This is the 4th of 5 posts in the series Note to self.

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Earlier, I mentioned that tasks like “learning Spanish” are not really tasks.

“Learning Spanish” isn’t a good task because it’s not actionable. However, a task like “call the local technical college to check Spanish class costs” is concrete, easily digested, and most importantly, less intimidating. In David Allen’s GTD parlance, this is what’s called a “next action.”

If you’re using a task system now, look over your tasks and try to identify any that aren’t really actionable. If you’ve never done this, I bet you’ll find quite a few.

In a way, it’s good to have a pile of nebulous tasks. It means you like to set goals. But the key is breaking goals down into bit-sized pieces that can be gobbled up along the way to the realization of goals.

As you look at your tasks, imagine that you’re going to tell someone else to do them. Be specific and action-oriented. Don’t be passive.

4 practically efficient tips for making actionable tasks

  • Put things in context. A contextual tagging system can be very useful for grouping tasks that will be carried out in the same spatial proximity. Tags like @work, @home, and @calls can be very useful for keep like tasks together so they can be executed more efficiently. “Empty dish washer” goes better with “mop kitchen floor” than “turn in TPS report.”
  • Use action-oriented words to define tasks. I try to stay in the habit of writing tasks as complete sentences. Most tasks should start with a verb and have a subject. That’s not to say tasks have to be super verbose. For example, “call Frank” works just fine. An even better example is “call Frank about the $500 he owes me.” Even better: “call Frank to tell him that if he doesn’t pay me that $500, I’m going to…”
  • Make actions believable. If you often make tasks like “bench press 750 pounds,” you’re going to lose credibility with yourself. Consistently completing tasks involving achievable actions is incredibly powerful and motivating. You can move mountains with this stuff if you stay credible and start generating a pile of checked-off tasks. Success quickly begets success.
  • Don’t be afraid to turn an intimidating action into a series of smaller ones. I know this is very similar to the last point, but it’s worth emphasizing. You really can’t get too granular with actionable tasks. If you think about it, any project or task is carried out with a series of very small actions. It starts with lifting your hand or turning on your computer or picking up your phone. These actions are so simple, they are imperceptible. Imagine if you could turn the most daunting goals in your life into a series of mindless actions. I bet you can.

Your turn

How do you stay focused on making actionable tasks?

You can catch up on the other posts in this series by clicking on tag: note to self. Coming up next, I'm going to talk about a beautiful thing: task bundles.