Experiments in Productivity: The Action Method


Image credit: actionmethod.com

During the months of February, March, and April 2012, I am trying out a new productivity system each month. After each months is over, I will write about how my experience with it went. In February 2012, I used Scott Belsky's "Action Method" as described in his book Making Ideas Happen. This is my review.

Before Occupy Wherever picked up the moniker, the top search results for “99%” was a the99percent.com, a well-designed website that advertised itself as “Insights on making ideas happen”. The title banner still betrays the etymology of the name– it’s from Edison’s famous quip “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.

The 99% is a website that is not about ideas; it’s about making ideas happen. The perspiration part, not the inspiration.  “Too many ideas”, the site boldly proclaims.  “Not enough action”.  So they made the Action Method.

The Action Method is a productivity system that I tried out for a month. First I will explain how you use it, then I will tell you whether or not I liked it.  Let’s get started.

The Action Method Explained

There are three things you keep track of for each project (a project can be any large-scale task at work or at home):

  1. Action Steps. These are specific concrete tasks. They are the bread and butter of gettin’ stuff done.  Action Steps start with a verb, and they don’t require more planning before you can start one.
  2. References. This is project-related material you may want to refer to later– links, videos, articles, books, e-mails, etc.
  3. Backburner Items. These are not actionable now, but they could be future projects or sub-projects.  They’re the brilliant ideas you have now but want to remember later.

Let’s talk about how this works for a very specific example: writing a blog.

First, potential Action Steps.

  • Brainstorm post topics
  • Write a post or two
  • Pitch a guest post to another blogger
  • Leave some comments on other related bogs

I want you to notice two things.

  1. Each Action Step starts with a verb
  2. Each Action Step requires no further planning before being able to start it

So no “Make sure blog readership continues to grow”. That’s bad.  If that’s on your list and you sit down to do it, you’re going to start by doing thinking and research and mulling over.  And all of those things take time– time which you didn’t schedule when you made your list.

Stick with simple action verbs.

Typically, you keep Action Steps anywhere you can write a list– like a notebook or a smart phone. You can buy Action Steps notebooks on their site; I used a 99 cent pad to great effect as well.

OK, now what would a Reference for a blog be?

  • Any article I see online that I might want to blog about
  • A video that will improve my understanding of the science of goal-achievement
  • A book on how to accomplish long and difficult projects

In Making Ideas Happen, Scott says if your project is a manilla folder, the Action Steps are what is taped the front, and the References are what is inside the folder. They are not the first thing I need to see, but they are useful content for me to refer to.

For me, I kept these online. Whenever I find an article online that would be particularly inspirational for writing, I tag it “to_blog” on delicious and move on. Any website I can’t focus on now but may find useful later, I tag “for_later” and keep going. This means I don’t get bogged down in reading these articles and watching these videos when the most important thing is working.

(Oh, and regarding books– whenever I finish a book, I copy the most memorable quotes and ideas into a online “commonplace book” of sorts. That way I can easily find much of the best information from those too)

Now that leaves us with Backburner Items. Here are some examples of what might be Backburner Items for my blog:

  • Giving a speech at a school, business, or conference
  • Offering an ebook about achieving goals with strategies not posted on the blog
  • Writing a magazine article about goal-achievement

These are not directly related to the core mission of my blog, which is to write useful online articles on goal-achieving and expose the world to them. All of these things are sort of projects in themselves, or tangents that shoot off in various directions from the work I’ve already done. If I were to take on any of these, it would require a whole new set of Action Steps.

In general, I kept these at the bottom of the page on which I wrote my Action Steps. Now, when I flip back through my notebook, everything written in the last 5 lines of the page is a separate project or sub-project of a current one that I could devote future time to. Since I have them all recorded, I don’t have to worry about them until I have time.

The Action Method Reviewed

I’ll cut to the chase: for being little more than three lists of stuff, the AM is surprisingly refreshing.

Here’s why it’s so useful.

Let’s say I had only one list keeping track of my blog items.  I’d have stuff like “Write a blog post”, “Watch this YouTube video which might be useful” and “Maybe give a talk at a school somewhere down the road” all in one list.

Wow.  That list sucks.

It’s completely untenable.  What do you do first?  Well, maybe the YouTube video is useful, but maybe not– let’s put that off.  You write a post, great, but then it’s time for bed.  The next day, do you still write to watch the video?  Or do you forget about it?

Of course, if you were smart, you’d split your list into two: “Definitely do now” and “Maybe do later”.  Your “Definitely do now” list is your Action Items; your “Maybe do later” list is your References and Backburner Items.  The things applicable to this project later on are the References.  The things that are whole new projects in themselves are your Backburner Items.  Split that list into two and bam!, you’ve just invented the Action Method.

No piles of folders.  No rearranging my desk.  No colored sticky notes.

Just three lists, and one of them is probably online anyways.

That’s how simple it is. Frankly, during the next two months of trying out other productivity systems, I’m not sure how I will be able to keep from keeping these same lists. Hopefully they will allow it. Though in the spirit of the experiment, I should at least try.

So there it is.  Two steps above a to-do list, but nothing fancy.  My month with the Action Method was a revelation in terms of how naturally I could track my thoughts, ideas, and tasks in this manner.  I saw my to-do lists with a clarity and peace of mind that I’ve not had before.

Come May 1, we’ll see if I’m on it again. Hard to say, but at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Up next: David Allen’s Getting Things Done method.


  1. July 1, 2013

    This is a great post. My friend sent this to me today.

    I currently use the tool http://www.trello.com much in this fashion.

    Thanks for the tips!


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