Action Programs

Becoming Exceptionally Well Organized

We all know how useful To-Do Lists are when we get started in our careers. However, To-Do Lists can quickly become overwhelmed when we take on responsibility for multiple projects – as many of us do when we become managers.

One of the problems is that, for most of us, our To-Do Lists are not planned, focused, action lists. Rather, they are a sort of a catch-all for a lot of things that are unresolved and not yet translated into outcomes. For instance, specific entries, such as "Call Tina in Sales," might exist along with vaguer aspirations, such as "Write marketing plan." Often, the real actionable details of what you have "to do" are missing.

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Another problem is that once you have more than, say, 20 entries on your list, it becomes cumbersome and difficult to use. This means that you start missing key activities and commitments.

This is where Action Programs are useful. Action Programs are "industrial strength" versions of To-Do Lists, which incorporate short-, medium- and long-term goals. They help you to plan your time, without forgotten commitments coming in to blow your schedule apart. And, because they encourage you to think about your priorities properly, you can focus on the things that matter, and avoid frittering your time away on low-value activities.

Actions Programs also help you get into the habit of delegating jobs. All of this lets you save time – and get away on time – while also increasing your effectiveness and productivity. As such, they help you bring intelligent prioritization and control back to your life, at times where you would otherwise feel overwhelmed by work.


When you first hear about them, Action Programs can sound complicated and difficult to use. They are more complicated than To-Do Lists, but if you persist and spend a few hours learning how to use them, you'll quickly find yourself back in control of your workload – and a whole lot less stressed as a result!

How to Use an Action Program

Follow these four steps to create your Action Program:

Step 1: Collection

First, make a long list of all the things in your world that require resolution. Try to collect and write down everything that you feel is incomplete and needs action from you to get completed, whether it's urgent or not, big or small, personal or professional.

To an extent, this collection is taking place automatically. E-mail requests are getting stored in your inbox, memos demanding attention are being delivered to your in-tray, mail is reaching your mailbox, and messages asking for action are accumulating on your voicemail.

But there is also other stuff – stuff that is idling in your head, projects you want to run, things you intend to deal with lying at the bottom of the drawer, ideas written down on stray bits of paper – that need to be gathered and put in place too. Bring all of these actions and projects together and inventory them in one place.

And – this is really important – make sure that your personal goals are brought onto this list.

Tip 1:
You can experience tremendous stress if you have too many mental "To Dos" floating around in your head. You never know whether you've forgotten things, and you'll always have that terrible feeling of not having achieved everything you want to achieve.

By writing everything down on your Action Program, you can empty your mind of these stressful reminders and make sure that you prioritize these actions coherently and consistently. This has the incidental benefit of helping you improve your concentration, simply because you don't have these distractions buzzing around your mind.

Tip 2:
The first time you create your Action Program, you're going to spend a while – maybe two hours – putting it together. This is the up-front cost of organizing your life. However, once you've done this, you'll be amazed at how much more in control you feel. It will take relatively little effort to keep your Action Program up-to-date after this.

Tip 3:
You'll find it easiest if you keep your Action Program on your computer as a word processor document. This will make it easy to put together, update, and maintain without a lot of tedious redrafting. Alternatively, use a personal project management app, such as Chaos Control or 2Do, both of which can help you to organize and prioritize your tasks. 

Step 2: Pruning

Now, process the list you made in step 1, by looking carefully at each item. Decide whether you should, actually, take action on it. A lot of what comes our way has no real relevance to us, or is really not important in the scale of things. If that is the case, then delete these things from your list.

Step 3: Organizing and Prioritizing

This step comes in three parts.

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First of all, review your inventory of projects and actions. Group together the separate, individual actions that are part of larger projects.

At home, for example, you may want to improve your bathroom and repaint your living room: these can go into a "Home Renovation" project. At work, you may be contributing to the requirements for a new computer system, and may be expected to test and train your team on this system: all of these go into a "Computer System Upgrade" project.

