Throw Your To-do List Away! Get Going With​ The Goal Action System

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

The Goal Action System

Are you overloaded and stressed? I can get you back under control. Is your to-do list so full of things you haven’t done that you can’t even bear to look at it anymore? I can give you hope. Do you lie awake at night, wondering how you’re going to do everything expected of you? Use my Goal Action System, and sleep peacefully once more.

I evolved the Goal Action System during my high-pressure career as a troubleshooter, delivering high tech projects. It helped me, and it will help you. By the end of this post, you will feel better, I promise you. The light at the end of the tunnel will be shining bright and clear.

Some things won’t wait, but some will. Is Honey waiting at the school gate, wondering where you are? Put this blog down and go. Is your boss screaming at you for your weekly report? Tell her to hang on for an hour. You’re busy.

About Time

We are all so short of time, it rushes by so fast. There are lots of time zones, but only three worth thinking about here.


The first is History. It covers everything from the day you were born to when you started reading this article.

The second is Now. It’s that fleeting moment you inhabit for a second before that too becomes history.

The third is Future. It’s the stuff of dreams, plans, and goals, but right now it’s void and empty. Nothing is real.

Step 1: Get Paper

To get started with the Goal Action System, all you need is a piece of paper. Use letter or A4 size if possible. And a pen or pencil. If you don’t have these things to hand, go and get them. I’ll wait.

OK, now fold the paper into four along its length, and straighten it out again, so you have four columns separated by folds.

Step 2: List Goals

Everything you do today is moving you into the future, and you want that future to be a happy place. So think about your goals. These are the things that are important to you, the things you want but you don’t have right now.

Go to the right-hand column of your paper and at the top write ‘Goals.’ Write down the most important five or six goals you want to achieve in the next month.

Each goal must be a concrete outcome you can credibly hope to achieve in a month. Ideally it should be measurable. At least you must be able to tell whether or not you have achieved it, when you look back at it next month. You may also have fuzzier, longer term goals but they don’t belong on this list.

Step 3: Action Now

The ‘Now’ zone may be fleeting, but it’s where we all live. It’s the only place you can get things done, or feel pressure. At the top of the left-hand column, write ‘Action Now.’ Then underneath the title write a list of all the things you must do today. All the things that absolutely must happen before you go to bed tonight.

In the Goal Action System, the actions must always be short and snappy. Don’t bite off more than you can swallow. For example, you might like to write a novel, but you can’t do that in a day. You can choose a title for your masterpiece though, so make that your action. Your one-month goal might be ‘Write the first chapter, rough draft.’

Step 4: Action Soon

The title of the next column is ‘Action Soon.’ This list is for the things that you should do – or would like to do – if there is any time left after you have done the vital ones for today. Include anything you know you must get done over the next two weeks. Leave aside any tasks that can wait longer. They come next.

Step 5: Action Later

You have one column left. At the top write ‘Action Later.’ Then write a list of things that you must do at some point, but not yet. Tasks that can wait at least two weeks before you do them.

Just include the things that are at the top of your mind. Don’t worry about trying to remember everything in your life you haven’t done. You can add more actions later.

Putting something on the ‘Action Later’ list doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. For example, I need to buy Ann’s birthday present. Very important. But her birthday is a month away, so Later is fine.

Step 6: Support Your Goals

As you add the actions, glance back at your list of goals. Are the actions helping you achieve them? If not, perhaps you should adjust your goal list. Or maybe you are spending too much time on tasks that aren’t getting you anywhere. Should you reduce their priority, or not do them at all?

On the other hand, not every action needs a goal. Don’t wrap your actions in goals just for the sake of it. For example “Buy batteries.” You don’t need an inspiring goal for that. Just do it.

Step 7: Check Priorities

As a rough guide, you should aim for no more than five things in ‘Action Now,’ maybe 20 in ‘Action Soon,’ and perhaps up to 50 in ‘Action Later.’

What if you have more than five in the ‘Action Now’ column? Here’s where you prioritize. You can’t do everything at once. Pick the five you are going to do first and put them in ‘Action Now.’ The other urgent ones go into ‘Action Soon.’

Take A Break

Sit back and admire your work. There it is, everything that’s been bothering you. This piece of paper is a message in a bottle to your future self. You are going to use it to keep calm and under control, when ‘then’ becomes ‘now.’

What about your old to-do list? Are you feeling brave enough to look at it again? Glance through it and put any vital actions onto your new list. Then throw the old list away. You don’t need it in your life. Now you have the Goal Action System.

While you're sipping your coffee, have a look at this case study. Then you'll be ready for Step 8.

Case Study: A Troubled Project

A couple of years back I was asked to take over a massive customer service system that had run into trouble. The development team had built a state-of-the-art system. Everyone was excited about it, but they had started rolling it out before it was ready, and the customer service agents were feeling the pain.

Like always, I started by thinking about my one-month goals. The project was going to take months to get right. What difference could I make in four weeks?

Although I always work on high-tech projects, usually the technology itself isn’t the problem. It’s the people. They start by being over-ambitious, then frantically back-pedal when things start to go wrong. Then everyone starts to fight.

In this case, CS and Dev were blaming each other, and nobody could agree on what to do, so they brought me in. But I was from the Dev camp, so the CS people were suspicious of me too.

Putting The Goal Action System To Work

Because I knew people and their relationships were at the heart of the problems in the project, one of my first one-month goals became ‘Gain the trust of Customer Service.’

My ‘Action Soon’ was to spend a day at the service center, listening to the complaints and disappointments of the agents there. Afterwards, I posted a message to everyone in the project, describing what I had heard, and telling people how things were going to have to change.

My first ‘Action Now’ was to move my desk next to the CS Director. It had quite an impact. Everyone could see that I wasn’t going to be taking sides.

Before long we were able to build a joint plan that still none of us were fully pleased with, but we could deliver it together, and we did.

Step 8: Do Your 'Actions Now'

Now it’s time to put down your list and start doing something. Have a final look at your goals, then pick one of your ‘Action Now’ actions. You aren’t going to sleep until you’ve done these, so you had better get cracking. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. Please yourself.

Remember the only time zone where you can do anything at all is Now. So it’s important that you hoard all those fleeting Now seconds like a miser. Don’t waste your time on anything else.

Don’t look at your emails, or go to a meeting, or look at social media. Turn off the TV. Put everything on hold until you have done your first ‘Action Now.’

Step 9: Regular Reviews

Take a five-minute break every hour, and have a quick glance at your ‘Action Now’ list again each time. Are you making progress on the first one you picked? Keep going, get it done, then cross it off the list. Leave others alone until then.

The ‘Action Soon’ list is a bit more forgiving. You can get away without doing any of them today. Don’t look at them at all until you have the Now ones covered. Review them when you start work tomorrow, and again at the beginning of every day. That’s enough.

For ‘Action Later,’ the horizon is two weeks away. So you can leave that list completely alone until next week. It might be a long list, so give yourself an hour or so on Monday to look through them all. Some of them might be starting to get more urgent. If they are, move them to ‘Action Soon,’ or even ‘Action Now.’

Step 10: Feeling Good

OK, so what just happened? You started to get your life back. Learned about the Goal Action System. Defined your goals, reviewed your entire workload and picked just five things to work on today. You selected the first one, and you’re going to do it right now.

Every time you check one thing off, you’ll feel better. More confident. The light at the end of the tunnel is starting to shine through.

Having a list of actions isn’t the same as doing them. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Spend the rest of today doing your Action Now’s one by one, then relax.

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