We all have lots of things on our minds. They range from things like “Schedule Dr. appointment” to “Remodel house” or “Start marketing to new zip code”.
Plus a hundred or so other things in between.
And some of these things stay on our minds for a long time. Even if you are a list maker, these things can stay on your lists for a long time.
There’s lots of reasons these things stay on your lists. Sometimes they are just ideas and aren’t meant for you to act on right now. And that’s ok. Have a place to store those ideas. Visit that place often so those ideas know you’re paying attention.
And for the stuff you definitely want to move forward? What about that stuff? What about the projects that you want to get rolling? What about the idea that you don’t want to keep on the shelf anymore?
In other words, where are you stuck? Take a moment and think about that. Seriously. Right now. Because I want to help you get unstuck.
It just takes one question. But that question needs to be taken seriously. You can’t dodge it. You gotta be willing to really think about it and answer it.
OK, here it is:
What are you going to do to move this thing forward?
I use this question all the time to get me and my clients unstuck.
It sounds pretty basic, but it’s really helpful and powerful when you take it seriously. I actually ask this question in the way that I learned it from David Allen in his book, “Getting Things Done”. Ready for the real version of the question?
What is the next PHYSICAL, VISIBLE thing you will do to move this thing toward completion?
As in, what could I walk in and SEE you doing to move this forward?
This project, this task, this idea, whatever it might be, this question helps you transform a “to do list” into an “all done” list. It takes a random list of stuff that is in your head and turns it into a list of actions or tasks that you can actually get done. It gets your stuff unstuck.
And it also helps you take something that seems too big to tackle, and make it doable. Because what I’ve noticed is that people often think that they need to leap tall buildings in a single bound, like Superman. And you just don’t need to do it that way, but you think that way, you think in terms of projects. Even if you are a detail oriented person, you are often thinking at least 3 actions ahead of what the next action really is. Some of you think 100 steps ahead!
In short, we think of terms of “stuff” that we want to get done, but not how it’s actually going to get done, or what we actually need to do it.
And so, what I want you to do is think about that thing that’s on your mind that you haven’t made progress on. The thing that gnaws at your conscience. Now ask yourself, really, what is the next physical, visible thing you would do to move that thing forward?
Perhaps a couple examples could help. I did a brain dump of real stuff that’s on my mind that I’m going to apply this question to. Here’s the list:
- Send proposal
- Call dentist
- WHY workshop
- Kitchen light
- Client recap
When you do brain dumps like this, isn’t this what it looks like? You come up with a random list of stuff. Work, personal, home, etc. Some of the things on our brain dumps are immediately do-able, cross-off-able and others aren’t.
Let’s apply the unstuck question to a couple of these.
- Call dentist.
“Elise, what’s the next physical, visible thing I would do to move this thing forward?” Well, I would call the dentist, right? That makes sense. But this particular thing has been on my list for a while now. No action taken. So there must be more to it. That’s when I pull out a couple of helpful follow up questions.
So, the first follow up question I often ask myself is,
Do you have everything you need to do complete this next step?
With regard to “call the dentist” I actually don’t have everything I need. You would think I do. Couldn’t I just look up my dentist’s phone number and call them? I’m actually thinking about changing dentists, and so I know somebody who has a dentist that they’d recommend and I need to ask them for the dentist name and contact information.
So really my next action isn’t call the dentist, my next action is to it’s to contact my friend and ask them for this information, right? So that’s the next action.
- Call dentist —> Text Sue and ask for name of her dentist
I can do that in 2 minutes or less, so I just do it. Done.
Now, my next action is “Call dentist”. I can’t do that right now, but I add it to my “@9am-5pm” task list. (My list of actions that must happen during business hours.)
Let’s take another one that’s on my list.
- Send proposal.
I’m just going to jump right in with that first follow up question: “Elise, do you have everything you need to complete this step?”
Well, actually no I don’t. I need to make some updates to the proposal and that requires me getting some information. So in this case, the next physical, visible thing I would actually do is pull up this person’s website and get all the information I need to update the proposal.
- Send proposal —> Look up client info for proposal
I don’t have time to do that right now. It’s going to take more than 2 minutes to do that. So I need to add it to one of my task lists. But which one?
