output will be lost unless you capture it and assign it properly.
In the sections ahead, we will explore the three primary components of projects in more detail and how they should be managed. But the key realization should be that everything in life is a project, and every project must be broken down into Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items. It’s that simple.
Of course, in the digital era, information comes to us in many forms. Projects are not always kept in folders. In fact, projects are managed across many mediums. And the components of projects come to us in the form of e-mails, status updates, files as downloads, and a barrage of links that we save daily. Nevertheless, the Action Method still applies; everything belongs to a project. With the Action Method in mind, we can make better use of online and offline tools that organize information.
Action Steps are the most important components of projects—the oxygen for keeping projects alive. No Action Steps, no action, no results. The actual outcome of any idea is dependent on the Action Steps that are captured and then completed by you or delegated to someone else. Action Steps are to be revered and treated as sacred in any project.
One action-obsessed leader I met during my research was Bob Greenberg, chairman of the world-renowned digital agency R/GA, which works with clients such as Nike and Johnson & Johnson. Greenberg is admired by his colleagues and industry peers alike. Among the traits used to describe Greenberg, “productive” and “compulsive” top the list.
Greenberg has used the same morning ritual for managing his Action Steps every day since 1977. Using only certain types of pens and a certain type of notebook, Greenberg reserves time every day to process the day’s Action Steps and schedule.
Greenberg shared with me that he uses two fountain pens (only Pelikan brand fountain pens)—a larger one with blue ink and a thinner one with brown ink—to write his Action Steps, and uses a high-lighter to place a series of diagonal strikes to the right of each Action Step to indicate priority. “Three marker strikes and a black dot mean most important,” he explained. He also sketches his schedule for every day on the top of the page with a pencil—and then, again with a pen, he writes the names of each major pitch that R/GA is working on that day.
“I have a two-page system with multiple lists of actions,” he explained. “Starting from the left-hand side, I have stuff that I can have my assistant do, then—to the right of that list—I have stuff that I need to do personally. Then to the right of that . . .”
As Greenberg continued, it became clear that he gained the most utility from the consistency and great sense of loyalty he felt for his quirky, home-brewed system.
“I believe if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t register,” he told me. “I know it sounds painful, but it helps me know exactly what to do. I do a new version every day, I transfer the old items every morning, and I’ve been doing this for over thirty years.” Greenberg confides that his approach is “admittedly obsessive,” but it works.
The details of Greenberg’s approach—the materials he uses, the symbols he assigns to each item, and the regular time at which he organizes his actions every morning —keep him engaged with his system. After all, a methodology is only effective when it is practiced consistently. While every person’s system is different, the most productive people pay attention to the finer details of their rituals to keep themselves engaged. As you develop your own system to manage Action Steps, you will want to make it “sticky.”
Action Steps are specific things you must do to move an idea forward. The more clear and concrete an Action Step is, the less friction you will encounter trying to do it. If an Action Step is vague or complicated, you will probably skip over it to others on your list that are more straightforward. To avoid this, start each Action Step with a verb:
Call programmer to discuss . . .
Install new software for . . .
Research the possibility of . . .
Mock up a sample of the . . .
Update XYZ document for . . .
Address issue of . . .
Verbs help pull us into our Action Steps at first glance, efficiently indicating what type of action is required. For similar reasons, Action Steps should be kept short.
Imagine you and I are having a conversation in a meeting. I describe to you what I want to accomplish and show you some diagrams that further describe the idea. You reply by saying, “I see what you’re trying to do. There’s a guy I know who designed a great Web site with the same type of functionality.” Upon saying this, I record an Action Step to follow up with you regarding that Web site:
Follow up with [your name] re: guy’s Web site w/ similar functionality.
A colleague might say, “Let’s revisit that old draft and consider the initial plan that we had—maybe it was better? Let me know what you think.” In that case, your Action Step would be:
Print out old draft, follow up with [colleague’s name] re: alternative plan.
Sometimes you will find yourself waiting for a response to an e-mail or a phone call. It is easy to forget something when it is in someone else’s court! To trigger yourself to follow up if you don’t hear back, you may want to create a separate Action Step.
Action Steps arise from every idea exchange. Even the smallest of Action Steps, when captured, will make a big difference because they create momentum. A missed Action Step can cause miscommunications, more meetings, and could be the difference between success and failure in any project.
Here are some key practices:
^ Ideas don’t reveal themselves only in meetings, and neither should Action Steps. Ideas come up when you are reading an article, taking a shower, daydreaming, or getting ready for bed. If you think of someone that you met with a month ago regarding a certain project but have not yet followed up with, create an Action Step to “follow up with XYZ regarding . . .” If you are opening your mail and come across a wedding invitation, your Action Step is to RSVP.
Think of Action Steps expansively—as anything you should do (or delegate)—and capture all of them, not only the ones that arise during meetings.
Having some sort of pad or recording device handy will enable you to capture actions as they come to mind. Our team developed the iPhone version of Action Method Online because users wanted a quick and “anytime, anywhere” way to capture Action Steps and assign them to a project. Whatever medium you choose to use for capturing Action Steps, it should always be readily available. Your system should also make it easy to return to your Action Steps at a later time and distinctly recall what you were thinking.
And, most important, you must always be able to distinguish Action Steps from References—the regular notes and nonactionable ideas that you may have also written down.
^ Every Action Step must be owned by a single person. While some Action Steps may involve the input of different people, accountability must reside in one individual’s hands at the end of the day. Some people who lead teams or have assistants will capture Action Steps and delegate them to others. However, even when the onus to complete an Action Step has been delegated to someone else, the Action Step must still be owned—and tracked—by the person ultimately responsible.
The reason comes down to accountability. The practice of simply e-mailing someone a task to complete does not provide any assurance that it will be completed. For this reason, Action Steps that you are ultimately responsible for should remain on your list until completed—even when you have delegated them to others. Simply marking that the Action Step has been delegated and to whom is sufficient:
Print out old draft, follow up with Alex re: other plan (Oscar is doing).
^ Aside from the Action Steps that you and only you can do, there are three other types of Action Steps you should keep in mind as the leader of a project. The first type is delegated Action Steps, which we just discussed above. The second type is “Ensure Action Steps.” Sometimes you will want to create an Action Step to ensure that something is completed properly in the future.
Rather than being a nag to your team, you can create an Action Step that starts with the word “Ensure.” For example, “Ensure that Dave updated the article with the new title.” If you use a digital tool to manage your Action Steps, you can always search by the word “ensure” (to only view Action Steps that start with “ensure”) and spend some time verifying that these items have been done. Creating “Ensure Action Steps” is a better alternative than sending numerous reminder e-mails to your team when you are worried about something slipping through the cracks. The last type of managerial Action Step is the “Awaiting Action Step”. When you leave a voicemail for someone, send a message to a potential customer, or respond to an e-mail and clear it from your in-box, you’re liable to forget to follow-up if the person fails to respond. By creating an Action Step that starts with “Awaiting,” you can keep track of every ball that is out of your court. When I respond via e-mail to a potential client, I create an Action Step like “Awaiting confirmation from Joe at Apple re: consultation,” saved in the project “Consulting Work.” In my online task manager I will set a target date for one week later. After a week passes, I will be reminded to follow up. Sometimes I will search all my Action Steps, across projects, with the word “Awaiting” and dedicate an hour to follow up on everything.
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