Some projects are simple and linear. Getting them done is just a matter of jotting some steps and checking them off.

But many projects aren’t clear. They depend on

  • The actions of other people
  • The timing of future events
  • The result of future project steps and research
  • The impact of competing projects and shifting priorities
  • The whims of bosses and clients
  • “Unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know” —Donald Rumsfeld1

For many projects, it’s simply impossible—and certainly not productive—to map out every step start to finish.

So I don’t try. Instead, I use actions to evaluate, decide, then plan additional tasks. For example, in a project with forking paths, I’ll first list as many known steps as I can, then I’ll create a series of actions like

  1. “Evaluate option 1”
  2. “Evaluate option 2”
  3. “Evaluate option 3”
  4. “Decide which option is best”
  5. “Create tasks based on chosen option”

The last one is the most important. In situations where it’s not even clear what I’m evaluating, or if it’s simply impossible to know what will come after a certain step, I’ll make sure that the final action is a reminder to make more actions.2

In a system like OmniFocus, which encourages one to work out of contexts and perspectives, I think it’s critical that all active projects have a next step. It might be scheduled for the future, but it needs to exist.

It's not your software's fault that projects without next actions vanish. It's just how the world works. Either know where you're going, or know that you need to figure out where you're going.

  1. It just never gets old..

  2. Many of the more complicated projects that I engage as an actuary fit this profile. It would be nice if each step was concrete, but I’m often plodding through uncharted territory. While a goal might be clear, the path to that goal rarely is.