Write better action items for your to-do list
January 7, 2020

How to Create Better Action Items for Your To-Do List?

By Brian McHale

Task management is impossible without action item lists.

However, more and more teams are struggling to cross out all the actionable items on their lists.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to resolve that problem and improve your productivity.

No matter if you’re a project manager or simply managing a team that’s struggling to meet the expected deadlines, we’ll show you how to create better action items for your to-do lists.

Let’s take a look!


What Is an Action Item?

Task management relies on action items in order to get things done.

An action item is a task on your list that you need to complete.

It typically moves you closer to achieving a significant objective (e.g. finishing a project), and it clearly outlines deadlines, responsibilities, and dependencies for every sub-task.

For example, let’s say you need to complete a project.

In order to get to the finish line, you’ll first have to pitch the project to the stakeholders, and then perform all the necessary actions to complete it.

The more actions you have, the more things get complicated.

Or so we thought.

It turns out, all you need to do is create better action items.

Write better action items

When you correctly set action items, you and your team will:

  • Know exactly what to do
  • Understand your task and project progress
  • Improve your productivity and meet the deadlines.

It’s easy to say “this has to be done,” and forget all about it.

We’ve all been there.

However, when you create action items, you’re actually creating a map to success.

Completing an item becomes as easy as following the outlined steps.

There’s no confusion, and productivity automatically skyrockets.

So if your action items look something like this…

  • Project presentation
  • Wireframes
  • Top management approval???

… Read on.

We’ll help you make your to-do lists a lot more actionable and easier to manage.

Free Action Plan Template in Excel

Click to download our Free Action Plan Template in Excel to begin simplifying your project management.

How to Create Better Action Item Lists

1. Tasks vs Actionable Items

The tasks you capture are not your actionable items.

When you receive a new task, jot it down.

Brainstorm tasks, and then turn them into properly actionable items.

For example, if you learn in a meeting that your team has to create a pitch deck, don’t just write that down as an actionable item.

Instead, define the task:

  • What exactly needs to be done? (E.g. prepare a presentation)
  • Who needs to do it? (Specific team members)
  • When should it be done? (E.g. December 27th).

When you avoid vague phrasings, you’ll know exactly what you need to do.

Otherwise, it’ll be easy to put it off until the last moment.


2. Actionable Items Call for Actionable Verbs

“Pitch deck” means very little. However, “prepare a pitch deck” tells a story.

The entire point of using action item lists is to take action.

Write action verbs

When you use a verb that defines what exactly you need to do, you’ll both recall the details and psychologically make yourself take the desired action.

Then, it’ll be easy to understand what needs to be done after you’ve completed that particular item.

This is especially important when it comes to complex project where it’s easy to confuse tasks.


3. Write Your Action Items for Someone Else

Chances are, you will be writing action items to manage tasks across your team.

It’s important to be specific and include all the relevant details, such as timelines and action item specificities – think SMART.

Being as comprehensive as possible ensures that you know which steps to take, and how extensive the task actually is.

And if you’re delegating action items amongst your team members, they’ll have an easier time completing them because they will have all the information.

Finally, if you’re planning action item lists ahead of time, it’ll help you remember what you meant when you wrote them.


4. Minimize

An action item should always be the “smallest” task; a task that you can’t break down into any more tasks.

Sometimes, teams make the mistake of creating too extensive action items.

For example, if you needed to pitch your project to stakeholders, your action item wouldn’t be: “pitch project.”


Instead, it would be:

  • Mary: Prepare the slides
  • Joe: Create the demo
  • Me: Schedule the pitch.

Avoid the need to create expansive action items.

You won’t be able to get the specifics down, nor will you complete the task without hassle.

Free Action Plan Template in Excel

Click to download our Free Action Plan Template in Excel to begin simplifying your project management.

5. Actionable Items for Dependencies

If you’re creating lists for your entire team, chances are there’s going to be plenty of task dependencies.

For example, if Mary doesn’t create a list of leads, Joe won’t be able to book meetings with them.

This is where action item ownership comes in handy.

When every member of your team knows what they need to do, when they need to complete it by, and who they should pass the information to, they’ll work more productively and efficiently.


6. Standardize the Process

Finally, the goal is to standardize the process of action item creation and completion.

When you’re first brainstorming tasks in meetings, you should write them down. Then, at the end of the meeting, you should create an actionable item list with clear ownership, dependencies, and deadlines.

Action items - brainstorming session

It’s important to set priorities, as well.

Tasks that have multiple dependencies should be at the top of your list as it’s impossible to continue working without completing those action items first.

After that, you should follow up on action items.

Following up is a lot easier if you use project and task management software like Project Central. You’ll be able to keep track of progress throughout the project.

In general, you should use software with an action item tracker.

It’ll be much easier for your team to visualize the work they need to do.

You’ll be able to monitor their performance and progress, ensuring that actionable items are truly resulting in action.


7. Help, My Team Isn’t Taking Action!

In the vast majority of cases, actionable items work just fine.

Teams love them because they’ve got their work cut out for them. They know exactly what to do, when to do it by, and who they should pass their work to.

So if your team isn’t taking action, have a chat with them and see how you can improve your action item lists.

Possible problems include:

1. Your lists are too general.

Individual team members want to focus on their individual tasks. It helps them retain focus.

When you’re working with a team, you can have a to-do list for the entire team. However, every team member should have their own list.

Otherwise, there’ll be plenty of confusion. No one likes going through long lists, looking for their names and tasks.

It’s much smarter to individualize.

Action Items - whiteboard session

2. Your action lists aren’t specific enough.

Again, every actionable item should be a single action your team members have to take.

“Close 10 deals” is not an actionable item, but “Call so and so” is.

If you use task management software, make use of the notes function to supply the team members with possible specificities related to the task.

3. There are too many actionable items on your lists.

Finally, your team members could be getting inundated by tasks.

While you can have a to-do list for the next few months, you shouldn’t make everything a priority, nor should you hand out all the tasks at once.

Instead, keep your general to-do list to yourself, and give your team members a few tasks to focus on.

Alternatively, there are some productivity books to help you with your time management.

Soon enough, you’ll see just how easy it is to improve your productivity with a little help from actionable to-do lists!

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