Turn Your ToDo Mess into Action Steps

I've fought for years against practically every conceivable method of organizing the todo items I accumulate every day. I've tried Day-Timers, Franklin planners, and other agendas but my life doesn't ever lend itself well to advance scheduling. I've tried GTD but it's just too paper- and folder-intensive and I end up filing things in places and then forgetting what I named the folder, or worse yet, I end up with fifteen folders all containing pieces of the same thing, each with a subtly different name, all filed separately. I've tried at least twelve different tools on my iPhone and iPad all without much success. I've even tried keeping simple "ToDo" lists on pads of paper or sticky notes!


Then I read Scott Belsky's book, "Making Ideas Happen" (this is an affiliate link) and I threw all other tools, apps, planners and methods away.

Scott proposes an idea called the Action Method and here's a very high-level view of how it works. Lifehacker called it one of the five best productivity methods in a recent article, and summed it up like this:

The Action Method proposes that you leave every event, whether it's a meeting or a brainstorming session, with a set of concrete tasks you can perform, called "action steps." Each item is its own to-do, and they're kept separate from "references," or the materials you need to accomplish those items.

See, usually in meetings, we're busily taking notes about stuff that doesn't matter. How often do you really refer back to those notes?

Instead, focus on the tasks, the things that need to get done. Those are Action Steps, and they need to be captured.

Once you have your Action Steps captured, you review them daily and work them off. Action Steps are in one of two states: done or not done. No more fussing about what percentage complete a task is -- it doesn't matter whether you're half-finished painting the upstairs bedroom. It only matters whether it's undone or done.

Simple, right?

ecosystemThere are paper products which support Action Method, and software tools (web, iPhone, iPad, and Android), all available at Action Method (this is not an affiliate link), but you could easily do the work with the tools you already own. I can say that I'm a very satisfied user of both the paper products and the web/iPhone/iPad products. My own workflow either entails directly entering a new Action Step directly into the online tool, through the web or my iPhone, or if I'm away from my electronics I'll capture it on a paper Action Step sheet. These are transcribed every few days and new steps get added to the online tool, where I do all my tracking.

The electronic tools let you do additional things, like assigning due dates and grouping Action Steps into projects. You can use these or not, depending on whether they help or hinder you. The online tools are free for up to 50 Action Steps; for more than that, you'll need to pay $9/month or $99/year for an account.

Paper tools allow for two colors of Action Steps: orange or blue; electronic tools add a third, grey. These colors are undefined, leaving you free to assign whatever meaning you wish to these colors. I went through several different sets of meanings before settling on my a definition that works. I can't even remember what the original meanings I tried were. Now, for me, they mean:

  • Orange = expense, actions that result in a net flow of cash away from me
  • Blue = income, actions that result in a net flow of cash toward me
  • Grey = cash neutral; actions that result in no net flow of cash at all

The Lifehacker article referenced above also talks about the Pomodoro Technique, which I also use to great effect in my personal work flow management. I'll write more about that in a future article.

Come back tomorrow when I'll demonstrate how I actually use the Action Method in my work and personal life.

Your turn! What tools have you found helpful managing the tasks that rule your life?

Top image CC by 2.0 topgold