An action list should be continuously changing. Things get added, things get crossed off as done, and occasionally things get removed because the world changed and they are no longer needed. Above all, it keeps flowing.
If there are things on your lists that have been there for ages, then something is probably wrong, and the longer these things sit there the less likely they are to move.
There are a number of reasons why things might languish on a list.
Sometimes it may be good old-fashioned procrastination. You have all you need to carry out the action, it’s definitely your responsibility but it’s something you’re simply dreading doing. It may simply be that you need to “eat that frog”. (This expression stems from the Mark Twain observation, “If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning that will probably be the worst thing you do all day”). Put the unpleasant task at the top of the relevant next action list and resolve to do nothing else today (not even your first cup of tea) until it is complete. You’ll almost certainly find when you push through the pain that it wasn’t quite as bad as you were dreading.
But sometimes there’s more behind a stuck task than just “I don’t want to do it”.
If, for example, it’s a conversation you don’t really want to have with someone then you might be subconsciously avoiding it because you don’t feel 100% sure about your argument. You might be better off spending some time to write out the key points for yourself, just to be clear in your own mind about your justification. If that’s the case, then speaking to that person is not actually the real next action. Getting your ideas straight in your own mind comes first, and that won’t happen if you don’t explicitly recognise it as a next action in its own right by putting it on a list.
Sometimes what you have on your list is not actually a next action at all – it’s more of a desired outcome (what in GTD® is referred to as a project), and there’s still some thinking to do, to determine what the actual next action is. This is one of the key behaviours that GTD teaches us, but from time to time even seasoned practitioners can slip back into bad habits.
Or it may be a perfectly good next action but it’s simply on the wrong list.
Perhaps you have an entry to “Call Jack about xxx” on your calls list, but you seem to be avoiding it. Why not rethink the action and email Jack instead?
Or maybe you have something that would represent a good next action, but it’s dependent on someone else doing something first, so you can’t actually do your bit yet. In this case there should be an entry on a Waiting For list as the true next step in that project.
Sometimes you have something on your action list that, truth be told, you’re not that committed to. A possible project showed up in your list, and you dutifully figured out the next action like a true GTD ninja without stopping to think if you were really committed to doing the project right now. The project itself may actually belong on your Someday/Maybe list. If you’re not careful to use your Someday/Maybe list when it’s needed, you can inadvertently turn a casual mindsweep full of ideas into a huge list of next actions that you’re not actually committed to right now, and this can create drag (or a sense of overwhelm) when you’re searching through that list for a “real” next action (one you’re committed to now) to do next.
It’s also possible that what you have is a perfectly good next action but it’s just too big. Every time you have some discretionary time, you look at the list, see this action, and it’s just too big to fit in the available time. So you continue to not do it.
As soon as this happens more than once, you need to recognise that something’s up, and either a) carve out some bigger windows of discretionary time on your calendar, or b) consider breaking that big task down into smaller bite-sized chunks. Big document ? Split into into chapters. Big presentation? Make an outline first, and then make separate tasks for some key slides. Big garage to clean out? Break up the job into distinct stages.
“But how many chunks should I break it into?”, I hear you ask. “How small a chunk is small enough?” There’s a simple answer to that. What’s your typical window of discretionary time? If you have passed over this big stuck task three times already and each time you had only 30 mins available and weren’t able to do it, then maybe 30 mins is your magic number. Try breaking it into 30 minute chunks and see if things start moving again.
This process of reflecting on your next action lists, ensuring they have good solid tangible next actions, that you can do in the context of the list they’re on, and which don’t have subtle emotional barriers wrapped up in them, is a key part of the GTD Weekly Review®.
But it’s sometimes not obvious why an ostensibly “do-able” next action hasn’t moved, so whenever you see something stuck on a list, get into the habit of explicitly asking “Why are you still here?”.
Keep your lists flowing, and they’ll be a joy to work with in your day-to-day life.