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Using the “Next Step” to Improve Your Focus and Productivity

I have discovered a powerful technique for improving my focus and productivity on work tasks that I call the Next Step. I have been consistently using this technique for a while now and I am quite pleased with its benefits.

How Does it Work?

The basic concept is simple: clearly identify the next task you should work on, write it down as your next step, and then work on it. Given a typically large set of tasks – what I like to refer to as to-dos from a to-do list – a lot of time can be wasted jumping back and forth between tasks and figuring out what to do next. This is especially true when you are inflicted with frequent interruptions, distractions, or breaks.

How you choose the activity for your next step is critical. While the decision should take into account multiple factors such as importance, urgency, and time available, I believe the primary factors that you should use are motivation and progress-ability. Which task are you most motivated or interested to work on next? For which activity do you have the clearest idea of what to do next in order to make progress? By emphasizing these two factors you maximize your productivity on each task: you are as motivated and as clear as possible as to what needs to be done. This is especially true when the tasks are all related to a single project, such as coding functionality for an application. In this case it matters far less what order the work is done in than the amount of progress you make each day.

Putting it into Practice

A key ingredient to implement this technique is a simple and fast method for recording tasks for a piece of work - what I like to call a to-do list. This is necessary because when you are working on your next step and identify an unrelated idea or issue, you need to write it down on this to-do list to get it out of your mind and avoid having it distract you from the task at hand.

I use different approaches to implementing the next step technique depending on the work I am doing.

When writing code in my IDE (Integrated Development Environment), I record to-dos as special code comments that the IDE filters and displays as a list. Instead of recording my next step in a similar fashion, however, I record my next step on a piece of paper on my desk. I use this low-tech solution for a few reasons. The next step is often not as fine-grained as individual to-dos, and may include several to-dos and multiple source code files. Writing it separately allows me to express it at whatever level of detail is appropriate. Using a separate piece of paper provides an area for me to jot down brief design notes, if necessary, as I work on the task and need to resolve design issues. When the task is complete I cross it off on the paper and write down a new one, perhaps flowing logically from the current task or perhaps pulled from my to-do list in the IDE.

When writing large documents in Microsoft Word or Open Office, I use a different approach. Before I write content, I start with some sort of outline – usually a partial outline that I expand and refine as I write. I represent the sections of the outline using headings within the document. Correctly using styles for the headings allows me to use features like the document map or outline view in Word to view the outline. I represent to-do tasks using the text "TODO" with a yellow highlight. For sections that I have not yet started or are incomplete I suffix the heading of the section with this to-do text in parentheses. This allows me to view the outline and see what sections still need to be written. When I choose an outstanding section as my next step, I prefix that heading with the text "NEXT STEP" with a red highlight. When I finish the content for that section, I cut and paste this text to the next section I have chosen.

Why It Works

This technique incorporates a number of elements that make it effective in several ways:

Improving Focus: Explicitly choosing and writing down your next step and providing external storage for any extraneous ideas that come up (your to-do list) helps orient your mind towards the task at hand and keep it free of distractions, which improves your ability to focus on it. I find this especially useful for tasks which I must do but have lower motivation for: my mind tries to suggest distractions to derail me, but my strong focus makes it easier to push through and get the work done.

Recovery From Disruptions: Having your next activity clearly identified in writing makes it much easier to resume work after a break or interruption.

Maximizing Productivity: Choosing your next step based on motivation and progress-ability maximizes your productivity on each task you work on.

Your Next Step

I challenge you, the reader, to immediately put this technique into action. For your current project or to-do list deliberately decide on your next step and write it down. Let me know via the comments below how this technique works for you and how you adapt it for your own use.

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2 Comments on “Using the “Next Step” to Improve Your Focus and Productivity”

  1. The idea of the “next action” gets most of its power from the need to make the task actionable, vs. a high level description of a project (e.g. fix line 322 vs. finish product development). So I would argue that this is probably the key trait to focus on…making your next action very actionable.

    Also, I’ve used a simple text file to keep track of random actions throughout the day. Otherwise I’d worry about having to look in many different places and lose track of what I need to do. It’s either that or the full GTD approach imo.

  2. @Lenny, thanks for the comment. I like your point on ensuring next steps are as actionable as possible. This is seldom an issue for me so I didn’t really think about this, but you are right that it is quite important.

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