“Actions are the seed of fate deeds grow into destiny.” – Harry Truman

What’s the next action?

That simple question is one of the most significant contributions of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system and, at the same time, is one of the most mundane and understated aspects of it. I’m by no means implying that he’s the first person to ask the question, but the prominence he places on it is one of the reasons the people who adopt his system actually start getting things done.

The question is especially powerful for creative people, as it gets us out of our heads and into the world of action. Big Ideas come about through a series of next actions.

In his words, “the ‘next action’ is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.” He stresses “physical” and “visible” not to de-emphasize cogitation but because he wants us to get the ideas out of our heads. “Create plan for Project X” may require doing some sitting and thinking, AND the best end result would be the creation of the plan, not more sitting and thinking.

The power of the idea is its four-fold utility:

  1. It helps us figure out all the strings of actions it takes to create a new reality. With any given project, you can ask “what’s the next action?” for each item until you get to the point at which the project itself is completed.
  2. It helps us organize action. Rather than have an incoherent list of action items that need to be done, identifying the next action helps organize the action items into a logical progression of action.
  3. It helps us pick up projects later on so we know we don’t have to do everything now before we forget what to do. Because we have identified what the next action is OR can identify it pretty easily, it helps us see that Not Now doesn’t mean Never.
  4. It helps us get things done more easily when it’s time to get to work because we don’t have to figure out what to do. We do the next action, then the next action, and so on until the project is done.

While I’ve shared some concerns about GTD as it relates to creative work – for example, the questionable utility of contexts or the two-minute rule squandering creative momentum – the understanding and use of the “next action” insight is so powerful and useful that it’s one of those “must know” thinking tools for anyone interested in their own personal productivity. It’s about like rules for simple addition in that you just use it without thinking about it anymore. I believe that’s why Allen himself downplays its significance in the book, as he probably figured that it was so obvious and basic that it didn’t deserve special attention.

So, take a look at the projects you’d like to complete this week. What’s the next action that will get you that much closer to done?

Originally published at productiveflourishing.com


  • Charlie Gilkey

    Author, Speaker, Business Strategist, Coach

    Charlie Gilkey helps people start finish the stuff that matters. He's the founder of Productive Flourishing, author of the forthcoming Start Finishing and The Small Business Lifecycle, and host of the Productive Flourishing podcast. Prior to starting Productive Flourishing, Charlie was a Joint Force Military Logistics Coordinator while simultaneously pursuing a PhD in Philosophy. He lives with his wife, Angela, in Portland, Oregon.