What you'll find is that once you start sorting list items, they will almost seem to "organize themselves" into coherent projects. (You also need to make sure that your personal goals are included as individual projects.)

Second, review these projects and prioritize them in order of importance (for example, by coding them from A to F) depending on their importance. (Clearly, your personal goals are exceptionally important projects!)

Third, insert your projects into your Action Program (using the approach we describe below). The Action Program is split up into these three parts:

  • Next Action List – this shows the small next actions that you will take to move your projects forward.
  • Delegated Actions List – this shows projects and actions that you have delegated to other people.
  • Project Catalog – this shows all of the projects that you are engaged in, and the small individual tasks that contribute to them.

The great news is that, by this stage, you've already created the largest part of your Action Program: the Project Catalog! This is the list of prioritized projects and activities that you've just completed.

Typically, the Project Catalog is at the back of the Action Program, as you often only have to refer to it during a weekly review process.

Next, create the Delegated Actions List by working through your Project Catalog, and identifying tasks that you've delegated. Record these under the name of the person to whom you've delegated the activity, along with the checkpoints you've agreed.


If you haven't yet delegated anything, or you haven't yet agreed checkpoints, don't worry! What we're doing here is creating the framework you'll work with – you'll have plenty of time to use this framework later!

Typically, the Delegated Actions List sits in front of the Project Catalog in your Action Program document, as you'll need to refer to it quite often.

Finally, create your Next Action List by working through the projects to which you've given the highest priority – the projects that you want and need to move forward on right away – and extract the logical next actions for these projects.

The Next Action List goes on the front page of your Action Program, as you'll refer to it many times a day.

Tip 1:

If the Next Action is going to take less than a couple of minutes, then why not do it right away? Make sure, though, that you come back and complete your Action Program!

Tip 2:

It's this selection of appropriate next actions that takes a certain amount of judgment. If one of your projects is of over-riding importance, then have several Next Actions from this project on your list, and keep other Next Actions to a bare minimum. However, if you need to keep a lot of projects "simmering away," have Next Actions from each on your list.

Tip 3:

If possible, keep your Next Actions small and achievable, ideally so that they take no more than a couple of hours to complete. This helps you keep the momentum up on projects, and strongly enhances your sense of having had a productive, successful day.

If Next Actions are likely to take longer than two hours, then break them down further. For example, if your Next Action is to write a report, break this down into research, planning, writing, fact-checking and editing phases. Then make "Research" your Next Action, and put the rest of the stages as a project in your Project Catalog.

Tip 4:

You may find it helpful to number the projects in the Project Catalog sequentially (it helps if you number them 10, 20, 30 and so on). When you bring next actions through onto your Next Action List, you can bring through the project number as well, so that you know which project the action belongs to.

Tip 5:

Where you have several Next Actions, prioritize them from A to F, depending on their importance, value, urgency and relevance to your goals. (If you have trouble deciding whether a task is urgent or important, our article on Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle shows you how to tell the difference.)

Then monitor your success in dealing with these actions. If you find that actions are "stagnating" on your list, consider whether you should either cancel these projects, or whether you should raise their priority so that you deal with them.

Whatever you do, make sure that you don't have too many actions on your Next Action List – if you have more than, say, 15 to 20, you'll start to get bogged down again. If your list is too cluttered, move some of the less urgent/important jobs back into the Project Catalog. If it's thin and under-challenging, pull up some more Next Actions from your Project Catalog.

Tip 6:

As you work through this process, ask yourself if there are any tasks that you can delegate or, if appropriate, get help with. As you identify these, put these on your Next Action List, with the action being to delegate the task.

When you've delegated the task, move it onto your Delegated Actions List, along with the checkpoint times and dates you've agreed.

Step 4: "Working" Your Action Program

An Action Program is typically fairly long. But you don't have to run through the entire Program every day!

