Action Method I: Breaking Projects into Primary Elements
by Scott Belsky
If you know anything about magic, you know that the best tricks are the ones that are the most simple to perform. Levitation relies on pulleys, floating dollars need thread, and the disappearing coin depends on hidden pockets; all of the most remarkable tricks have the most “obvious” explanations. Similarly, the best methods for managing projects are simple and intuitive. They help you capture ideas and do something with them—no more, no less. This simple efficiency keeps you engaged and on task with as little effort as possible.The Action Method begins with a simple premise: everything is a project. This applies not only to the big presentation on Wednesday or the new campaign you’re preparing, but also to the stuff you do to advance your career (a “career development” project), or to employee development (each of your subordinates represents a single “project” in which you keep track of performance and the steps you plan to take to help him or her develop as an employee). Managing your finances is a project, as is doing your taxes or arranging the upcoming house move.
Like most creative people, I’m sure you struggle to make progress in all of your projects, with the greatest challenge being the sheer number of projects before you! But once you have everything classified as a project, you can start breaking each one down into its primary components: Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.
Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components. Action Steps are the specific, concrete tasks that inch you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc. References are any project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, websites, or ongoing discussions that you may want to refer back to. It is important to note that references are not actionable—they are simply there for reference when focusing on any particular project. Finally, there are Backburner Items—things that are not actionable now but may be someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it is something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen time in the future.
Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components.
Let’s consider a sample project for a client. Imagine a folder with that client’s name on it. Inside the folder you would have a lot of References—perhaps a copy of the contract, notes from meetings, and background information on the client. The Action Steps—the stuff you need to do—could be written as a list, attached to the front of the folder. And then, perhaps on a sheet stapled to the inside back cover of the folder, your Backburner list could keep track of the non-actionable ideas that come up while working on the project—the stuff you may want to do in the future.
With this hypothetical folder in mind, you can imagine that the majority of your focus would be on the Action Steps visible on the front cover. These Action Steps are always in plain view. They catch your eye every time you glance at the project folder. And, as you review all of your project folders every day, what you’re really doing is just glancing over all of the pending Action Steps.
We call it the “Action Method” because it helps us live and work with a bias toward action. The actionable aspects of every project pop out at us, and the other components are organized enough to provide peace of mind while not getting in the way of taking action.
Personal projects can also be broken down into the same three elements. If you take some time to look around your desk, you might find some notes or reminders that you’ve left for yourself. Perhaps you see a household bill that requires payment (an Action Step in the project “Household Management”), or a copy of your car insurance certificate (a Reference in the project “Insurance”). Maybe it is a cutout of a great vacation spot you want to visit someday (a Backburner Item in the project “Vacation Planning”).
Consider a few projects in your life—some work-related and some personal. The components of these projects are either in your head or all around you—sentences in emails, sketches in notebooks, and scribbles on Post-it notes. The Action Method starts by considering everything around you with a project lens and then breaking it down.
The Action Method starts by considering everything around you with a project lens and then breaking it down.
Perhaps you have an idea for a screenplay that you’d like to write someday. If so, make it a Backburner Item in the “New Screenplay Ideas” project or perhaps in a more general “Bold Ideas” project that you may review only a couple of times every year. While some projects realistically won’t get much of your focus, they will help store the Backburner Items and References that you generate.
Of course, your hope is that someday a few of these Backburner Items will be converted into Action Steps—which will, in turn, lead to a new and more active project, like your screenplay. Action Steps are the building blocks of accomplishment. But sometimes, at certain periods of life, you can’t afford to take certain actions. For this reason, it is okay to have dormant projects filled with References and Backburner Items. The time will come when some of these projects return to the surface with some Action Steps.
As you go about your day, you should think in terms of which project is associated with what you are doing at any point in time. Whether in a meeting, brainstorming session, chance conversation, article, dream, or eureka moment in the shower, you are generating Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items at a fast clip. Everything is associated with a project. Sadly, much of this output will be lost unless you capture it and assign it properly.
In the sections ahead, we will explore the three primary components of projects in more detail and how they should be managed. But the key realization should be that everything in life is a project, and every project must be broken down into Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items. It’s that simple.
The key realization is that everything in life is a project, and every project must be broken down into Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.
Of course, in the digital era, information comes to us in many forms. Projects are not always kept in folders. In fact, projects are managed across many mediums. And the components of projects come to us in the form of emails, status updates, files as downloads, and a barrage of links that we save daily. Nevertheless, the Action Method still applies; everything belongs to a project. With the Action Method in mind, we can make better use of online and offline tools that organize information.