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Action Method III: Make Time for Processing Your Next Steps

As you hurry through days filled with emails, phone calls, and meetings, action steps and references pile up. Why daily processing time is essential.

As you move through your day of meetings, brainstorms, and other occasions of creativity, you will start to accumulate Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items. Handouts, random pages of notes, emails, and social network messages will build up all around you. Often these items will get buried in notebooks, pockets, online inboxes, and computer files almost as soon as they are created or received. Ideally, in your written notes you will have kept your

Action Steps separate from everything else. However, you will still need time for processing – going through all of your day’s notes and communications, and distilling them all down to the primary elements. For those who still take paper notes and appreciate tangible project management, you will want to use a tangible inbox—a general pile of stuff that has yet to be classified. Most productivity frameworks—like David Allen’s Getting Things Done—suggest such a central clearinghouse for all of the stuff that you accumulate but can’t immediately execute or file. This inbox is not a final destination, but rather a transit terminal where items await processing. During a busy day of meetings, you will not have time to start taking action or filing things away.

How about all of the digital stuff that flows in every day? Your email inbox is the primary landing spot, but information also flows into other online applications. While your tangible inbox, sitting on your desk, is singular, the digital equivalent is becoming more of a collective. Ideally, you should set your social network profiles to forward messages to your email inbox for the sake of aggregation. When you commit time for processing, you’ll want to limit the number of places you need to visit.

Ideally, you should set your social network profiles to forward messages to your email inbox for the sake of aggregation.

If you can’t aggregate the flow of emails and other digital communications in the same place, then you need to define the various pieces of your collective digital inbox. For example, my collective digital inbox includes my email program (which receives messages from all other networks), a Twitter aggregator, and the inbox in my task management application (where I accept/reject stuff sent from my colleagues who use the same application – and then manage this information by project). When the time comes for processing, these are the three digital places I need to visit, along with the tangible inbox full of papers on my desk.

As you can see, the “inbox” of the 21st century varies for everyone. You must concretely define your collective inbox before you start processing. Peace of mind and productivity starts when you know where everything is. The combined inbox says, “Don’t worry, all of your stuff (and the Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References contained within) are in a defined place, waiting for you and ready to be sorted.”

Peace of mind and productivity starts when you know where everything is.

If you live a digital lifestyle, your ability to process your inbox may be at particular risk without some sense of discipline. The reason: in the era of mobile devices and constant connectivity, it has become all too easy for others to send us messages. As such, our ability to control our focus is often crippled by the never-ending flow of incoming phone calls, emails, text messages, and in-person interruptions—not to mention messages from other online services. Thus it is important that you avoid the trap of what I have come to call “reactionary workflow.”

The state of reactionary workflow occurs when you get stuck simply reacting to whatever flows into the top of an inbox. Instead of focusing on what is most important and actionable, you spend too much time just trying to stay afloat. Reactionary workflow prevents you from being more proactive with your energy. The act of processing requires discipline and imposing some blockades around your focus. For this reason, many leaders perform their processing at night or at a time when the flow dies down.

Time spent processing is arguably the most valuable and productive time of your day. While processing, you will sort everything and distinguish Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. With Action Steps, you will decide what can be done quickly and what must be tracked over time by project—and possibly delegated. With other materials, you will make judgments about what can be thrown away and what must be filed.

As you start to tackle your collective inbox, you will realize that any inbox, on its own, is a pretty bad action management tool. It is difficult to keep your Action Steps separate from References and other noise. The constant stream of email certainly doesn’t help. In addition to email, you may also receive other types of incoming communications in the form of Tweets, Facebook messages, etc. Some are actionable, or contain actionable elements, while others are simply for reference (or for fun).

Time spent processing is arguably the most valuable and productive time of your day.

Given the unyielding flow of communications, you will want to capture and manage your Action Steps separately. Despite the many tricks involving “action subfolders” and other ways to manage and prioritize Action Steps within an email system, there is nothing better than giving Action Steps their own sacred space to be managed by project.

The Action Method suggests that Action Steps should be managed separately from communications. The solution can be as simple as a spreadsheet or to-do list where all Action Steps are tracked (and can be sorted by project name or due date). You can also make use of more advanced project management applications that manage Action Steps and support delegation and collaboration. What you want to avoid is a mishmash of actionable items amidst hundreds of verbose emails and other messages scattered in various places.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (4)
  • Kylie Sexton

    Great post. This idea of living in a reactionary way applies to many more things than just emails and task management. The key is, if you aren’t clear and determined about what you want to happen in your life, someone else will decide for you. If you are waiting for something to happen and just reacting to what others email, text, facebook or tweet then those people are dictating how you spend your time. Take control of your inbox and action steps there will be a much larger ripple effect in your whole life.

  • James Wallace

    Brilliant article, definitely worth a reading.

  • DesignBuddy

    First time visitor to your website. Nice read. Every day I feel the need to feed my brain with as much inspiration and information that I can. The problem is that I spend so much time in awe over other’s work that I often forget to spend enough time being creative myself. Your article hit home when it comes to better managing one’s time.

  • Jillian

    Wow, that defined EXACTLY my productivity problem – reactionary workflow. What a relief. I am very excited to begin to fix this right now. Thank you!

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