Now, Next, Never

How to plan less and do more

Published on Monday, January 28, 2019

Planning is important. We've all heard that "failing to plan is planning to fail", and anyone who's worked in a corporate environment will have seen just how much time some businesses spend on planning for the future. For some of us, however, the difficulty is in what comes next - moving from planning to doing.

Much To-Do About Nothing

We've all got a to-do list. There are literally hundreds of apps and websites aimed at managing to-do lists, and whole books have been written on effective techniques for creating and curating your lists. There are techniques for annotating, prioritising, and colour-coding your lists, as well as ways to track and score your progress. Dozens of authors, developers, and bloggers claim to have figured out the secret to a really effective to-do list. If you're anything like me, then you've probably trawled the internet for these hints, trying to find the thing that finally works.

If you're anything like me, then none of them helped - and none of them will.

The problem is that this is trying to solve the wrong problem. For a great many people - myself included, I'll admit - the problem is that it's far easier to think about a task than to do it, and when time is limited and ideas are plentiful, the fear of failing to complete something is ever-present. This can lead to a vicious cycle, an form of what's commonly called "analysis paralysis" in which the unwillingness to miss out on doing something by committing to the wrong task translates into a inability to commit to any task, meaning that you either jump around too many tasks to make meaningful progress on any of them, or put off starting them altogether.

By creating to-do lists and following these techniques for maintaining them, it's very easy to fall into the trap of mistaking list management for actual work. You can sit down and spend your time rearranging tasks, writing out detailed descriptions, grouping tasks into categories... and at the end of it all, you can step back and bask in the glory of your beautifully-organised list of all the things you still haven't done. Each time you come back to the list, you have another detail you remembered, another follow-on idea you thought of, another update to make to keep your tasks in sync with the ever-changing real world... and you still aren't getting any of it done. Before long, the task of tracking all the things you aren't doing becomes a full-time job in itself, guaranteeing that you'll always have more list-shuffling to do to keep you from actually making progress.

The solution? Stop making to-do lists.

Step One: The Bucket

When ideas flow like water, what you need is a bucket. If you're the sort of person who is always coming up with ideas for things you could do - apps you could build, articles you could write, skills you could learn, projects you could start - then the first step is to make a space in amongst it all; some clear air where you can work. Get a notebook, or a whiteboard, or a blank wall and a stack of sticky notes. This is your bucket. Whenever you have an idea, write a sentence to describe it, and add it to your bucket.

Then forget about it.

Don't write a description. Don't write additional notes. Don't add sub-tasks. Don't put it in priority order, or colour-code it, or add tags or category labels. It's called a bucket for a reason - it's not an organised filing system, it's a place to chuck things so that they're stored for later.

Half the time, simply getting the idea out and storing it is enough to let your mind move on and focus on whatever it was you were trying to do. If you really need to - if you simply can't hold back the flood of ideas - scribble your thoughts down as free-form notes until the flow subsides. Resist the urge to organise or file these notes. I've filled whole notebooks with this sort of thing; blocks of notes separated from each other by nothing more than a quick title, and maybe a date, at the top of the page. In fact, I find whiteboards really helpful for this: I can cover a board in notes and bullet points and lists, pick out a handful of items to transfer to single-sentence sticky notes, and then wipe the board clean. This very visual reminder that these notes are not important right now will eventually train your brain to let go of the idea once it's safely in the bucket.

Step Two: The Three N's

When presented with a bucket full of ideas like this, the first instinct for many of us is to organise it. It's a mess, it's untidy, it's clearly impossible to work like this, so we imply must impose order before we can get any work done... right?

Wrong. Imposing order on things takes work, and every moment spent tidying the ideas is a moment that could have been spent making them happen. Instead, focus on the bare minimum you need to know about an idea. I think of this as the Three N's: Now, Next, Never.

Now

Pick the most important thing in your bucket. How you define "important" is up to you. For me, it's a tradeoff between the expected payoff, the amount of effort, and the degree to which the task is time-sensitive. If some tasks have deadlines after which they are of little or no value, then whichever has the shortest deadline should probably come first. This is relative to the amount of work it'll take; a one-minute task with a deadline next week is less urgent than a task whose deadline is a month away but is expected to take three weeks to complete. And, of course, all this has to be considered in the context of how great the benefits are if the task is completed, and how severe the penalties are if it isn't.

Be very careful here. Do not get drawn into sorting your tasks into priority order. I tend to approach it like a single pass of bubblesort: pick a task that you think is very important, and look over the bucket to see if you can spot anything that is clearly more important. If you can, swap the task you chose for that one. Repeat until you've looked over the whole bucket and you're sure there's nothing more important than the task you've chosen.

