Do this next

A stupidly simple productivity hack.

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Creative people have mad ideas and bad ideas and actionable ideas and distractionable ideas. Often an idea will come when our brains are in downtime (like in a boring Zoom meeting), and sometimes it’ll arrive like a bolt from the blue and you’ll be certain you’ll remember it.

You won’t.

There’s a bajillion productivity systems out there. I’m a fan of Getting Things Done but I don’t stick rigidly to it, and really just let my todo app of choice take the wheel.

Regardless of your system, there’s one technique that I hit upon yesterday while in a podcast recording that made me think “I need to keep doing this”. And it’s really simple. So simple it’s definitely not original, and you may already be doing it. But here it is.

Keep a note called “Do this next”. Make it a simple bulleted list and pin it to the top of your notes app. Or if you’re a pen-and-paper person, write it on a cheap notebook you keep at your desk. (Or a hilariously expensive notebook that fits between you and your keyboard.)

Once you’re finished your current task – or whenever you next remember – check that list, and move things into your todo system or get them done right away.

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Isn’t this just the inbox from Getting Things Done?

Sort of, but not exactly.

The idea here is to capture the things that pop into your brain while doing other things (like recording a podcast, attending a meeting, or walking the dog). They often feel like the most important thing to do right now, but the act of switching contexts (changing rooms or closing one app to open another) will knock it free from your brain forever.

The idea is not to try and capture the whole job, but simply the first thing you need to do to jog your memory and get that piece of work moving.

“Do this next” literally means “Do this right now”, not “this is the next project I want to start” or “when I’m at the shops I need to pick this up”. It doesn’t have to be phrased like a task, either. But it must have all the information you need to know to take the next step.

When you wake up from a dream, the phrase “digital cummerbund” has implicit meaning you’ll never forget. Give it a few more hours’ sleep and a cup of coffee and now you’re left with the scribblings of a maniac.

Similarly, just writing “Call Jon” won’t help you when you’ve forgotten why you’re calling Geoff, and which of the three Jons on this project you’re supposed to call.

I speak from experience.

Here’s an example of what I mean

My DTN list currently looks like this:

  • [x] Make a neon sign banner that says “NEVER GIVE UP”
  • [ ] Google “Mark Silver slip streaming”
  • [ ] Write about the “do this next” list for the newsletter

I don’t need to know why. I’m Googling “Mark Silver slip streaming” because it will become obvious when I do. And I know why I’m making a neon sign image because that’s in my long-term memory. But I want to be explicit about why I’m writing about the “do this next” list, and for what audience. (Ooph, that was a bit meta.)

Once you’ve done a thing, remove it from the list, or tick it off if you want those lovely endorphins. Ideally you should go through the list from top to bottom and process each one, just like you’d process tasks from your inbox into your capture system using the GTD method.

The rules of the DTN system

  1. Put your list somewhere obvious and within reach.
  2. Write down the next thing your brain has told you it wants you to do.
  3. Add some context (answer the question “why?”) to help future you.
  4. Process the list from top to bottom.
  5. Cross out or remove items when they’re done.

I learned recently that often the most simple and seemingly dumb things can be the most valuable, because what seems obvious to one might not be to someone else.

This couldn’t be more of a basic tip, but you’ll thank yourself for setting it up once you’re able to start actually moving on the ideas that seem so bright and shiny when they appear.

Good luck!

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