What is the very next thing you’ll do after reading this blog post?

The Takeaway: Having a system to help you choose what to tackle next will save you time and stress. The models below will show you the most optimal thing to do at any moment, and why you should do it.

Picking the next thing to do is hard. Where the hell do you start?

It’s helpful to have a process you can follow that will guide you in the right direction. In David Allen’s awesome book Getting Things Done, Allen goes over two great methods you can use to determine the very next thing you should do: the “Four-Criterion Model”, and the “Six Level Model”.

Four-Criterion Model (boring name, great model)

criterionDavid Allen is not good at coming up with interesting names for his models. The “Four-Criterion Model”? Very creative, David.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty damn powerful model for determining the very next thing you need to do, whether or not you use David’s great Getting Things Done time management system. It’s quite simple, and involves four steps:

  1. What context are you in? If you’re at work, it’s going to be pretty hard for you to clean the kitchen. The context you are in narrows down your list of possible actions considerably.
  2. How much time do you have available? How long until your next meeting or commitment? Having a meeting in an hour or in ten minutes will drastically change the number of things you can accomplish.
  3. How much energy do you have? After you determine your context and time available, look at how much physical and mental energy you have to get something done.
  4. Finally, what are the highest priority tasks that you’ll be able to accomplish with how much time and energy you have?

The great thing about this model is it reduces decision-making from a tedious chore to a systematic process. The model works best with Allen’s productivity system, but it can truly be applied by anyone.

Six-Level Model (even more boring name, another great model)

The second model is a higher-level one, and it takes the things you do and shows you how they fit in the context of your life. The actions you perform funnel into projects, which support the stuff you’re responsible for, which support your medium- and long-term goals, which support your life. (In this context, “project” is a group of tasks that involves more than a few simple to-dos.)

Each levels of the model are (from bottom to top):

  • levelsRunway – Actions: The stuff on your to-do list, phone calls to make, errands to run, emails to send, people to meet with, and more
  • 10,000 Feet – Projects: The projects that your actions funnel into – cleaning your house, buying a new phone, or planning a vacation, for example
  • 20,000 Feet – Responsibilities: Another level up – the responsibilities that your projects funnel into. For example: At work – administrative, developing new products; at home – house maintenance, health, finances, raising your kids
  • 30,000 Feet – 1-2 Year Goals: Your medium-term goals. In other words, what you are hoping to accomplish with your “areas of responsibility”
  • 40,000 Feet – 3-5 Year Vision: Now we’re reaching pretty high altitudes. This level is your vision, and it includes expected career transitions, and longer-term financial and family changes
  • 50,000 Feet – Life: Why am I here? Why am I working for Insert Company Name?

I personally don’t think this model is worth using every day, but it is definitely worth using – I use it about once a week. Though it gets cloudier the higher you move up the model (how often do you think about your 3-5 year goals?), the higher you go the more worthwhile questions you ask of yourself.

When you understand the larger projects, responsibilities, and goals your actions feed into, it’s very easy to determine if your actions are worthwhile, or whether you’re just doing whatever is easy.

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