Take this task out of the bucket, and mark it Now. Yep, you guessed it: that's what you're going to start working on immediately.

Next

In the course of finding your Now task, you will likely have developed some idea of which other tasks are also quite important. I sometimes use sticky notes, and each time I choose a task that I think might be the most important, I move it off to one side, so important tasks tend to cluster here. That's fine, because it hasn't taken any extra work to achieve, and they'll get mixed back in as I move them around to make room to add new ideas. You might find that your system develops this natural way of indicating rough importance.

Look back over all the tasks still in your bucket, and choose one that is important to keep in mind while you work. This is often simply the second most important, but sometimes there are other considerations. Sometimes it's a task that follows naturally from your Now task. Sometimes it's something that can only be started when certain opportunities arise, meaning that you have to be on the lookout for such an opening. Sometimes it's something that you think will require a lot of planning, design, or other preparatory work. If you find multiple tasks that fit these criteria, then as with your Now task, choose one, and then look back over your bucket for a task that trumps it.

When you've selected this task, take it out of your bucket, and mark it Next. This is the task you'll move onto after you finish your Now task. It's also the only task you're allowed to share time with. If, in the course of doing your Now task, you find yourself waiting on something outside your control, then you can work on your Next task to fill the time, as long as you go straight back to your Now task as soon as you're able.

A task marked Next is the only task you add details to. Ideas, plans, research, all those things you deliberately didn't do when adding it to the bucket - you can do those now. Why? Because this is the task you're doing next - which means you actually need that stuff now. Doing all that work when the task is still months (or years) away is a good way to see half of it become wasted as time moves on, the world changes around you, and your research and planning is invalidated. Now, when this task is Next and therefore (in theory) only weeks or days from being started, the risk of this is much smaller, and doing it will start to build your excitement and enthusiasm for your Next task, which is a good motivator for finishing your Now task.

Never

In picking out your Now and Next tasks, you may have come across some that don't really need to be in the bucket any more. This could be for all sorts of reasons, such as...

  • the task has a deadline after which it is of little or no value, and that deadline has passed.
  • you've thought of a better alternative to this task, and added that task to the bucket
  • a change in circumstance means that this task is no longer worth doing
  • you can't remember what this task is referring to, or why you thought it was a good idea
  • you've lost interest in pursuing this task

Once you've picked out your Now and Next tasks, have one last look over the bucket, and take out every task that fits any of these criteria.

Take all of those tasks, and throw them away.

I used to move these tasks to a separate bucket marked Never, and leave them there in case I wanted to go back and retrieve them, but after a few months I realised that I had almost never wanted to, and on the few occasions that a Never task was resurrected, there was nothing gained from having the old version around. Remember, when you add tasks to your bucket, you write down the bare minimum needed to remember what the task is. If you're putting enough detail on your tasks that it's a significant work saving to be able to get them back from the Never pile, then you're spending too much time on writing them down in the first place. Simply discarding tasks as soon as you mark them as Never saves you a lot of admin work, and a good deal of psychic weight. Seriously, it's very freeing to acknowledge that you don't need this task, and give yourself permission to forget about it.

Step Three: Discipline

The third step is the hardest: now that you have this system, you have to stick to it. It's all too easy to mistake this system for a to-do list, and start inventing all sorts of ways that it could be improved. I used to use an app to track my tasks, but the app gave each task a little space for a description, and right next to the title box was a set of convenient buttons for applying colour-coded labels, and before long I was adding notes and using tags to group tasks and sort them into categories. At one point I used a whiteboard, but I had four colours of pen next to the whiteboard, and I caught myself writing them in different colours to indicate what sort of task they were, and writing more important ones closer to the top of the board. You have to be strict with yourself, and keep the system as simple as possible.

You may have noticed that this system has a few things in common with the system of backlogs and sprints used in Agile workflows. The "bucket" is your backlog, your Now task is the work you've committed to for the current sprint, and your Next task is the stuff you're refining for the next sprint. The big difference is that an Agile backlog should be ordered by priority, continually updated and reshuffled, whereas your bucket should not be. This is because in Agile, we tend to take multiple items off the backlog each sprint, and this number can very with their size and the team's velocity. This, combined with the fact that the people setting the priority are often not the same people who make up the team, means that the backlog needs to be ordered and ready for the team to just skim work off the top. In my "now, next, never" system, it's just you involved, it's just one task at a time, and keeping the list ordered is a distraction you don't need.

Over time, you should find it becomes easier to focus on the task at hand, and that you get more things done. At least, that's the theory. I still don't keep to it perfectly, although I'm getting better at it. Even with my occasional slip-ups, I think this system has helped me to be more productive since I started using it a few years ago, and that's enough to make it worth sharing.

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