This is where another follow up question is helpful:
WHERE do I need to be, in order to be most successful at accomplishing this task?
“Where” is really important for a couple reasons.
One of the biggest reasons is that it forces you to really think about you physically doing this activity that is necessary, which helps confirm that you’ve truly identified the next action.
Back to the proposal, where do I need to be in order to be most successful at getting the information for this proposal? Well, really I need to be anywhere that has internet access, right? Anywhere where I can get on and search for this contact information. Ideally though, where I would best do this work, would be in my office.
So suddenly this project called “send proposal” not only has a really nice clear next action — Look up client info for proposal — that’s going to move it towards completion, but it also has a place where I’m going to get this done.
This is called “context”. Where’s the best location for this action to take place? That’s what context is all about.
I have task lists set up for every main context in my life.
- @Couch browsing (stuff I can do on my laptop while watching mindless television)
Once I’ve identified the next action, I add it to the appropriate task list based on the WHERE the next action will happen.
Let’s take another example.
- Why Workshop.
Now that isn’t very actionable, is it?
So, what’s the next physical, visible thing I need to do to move this why workshop thing toward completion? Well, I need to create the next email template to send out to this group. That’s the very next thing I need to do.
Do I have everything I need to do that? Yes I do, I have all the information I need to do that. So…
- Why Workshop —> Create next email template for Why Workshop.
Where’s the best place for this action take place? —> @Office
This task goes on my @Office task list.
By using the ONE question I’m able to take the stuff that’s on my mind and turn them into actual next steps that can usually be complete in a matter of minutes. David Allen calls it Clarifying or Defining your work. It allows you to move things forward because we don’t always have hours on end to hammer out a project from beginning to end. We don’t always have what we need to leap the tall buildings in a single bound.
Let’s take one more example. Another life example.
- Kitchen light.
Our kitchen light turns off inexplicably right now. We turn it on. We start chopping veggies for dinner and after a minute or two it will flicker and then blink off off. What do I do about that? We’ve already done some minor troubleshooting and didn’t find anything obvious. Now what do we do?
“Elise, what is the next physical, visible thing you’ll do to move this thing toward completion?” Well, we know an electrician but I don’t have his contact info.
The next physical, visible thing I’ll do is text Kim and ask her for John’s contact information.
- Kitchen light. —> Text Kim and ask for John’s info
I can do that in 2 minutes or less so I’ll just do it.
Then I’ll add a task to my @Waiting for list indicating that I’m waiting for this information.
Are you seeing the power of this question? Can you see how investing time answering this question about projects big and small can help you move them forward?
What about the power of having task lists set up by context?
Doing this means that when I’m at the office I can just pull up my @Office task list and only see the tasks that I can actually do at the office instead of seeing every task for every project that is active for me right now. It gives me a lot more focus.
Watch this video for more examples of contexts that I use.
I’m a big fan of the big picture and big ideas. I love hanging out in that space with people, helping them identify their purpose, who they want to be, and the kind of impact they want to have in the world. And at the same time none of that work means anything if nothing ever comes out of any of it it.
Yes, we need to get clear on those big picture things. We should absolutely dream big. But our purpose, our dreams and our goals? They happen at the ground level. The day-to-day level of next actions. That’s why identifying what needs to happen next and capturing it in a way that allows you to be as productive as possible is really important.
Spending all of our time up there in the land of dreams and ideas isn’t enough. We gotta get down to the ground level, to the day-to-day actions that are going to move your dreams forward. The ground level stuff is where we do all of our learning. It’s where we make our mistakes and it’s where we learn our lessons and course correct.
It’s about steps. Not leaps. Because if you’re thinking you have to do big leaps all the time, you might not ever do anything. Bring it back down to what’s the next physical, visible thing you would do to move this thing forward.
Whether your brain is cluttered up with all sorts of to-do’s and tasks in your head, or whether it’s this big project, big idea, or this big dream that’s been just sitting there, and you haven’t done anything with it, I challenge you to ask yourself this question. And then capture that action in your task list.
What is the next physical, visible action I need to take to move this thing toward completion.
Remember that there is no leaping required. You can just take those little steps and move it forward. One action at a time.
Let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear how you get unstuck.
If you need help, you might consider this.