The Working With... Podcast | Episode 14 | The Difference Between a Next Action and a Single Action


In this week’s episode of The Working With Podcast, I answer a question about the difference between single actions and next actions in my organisation system.

Hello and welcome to episode 14 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show. 

This week I have a question about the difference between single actions and next actions in my productivity system. A very good question indeed and one that can cause people starting out on the Getting Things Done journey a lot of confusion. 

Before we get into the answer to that question, I would like to ask anyone listening that if they have any particular problems with their productivity/time management system if they could contact me. I want to put together a series, either on YouTube or in an online course that will address the most common problems of getting yourself more organised and better with time management. You can email me,, DM me on Twitter or Facebook. All the details are in the show notes.

Okay, let's get into this week’s question, so it is now time to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question is from Maurice. Maurice asks:

Carl, I purchased your book on Todoist — thank you so much for a wealth of information — Could you tell me why you use the single actions and next actions. Thank you.

Another great question, Maurice. Thank you.

Okay, let’s start with the easiest one of the two. The next actions. Next actions are the very next steps you need to take on an individual project. For example, if you are planning your summer holiday, then the very next action could be to decide when you will take your summer holiday, or where you want to go. These decisions may involve your spouse, partner or friends, so the next action would be to discuss with your spouse, partner or friends about where you want to go. This task will be held in your “Summer Holiday” project in your projects list. Once you have decided where you want to go, the next action would probably be something like “decide when to take summer holiday” 

So, next actions are the steps or tasks you need to take to complete a project. 

Single actions, on the other hand, are quite different. Single actions are for tasks that have no project. This could be something as simple as “send copy of interesting article to Beth” This task is a simple, one-off task that does not belong to a project but is something that you don’t have time to do right now. The “interesting article” you want to send to Beth may be an article you need to find first, which may take you longer than two minutes. 

Now, that sort of brings me on to the two-minute rule. The two-minute rule is a rule that says if a task will take you less than two minutes to do, then do it now. The idea is it will take you more time to process it, than to do it, so you may as well do it right now. Now, the two-minute rule is very flexible. If you have plenty of time, then you may extend the time to any task that requires five minutes or less, or alternatively, if you are pushed for time, you may try and complete tasks that require only one minute to do. 

In my own experience, adopting the two-minute rule when I process helps to keep my single actions lists short. These lists can very easily end up becoming an overwhelming list of things you need to do because the list becomes a dumping ground for tasks you are not quite sure how to complete. When I have seen some of these lists from my clients, I often find that a lot of these single actions are actually projects disguised as single actions. Before making the decision about whether a task is a single action or not, make sure it is not a project. 

For example, “Call Jim and Jenny about mother’s birthday”, may actually be a project of “Organise birthday party For mother”. Or “set up meeting with Sarah and Steve” may really be a project called “this month’s marketing meeting”. My advice has always been to think through these tasks to make sure they are not part of a bigger project before you assign them to your single actions list. 

Going back to the next actions, these tasks do relate to a specific project and can be handled in a few different ways. Sometimes, when I want to spend a whole morning or afternoon working on a single project, I will have my to-do list manager open at that project’s view. This helps me to focus on what needs doing. For example, I could be creating a presentation for a client and so, rather than looking at my “today list”, I work directly from the project’s list. Other times, I just make sure that there is a task from the project coming up every day in my regular daily task list. 

In Getting Things Done, David Allen emphasises that it is important to have identified the very next action in all your open projects. Now, these do not have to have a date attached to them, all that needs doing is that a next action or task is inside each project and that it has the correct context, or label, attached to it. Obviously, if a project does not have any next actions, then essentially the project is dead or complete because there is nothing to do with it. 

Going back to the birthday party for your mother. Organising that is a project. So anything related to that project is a next action. The question is, what is the VERY next action. For example, if you have a list of tasks such as:

  • Call Jim and Jenny about venue for mother’s party
  • Find a caterer for mother’s party
  • Decide on venue for mother’s party
  • Write a list of people to invite
  • Decide on the date for party

The question you have to answer is what is the very next action? It could be, decide on date for mother’s party. But, when you sit down to think about that, you may realise that you need to talk to Jim and Jenny about that first. Now you have another task, another next action. If the project cannot move forward without talking to Jim and Jenny, then the very next action for that project, would be “talk to Jim and Jenny about date for party” As you have an action about talking to Jim and Jenny about the venue for the party, you may put the task of talk to Jim and Jenny about venue as the next action after the date and so on. 

So, as you can see, there is quite a big difference between next actions and single actions. 

How you organise your system is really up to you. Your system has to work for you. But fundamentals like next actions and single actions are something that you need to be aware of at any one time. This is why the weekly review is so important to have a workable GTD system. If you are not reviewing your projects weekly, things are going to slip and you are going to miss important deadlines and stress will start pouring into your life. Your weekly review is where you can sit down and get a much bigger idea of what is going on in your life and what you need to do next to make sure you are meeting your project deadlines and hitting your goals. 

I always see my weekly review as a time each week where I can jump off life’s merry-go-round and get a good view of where my life is going, what commitments I have and what I need to do next to make sure I am hitting my goals. My weekly review is also where I can make sure that every project I have has at least one next action and that any of my single actions are not projects in disguise. 

Hopefully, Maurice, that has answered your question. The thing to remember is a next action is project specific. Next actions are the very next steps you need to take to move a project forward towards completion. 

A single action is something that does not require multiple steps—rather a single step— to complete a commitment. Single actions are not projects. They are what they say they are. Single step projects if you like. All you need is to do one thing and the project is complete. Something like “pick up dog food on the way home”.

Thank you very much for listening to this podcast. Don’t forget, if you have a question you would like answering on this show, just send me an email or DM me on Twitter or Facebook and I will be very happy to answer it for you. All my contact details will be in the show notes.

It just remains for me now, to wish you all a very very productive week.