Becoming Exceptionally Well Organized
Bringing focus to the way you work.
You are probably familiar with the idea of “To-Do Lists.”
To-Do Lists are great for managing a small number of tasks. The problem is that, for most of us, our To-Do List is not really a planned, focused action list. Rather, it is a sort of a catch-all for a lot of things that are unresolved and not yet translated into outcomes.
Specific entries, such as “Call Tina,” exist along with vaguer aspirations, such as “Get started on house painting project.” Often, the real actionable details of what the list-maker has “to do” are actually missing. (Take, for instance, the house painting project: more precise entries would be choose color scheme, buy paints, and so on.)
What this means is that you tend to do the specific tasks, and fail to make progress with the big, important projects. And even if you do get beyond the quick actions, having a complete project as a “to do” can lead you to focus all of your attention on it. This makes multi-tasking difficult.
This can be a serious problem in a job where you need to make progress on many different projects at the same time – and this is exactly the situation most senior managers find themselves in.
This is where Action Programs are useful. Action Programs are “industrial strength” versions of To-Do Lists.
Because they incorporate short-, medium- and long-term goals, they allow you to plan your time, without forgotten commitments coming in to blow your schedule apart. Because priorities are properly thought through, you’ll be focusing on the things that matter, and not frittering your time away on low value activities. And because they support delegation, they help you get into the habit of delegating jobs where you can. All of this lets you save time – and get away on time – whilst also significantly increasing your effectiveness and productivity.
How to Use the Tool:
Follow this four-step procedure to create your Action Program:
Step 1. Collection
First, make a list inventory of all the things in your world that require resolution. Try to collect and write down everything – urgent or not, big or small, personal or professional – that you feel is incomplete and needs action from you to get completed.
To an extent, this collection is taking place automatically. E-mail requests are getting stored in your email account, memos demanding attention are being delivered to your in-tray, mail is reaching your mailbox and messages asking for action are accumulating on your voice mail.
But there is other stuff – stuff that is idling in your head, projects you want to run, things you intend to deal with lying at the bottom of the drawer, ideas written down on stray bits of paper – that need to be gathered and put in place too. Bring all of these actions and projects together and inventory them in one place.
And – this is really important – make sure that your personal goals are brought onto this list.
You can experience tremendous stress if you have too many mental “To Dos” floating around in your head. You never know whether you’ve forgotten things, and you always have that terrible feeling of not having achieved everything you want to achieve.
By writing down everything on your Action Program, you can empty your mind of these stressful reminders and make sure you prioritize these actions coherently and consistently. This has the incidental benefit of helping you improve your concentration, simply because you do not have these distractions buzzing around your mind.
The first time you create your Action Program, you’re going to spend a while – maybe two hours – putting it together. This is the up front cost of organizing your life. However, once you’ve done it, you’ll be amazed at how much more in control you feel. Also, it will take relatively little effort to keep your Program up-to-date after this.
You’ll find it easiest if you keep your Action Program on your computer as a word processor document. This will make it easy to put together, update and maintain on a routine basis without a lot of tedious redrafting.
Step 2. Pruning
Now, process the list you made in step 1, by looking carefully at each item.
Decide whether you should, actually, take action on it. A lot of what comes our way has no real relevance to us, or is really not important in the scale of things. If that is the case, then delete these things from your inventory.
Step 3. Organizing and Prioritizing
This comes in three parts.
First of all, review your inventory of items. For any which are separate, individual actions that make up part of a larger project, group these individual actions together into their projects.
For example, at home, you may want to improve your bathroom, and repaint your living room: these can go into a “Home Renovation” project. At work, you may be providing input into the requirements for a new computer system, and may be expected to test and then train your team on this system at a point in the future: all of these go into a “computer system” project.
What you’ll find is that once you start, items will almost seem to “organize themselves” into coherent projects.
You also need to make sure that your personal goals are included as individual projects.
Second, review these projects, and allocate a priority to them (for example, by coding them from A to F) depending on their importance. Clearly, your personal goals are exceptionally important projects!
Third, insert your projects into a formatted Action Program.
The Action Program is split up into three parts:
- A “Next Action List,” which shows the small next actions that you will take to move your projects forward.
- A “Delegated Actions List,” which shows projects and actions have delegated to other people.
- A “Project Catalog” that shows all of the projects you are engaged in and the small individual tasks that you have identified so far that contribute to them.
