I got an email from the White House the other day.
Now, before you get impressed and/or accuse me of name-dropping, Barack and I aren’t close; I signed up a while ago for one of their mailing lists, and I get regular updates on their priorities and accomplishments.
In this email, the President talked about what he’s focused on these days. Here’s an excerpt:
“I keep a to-do list in my desk. [I’m committed to]…continuing to create good-paying jobs, fixing our broken immigration system, finding a common-sense way to reduce gun violence in this country…”
Imagine yourself face-to-face with a to-do list like that on a Monday morning. It’s 9am. Coffee’s made. You’ve just sat down at your desk. You’re wondering what you should do next.
You look down at your to-do list and you see:
- Create good-paying jobs
- Fix our broken immigration system
- Find a common-sense way to reduce gun violence
Does a list like that really support you if you’re wondering what the next best thing “to do” is? None of them are things you can “do.” Achieve them someday, sure. Work toward them, yes.
But do them? Nope. These aren’t actions. They’re “Outcomes.” They’re not going to be done in a single sitting. So as items on a list that‘s supposed to be helping me figure out what to do while I sip my coffee, they’re of limited value.
If I were coaching the President, and I wanted to set up his to-do list so that could really support him in such moments, I’d encourage him to do a bit more thinking. “To create good-paying jobs, Mr President, what’s the very next action? Who would you email? What would you search for on the web? What would you talk to Hilda Solis (his Secretary of Labour) about?” If he’s done that thinking for all of his outcomes, then his “To Do” list has become a Next Actions list. It’s a menu of things he really could “do” to move toward the Outcomes like “fix our broken immigration system”.
Not that his list of Outcomes doesn’t have value. Having an up-to-date list of the larger achievements you’re working toward is a great way to maintain perspective. It helps to ensure that you’re keeping sight of the end goals, which helps to ensure that your actions, the things you are doing all day every day, are moving you toward the Outcomes that are important to you. And it gives us things we can acknowledge and celebrate once we’ve achieved them.
So we (and the President) would be best served by keeping two different lists. Next Actions are the physical, visible things you are going to do to move things forward in your life. And the Outcomes are the results that those actions will eventually lead to.
An effective productivity system should have both. Each is a tool that will help you focus, but in different ways and at different times. You’ll know what the best things are to do while you sip your coffee (or at any other time of the day). And you’ll know that the Actions you’re ticking off your list are moving you toward those larger Outcomes, those things you’ll be achieving, and celebrating, someday.