De-stress by writing down your next actions


If you have a busy life, keeping up can seem an impossible task and can create a lot of stress. Writing down your next actions in all projects can help.

I know I am not the only one that has a hard time keeping up with everything that needs to get done on a daily or weekly basis. And I am probably not the only one that creates daily to-do lists. I would find at the end of the day I would often have only accomplished about half what I was hoping to do, despite feeling like I was working hard, and running about like a chicken with its head cut off.

Other times, I would forget about something important that would suddenly appear on my agenda as an urgent matter, which would mean I would have to drop everything to address it. Often it’s little stuff that falls through the cracks, like emailing the phone number of the chiro to a client as promised. Important, but little.

Often when I did have a good chunk of time, I would start working on one thing, then something else would flit into my mind and I would decide that was more important, so I would start working on that, often resulting in neither project getting completed.

Sometimes my brain would be doing gymnastics telling me all the things I need to do, and I would wind up feeling paralyzed trying to figure out what to work on. This indecision as well as the feeling of overwhelm I found to be quite stressful. Furthermore, I would often forget to ask myself if this item could be done by someone else.

Each year as I reflect back, I think that somehow there has got to be a way to be more efficient and get more done. And how can one possibly think about long-term goals and how to move towards them when there is so much going on day-to-day that needs to be taken care of?

Over the holiday, I read a book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen, and I thought I would give his method a try. He thinks that until you “clear the runway” as he puts it, or at least feel like you are in control everything on your radar and nothing is falling through the cracks, it is very tough to consider the bigger picture except in very abstract terms.

We all may want that house on the beach, but the steps to get there might be pretty murky when we are trying to get the kids to soccer practice on time, fulfill our day-to-day work responsibilities, get that appointment in with the dentist, get groceries, remember to phone Pierre and wish him a happy birthday, clean up after the cat that just puked on the carpet – you get the picture.

I am far from implementing his entire system, but already after just doing the first step, I have noticed my head is more clear and that I am far less stressed. And I have done way more in the first two weeks of January than I would have thought possible. So, so far so good!

The first thing Allen suggests we do is “collect 100% of our incompletes”, referring to everything that you at some point might have to do both at work and at home. It doesn’t matter if it is urgent or not, big or not, important or not. Everything must be collected so that your brain can feel confident that nothing will fall through the cracks. In your “mind sweep” you gather or write down everything that you think should be different than it is right now, or needs to be processed and completed.

This includes your mail, email, voicemail etc., any current or pending projects, and also includes dead gadgets that need to be fixed or recycled, ideas that you might want to move forward either professionally (work on merger proposal) or personally (spend more time with Timmy), vacation thoughts (is that why that magazine is still hanging around?)

If you think you “should” or “ought to” do something about it, it needs to be in your collection basket or on a list, as it is considered an open loop that your brain will throw back at you again in the future. By creating external baskets for all your stuff and thoughts that were in the past ricocheting through your internal in-basket called the brain, your brain can quieten down as it won’t be preoccupied with trying to remember everything for you.

Allen suggests walking through each room in your home and writing down stuff that you think needs to be different than it is, as well as going through all your drawers and file cabinets in your office, and collecting 100% of everything that needs to be addressed.  This can take from several hours to several days. 

You can use a physical “in basket” and/or your smart phone or computer to capture any information, commitments or agreements that you have made to yourself or others for action. Once absolutely everything is captured, it will be out of your head.

If you have a collection method wherever you are, (pad of paper in the car, smart phone that you have with you at all times), you can note down any valuable thought that pops into your mind, or if your partner phones you to tell you to pick up butter on the way home, you won’t forget.

You will probably need an “in basket” at work, as well as one at home. I’ve been using my phone for most of my collecting, but I still need to set up a physical “in basket” to put in mail and other physical stuff that needs addressing, like my camera if it needs batteries or if I have to download pics.

Of course, the only way to keep the brain trusting your new system is to process your in basket very regularly – say a minimum once a week. I'll get into this in more detail another time, but here are a couple of quick tricks. The key to clearing in basket is to ask yourself "Is there a next action that can be done to move this forward? If so, what exactly is the very next action to be done?" Write down that next action.

You can create a "calls" list, a "computer" list, an "out and about" list etc. so the next time you are at your computer you can do the actions on your computer list. If there is no action, but you want to keep something for reference, you can file it appropriately.

Process each thing one at a time – nothing goes back in the in-basket and nothing remains in the in-basket. You can keep files for various projects, next actions, items you are waiting on, sometime maybe, etc. Create whatever files you need and keep them in alphabetical order.

My to-do lists USED TO have stuff like “eye appt”, “advertise workshop”, “buy more weight plates for studio” etc. None of those are listed in a way that helps me get started. Taking the extra moment to figure out exactly what my next action would be makes all the difference. “Email Janice for number of good optometrist”, “call location to see what night I can run the workshop”, or “research weight plates online for best price” encourages action.

So, each week when going through the inbox, part of the job is thinking through what the very next action is, and noting that on the appropriate context list (calls, computer, at home, out and about etc.). Thinking of the next action needed on each project is helpful in keeping all projects moving forward.

I have found that just noting down all my "open loops" has helped me focus on the projects at hand. My brain is no longer flitting all over the place. And because I feel I am gaining control of "my runway" and am less worried I am going to forget something important, I feel more relaxed and less stressed.

I also think I will do a better job staying on top of all my projects, which will hopefully mean that I will move further towards my goals this year. I would highly recommend David Allen's book. Read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and have your most productive and least stressful year ever!

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Related tips:
Creating new habits
Acute vs. Chronic Stress

Allen, David Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity Penguin Books, New York, New York, 2001.

Copyright 2010 Vreni Gurd


  1. Susan said,

    January 6, 2013 @ 9:04 am

    Thanks for this. I realized recently how weary I feel b/c my mind never stops thinking of what has to be done. I’ve placed this book on hold at our library and am hopeful that Allen’s system is one that will resonate and work for me.

  2. Vreni said,

    January 6, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    I must say it made a huge difference for me, and I have only begun to implement what he suggests. Good luck – I hope it works for you too.

  3. Keith said,

    January 6, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    Vreni, that you for this great article, everything you describe is me to a tee!. I already have a comprehensive list for each area of my life but after reading your article I realise the items in my lists are not in ‘actionable’ form so many of the items sit there forever. Your article must have resonated with me when I read it this morning as I have had a really productive day. I am looking forward to reading the book too. Better put that on my list!

  4. Rob said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    Thanks Vreni, I’m downsizing and moving to another state. Huge project. I live by, and get overwhelmed by my “lists,” but the suggestion of listing specific action steps should be helpful. I don’t comment much but I really appreciate your blog.

  5. Vreni said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

    Wishing you an easy, uncomplicated move. Thank you so much for letting me know you appreciate my blog!

  6. Parenting Magazine said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 7:52 am

    Parenting Magazine…

    wellness tips » De-stress by writing down your next actions…

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