The great news is that, by this stage, you’ve already created the largest part of this: the Project Catalog! This is the list of prioritized projects and activities that you’ve just completed.
Typically, the Project Catalog is at the back of the Action Program, as it’s often only referred to during a weekly review process.
Next, create the Delegated Actions List by working through your Project Catalog, and identifying tasks that you’ve delegated. Record these under the name of the person who you’ve delegated the activity to, along with the checkpoints you’ve agreed.
If you haven’t yet delegated anything, or you haven’t yet agreed checkpoints, don’t worry! What we’re doing here is creating the right framework – you’ll have plenty of time to use this framework properly!
Typically, the Delegated Actions List sits in front of the Project Catalog in your Action Program document, as it’s referred to quite often.
Finally, create your Next Action List by working through the projects to which you’ve given the highest priority – the projects that you want and need to move forward on straight away – and extracting the small, logical next actions for these projects.
The Next Action List goes on the front page of your Action Program, as you’ll refer to it many times a day.
If the Next Action is going to take less than a couple of minutes, then why not do it right away? Make sure, though, that you come back and complete your Action Program!
It’s this selection of appropriate next actions that takes a certain amount of judgment. If one of your projects is of over-riding importance, then have several Next Actions from this project on your list, and keep other Next Actions to a bare minimum. However, if you need to keep a lot of projects “simmering away”, have Next Actions from each on your list.
Keep your Next Actions small and achievable, ideally taking no more that a couple of hours to complete. This helps you keep momentum up on projects and strongly enhances your sense of having had a productive, successful day.
If Next Actions are larger than this, break them down. For example, if your Next Action is to write an article, break this down into research, planning, writing, fact-checking and editing phases. Then make the research phase your Next Action, and put the rest of the stages in your project catalog.
Where you have several Next Actions, prioritize them from A to F, depending on their importance, value, urgency and relevance to your goals.
Then monitor your success in dealing with these actions. If you find that actions are “stagnating” on your list, consider whether you should either cancel these projects, or whether you should raise their priority so that you deal with them.
Whatever you do, make sure you don’t have too many actions on your Next Action List.
As you work through this process, ask yourself if there are any tasks that you can delegate or, if appropriate, get help with. As you identify these, put these on your Next Action List, with the action being to delegate the task.
When you’ve delegated the task, move it onto your Delegated Actions List, along with the checkpoint times and dates you’ve agreed.
Now review the Next Action List. If it is too cluttered, move some of the less urgent/important jobs back into the project catalog. If it is thin and under-challenging, pull up some more Next Actions from the Project Catalog.
Also, it makes sense to prioritize the items (for example, from A-C) in the Next Action List so you know what to focus on (it’s unlikely you’ll have any Actions with a priority lower than C on your Next Action List).
Step 4. “Working” Your Action Program
An Action Program is typically fairly long. But you don’t have to run through the entire Program every day!
Usually, you’ll only be dealing with the top page or pages. Some activities may be day-specific or time-specific. Depending of the way you work, these can be either maintained as the top page of your Action Program or marked on your calendar.
In effect, these pages are just a new form of your old To-Do List. It is just that only specific short actions are outlined here, while the major projects to which the actions belong are stored in your Project Catalog.
What you must do, however, is review your Action Program periodically, for example, every week (put time for this in your schedule). Delete or archive items you’ve completed, move items from the Project Catalog to the front pages as you make progress on your project, and add any new actions that have come your way.
The Action Program is an “industrial strength” version of the To-Do List. It helps you to process the projects you want to run into actionable activities, and then manage them within a three-tier structure.
The “Next Action List” heading lists the precise, immediate actions that you need to perform to move your projects forwards.
The “Delegated Actions List” records details of the projects and actions you have delegated.
The “Project Catalog” heading lists the projects that you want to work on, along with other actions non-urgent you have gathered that will contribute to the completion of these projects.
This approach helps you maintain focus on daily jobs and long-term goals at the same time, and it means that you always have a plan for “next action” at any moment. This puts you in control, and also gives you a real sense of achievement.
More than this, this approach helps you to multi-task effectively, helping you to manage and progress many projects simultaneously. This is particularly important as you progress your career, and as the jobs you take on become increasingly complex and challenging.
Use of Action Plans is just one of 39 powerful tools taught in Mind Tools’ premier time management and personal productivity course, “Make Time for Success!”