Usually, you'll only be dealing with the top page or pages, which are your Next Actions list and your Delegated Actions list. Some activities may be day-specific or time-specific. Depending on the way you work, you can either maintain these on the top page of your Action Program, or mark them in your calendar.

In effect, these top pages are just a new form of your old To-Do List. It's just that only specific short actions are outlined here, while the major projects to which the actions belong are stored in your Project Catalog.

What you must do, however, is review and update your Action Program periodically, for example, every week (put time for this in your schedule). Delete or archive items you've completed, move items from the Project Catalog to the front pages as you make progress on your projects, and add any new actions that have come your way.

Key Points

Action Programs are "industrial strength" versions of To-Do Lists. They help you to convert the projects that you want to run into actionable activities, and then manage them within a three-tier structure.

The "Next Action List" heading lists the precise, immediate actions that you need to perform to move your projects forward.

The "Delegated Actions List" records details of the projects and actions you have delegated.

The "Project Catalog" heading lists the projects that you want to work on, along with other actions that you have gathered that will contribute to the completion of these projects.

This approach helps you maintain focus on daily jobs and long-term goals at the same time, and it means that you always have a plan for "next action" at any moment. This reduces stress, puts you in control, and gives you a real sense of achievement.

More than this, an Action Program helps you to manage and progress many projects simultaneously. This is particularly important as you progress your career, and as the jobs you take on become increasingly complex and challenging.

Example Action Program

Here's a simple example to help you understand how an Action Program fits together.

Rebecca has been experiencing tremendous stress at her job. She's leading a large team through an important project, and it seems like every day finds her further and further behind with what she needs to get done.

She decides to create an Action Program to help her organize and prioritize her many To-Dos.

Step 1 – Collection

After spending an hour brainstorming, Rebecca comes up with this list of current commitments:

  • Research our target market to ensure advertising department will hit the right tone with product roll out.
  • Finish cost-comparison report.
  • Research local MBA programs.
  • Speak with employer about getting help with funding for MBA.
  • Contact recruitment agencies about advertising rates for Office Manager role.
  • Write help wanted advert for Office Manager role.
  • Order new desk and telephone for new Office Manager.
  • Meet with Anthony to ensure he's gotten acclimated to the team; find out if he's on schedule with his project commitments.
  • Contact major supplier to renegotiate contract, accounting for our larger orders in the upcoming year.
  • Organize project folders.

Step 2 – Pruning

Now that Rebecca has made a list of everything she needs to complete, she takes a closer look at her list to see if any items could be pruned.

After considering each task, she realizes she doesn't really need to meet with her new team member, Anthony. She spoke to him yesterday at lunch and he assured her that he was acclimating well to his new role, and was on track to get all his personal projects completed by deadline.

She also decides that she doesn't need to organize her project folders.

Step 3 – Organizing and Prioritizing

Rebecca is now ready to inventory her items. She realizes she can group her to-dos into three major categories. As she groups her tasks, she assigns each one a priority from A-D, with A being top priority.

Category Task Priority
Launch New Product Research our target market to ensure advertising department will hit the right tone with product roll out. B
Finish cost-comparison report. A
Contact major supplier to renegotiate contract. D
Study for MBA Research local MBA programs. B
Speak with employer about getting help with funding. C
Recruit New Office Manager Contact recruitment agencies about advertising rates. A
Write help wanted advert. C
Order new desk and telephone. D

She then creates her Action Program by splitting it into three parts:

  1. Next Action List.
  2. Delegated Actions.
  3. Project Catalog.

She decides to put it into a word processor document (see figure 1, below), numbering each project as 10, 20, and 30.

Action Program Example

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Comments (103)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    You're welcome, jeremychunn1988, and thanks for letting us know.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago jeremychunn1988 wrote
    Has really helped me in my everyday life, thanks.
  • Over a month ago Sarah_H wrote
    Hi juangao,

    I'm pleased to hear this has been helpful and you've created a way of implementing it that works for you.

    MindTools Team
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