In Praise of the Short Sub-List - Next Action Associates

In their newfound enthusiasm for discovering the freedom and relief of getting everything out of their head, journeymen GTD® practitioners can fall into the trap of believing that small lists are inherently bad.

Indeed, David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done® methodology, often describes most people’s to-do lists as, “Incomplete lists of unclear stuff”. It’s true. Compared to the level of clarity and comprehensiveness we achieve by defining projects and next actions for all of one’s commitments, the humble to-do list can look rudimentary at best.

On the other hand, working from the next action lists of a complete, trusted system directly can also feel a bit daunting sometimes. One key to making this approach work is to shift one’s mindset from the ‘to-do list mentality’ to the ‘menu’ mentality. I wrote a bit about this in a previous article.

However, there are also some circumstances under which it can be helpful to pull out a subset of one’s master list of next actions to focus on just for that day. There are a few times in particular when this can be helpful. There are also some very important keys to make this work without slipping back into an “incomplete and un-clear” to-do list approach.

So, when can it be good to re-write a much smaller ‘today’ list?

The first situation where I have found this helpful is when I am facing a day of back-to-back meetings. With just a few discretionary minutes here and there, most people scan email for any ‘fires’ to put out. But when time continues to be at a premium for an extended period, how can you keep important projects moving forward that are not necessarily well-represented by email? Creating a very short, focused list of options to act upon during those brief windows of time between meetings can help you keep your head above water, and still make forward progress when faced with wave after wave of meetings.

The second situation in which a daily sub-list can be useful is pretty much the opposite kind of day – one that is unstructured, and where you have to decide how to spend it well. For example, I find myself making short sub-lists on the weekend, so that I can put the right mix of chores and relaxation onto a small ‘this weekend’ menu of options. By contrast, for someone doing long-term research, completing a thesis, or otherwise needing to make progress in a highly open-ended and self-directed way over a much longer period of time, the ‘today’ list can be equally valuable.

There are other circumstances under which drafting a short sub-list can help. Most notably, those just starting out with the GTD methodology often do this as a way to avoid the overwhelm of looking at their complete ‘menu’ whilst they are still making the mindset adjustment mentioned earlier. Also, for those of us dealing with an atypical neurological condition such as ADHD, fewer options may lead to greater focus overall.

So, what are the keys to making this work?

If you are going to create a sub-list from your master list of trusted next actions, there are a few important keys to bear in mind. The first is that you really want to make sure that the sub-list doesn’t ‘devolve’ into a list that will force you to re-think. Taking a good next action like “Call brother to discuss options for Mum’s party” and transcribing it onto a sub-list as just “Mum” clearly defeats the point of the good work you did earlier in identifying and recording a self-evident next action. You’re back to a momentary, “Huh?” moment when you look at this over-compressed single-word item. So, transcribe items onto your sub-list well enough that the next action remains instantly identifiable.

Another big key to distilling a sub-list effectively is to spend the time you need at the start of the day (or the night before) to look through all the next actions in the relevant upcoming contexts in which you will find yourself, and then cross-reference these with your calendar entries. Ask yourself: where will you be, what will you have to hand, and what kind of windows of time are ahead of you that day? Make your selection of sub-list items based on those answers.

Crucial to making this work is that you also ‘sync up’ the list with your master list of all possible next actions at the end of the day. If it is crossed off on the sub-list, it needs to be crossed off on the master list. Record the new next action where applicable on the master list. The sub-list should thus be totally expendable in the sense that, if it fell down a storm drain, you would not have lost anything essential because it is still all ‘backed up’ in your comprehensive trusted system.

There is also a mindset shift required here too. Just as your list items can be downgraded by not transcribing the next action as a clear and self-evident entry on the sub-list, so too can you find your mindset shift slip backward into the ‘to-do list mentality’ if you are not careful. Remember: even this sub-list is just a guide to give you options. There are fewer options than the master list to help create focus, but they are still just options.

To put a finer point on it: you are not a “good boy” or “good girl” for completing all the items on your short list any more than you are an unproductive person for not ticking off every item by the end of the day. It may well be that you focused on exactly the right things each moment of the day without striking through a single item on the sub-list. Simply having those short list options to hand can help you to validate that those choices you make which are not on the list are, indeed, correct – because you have consciously weighed them against that shortlist before acting.

So, if you have ever needed permission to experiment with creating a daily sub-list out of your master list of next actions to help create focus from time to time, you now have it. If it helps you to feel more in control, relaxed, and focused on the right activities moment to moment, then it may become a useful part of your GTD practice. If not, wad it up, bin it, and get back to basics.

Here’s wishing you all the right lists in your life, big and small, to free up your brain for much better things.

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