A few years ago I was waiting in line for my order at Taco Bell, and I thought to myself “these guys have a better productivity system than I do.”
I had been doing GTD for a while, but things still weren’t clicking. What stood out to me was how simple of a system they had at Taco Bell for processing orders: it just listed the items they had to make for each order.
Very simple. Very, very simple. Here’s what’s intriguing: In the GTD methodology, each of those items in an order is technically a “project” because it involves more than one step. But obviously if the order system had broken those items down into their actual “next actions” (“now grab a handful of cheese, then a cup of chicken and put it in the tortilla”), you would have chaos and confusion.
The problem is that that is exactly the way I had been handling my next actions list. I was dividing tasks up into pieces that were way too granular. Since in GTD your “next actions” are on a different list from your “projects,” this was really confusing — I couldn’t keep track of which actions pertained to which projects. Further, after completing an action, the natural thing would be to do the next “action” on the project — but my system didn’t facilitate this, because each project only had one action on my next action list. So instead of moving ahead on the same project after completing an action, I’d move on to a different project — highly inefficient and scattering to your efforts.
This was a mess. I don’t blame GTD for this — nothing in it says that you need to get this granular. But it sure sounds that way at first. It is easy to implement GTD wrongly by making your actions too granular.
There are a lot of solutions here that make GTD much more effective, even if you haven’t been taking things to the granularity that I was. Sometime soon I plan on writing something fairly comprehensive on this.
But in the meantime, the most significant solution is what I took away from the cooks at Taco Bell: I started defining my next actions not according to real specific steps (highly literal “next actions”), but according to what I can accomplish in one sitting.
In other words, I don’t always ask literally “what’s the next physical action I can take here,” because that can really make things overly-specific. Rather, I ask “what is the outcome I can accomplish here in one sitting.” The result is that many things that would have otherwise been projects actually become straight next actions, thus de-cluttering my projects list. Projects become more the multi-step things that need to be done over the course of several days.
So there has been a shift in my thinking, in part, from defining projects as “multi-step outcomes” to “multi-step outcomes that I won’t do in one sitting.” And when defining a next action for a project, I try to actually create an action that will trigger a series of steps, not just one, by asking “what can I do in one sitting,” rather than “what’s the next specific, literal thing this project requires.”
This is like Taco Bell: You see “make steak taco” and you make the taco. Very simple. But if your next action list is at the level of “put in the cheese, add the meat, etc.,” that’s just tough.
(BTW: The folks at Taco Bell on Franklin Ave in Minneapolis are some of the fastest I’ve ever seen. Way to go!)