Clear Your Mind by Listing All Projects and Next Actions (Step 8 of 12)

“The Mind is Meant for Creating Ideas, Not Storing Them”

-Physician Zen

Being a health professional is not easy. We are constantly stressed with attempts to juggle multiple projects and tasks at once. It feels like our work, career, and personal life are pulling our minds in all directions. In order to stay afloat we end up trying our best to address the most urgent issues and tasks in our lives. Almost everything else gets put as a second or third priority. 

When I give productivity lectures, I often ask the audience to start writing down the list of projects that are occupying their mind. A Project is anything that requires 2 or more actions to complete. This includes work projects, personal projects, health, etc. The average list comes out to about 30-40 projects for most people.

I then ask them how they keep track of their projects. Most of the time I get back blank stares. How can someone expect to have a clear mind when most of their mental resources are used just trying to not forget things. These persistent thoughts of possibly forgetting important items leads to stress and anxiety. Instead of using the mind to create, it is instead just used to “not forget.” 

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

-Bruce Lee

The goal of this post is to help clear and empty your mind by listing all the Projects that may be occupying your mind and setting Next Actions for each project. This is my interpretation of the Getting Things Done process by David Allen. 

What You Will Need:

Time needed: Approximately 1 hour
Materials needed: Just your mind, a pen or pencil, and a notepad. For a list of recommended supplies for productivity please see the STEP 1 blog post on getting supplies. 

The Importance of Clearing the Mind and Listing Projects

Each person has only so much physical capacity to get things done. Most people do not realize what their physical capacity is and continue to take on more and more projects without considering the negative consequences to the projects they have already committed to. Remember saying “Yes” to something is saying “No” to something else in your life.

Your mind also has a finite amount of mental space. It is not good at prioritizing a list of more than 3 projects. With 30+ projects, it just goes into triage mode and tries its’ best to do whatever is due first. All other projects just sit and wait. It’s like having a general fight in the front lines while his troops watch in the background. Your mind should soley be used to create or execute the immediate task at hand, all other tasks and projects should be transferred somewhere else. 

The combination of overloading the physical capacity and mental space leads to extreme inefficiency, stress, and anxiety. 

So how does Listing Projects help you?

Listing all Projects benefits you in the following ways:

  • Gives you a clear view of what is actually going on in your life
  • Helps prioritize the Projects that actually mean something to you.
  • Allows you to visually compare all projects next to each other
  • Allows you to see if there is any overlap among projects
  • Takes away the responsibility of tracking projects from your mind
  • Allows you to define actionable items for each Project (Next Actions)
  • Prevents you from overcommitting to more Projects
  • Allows your mind to be used for Creation instead of Storage
  • Helps you define the Most Important Tasks (MITs) in your life

Some people will try and skip this step or are resistant to completing it because it “takes too much time.” Trust me, the time you spend on this step will save you at least 5 times the amount of time you put in. Without doing this step you will not have a true productivity system. 

It may be tempting to start using a productivity app on your iPhone. However, without defining all your projects and next actions, those apps will be nothing more than just a glorified “To Do” list. Even a perfect looking physical and digital workspace mean nothing if you have not defined all of your projects and next actions. These workspaces only allow you to most efficiently complete the projects and next actions that you will list in this step. 

Mind Dump – List All Projects Occupying Your Mind

How can you clear your mind? The first step is to list every single project that may be occupying your mind. This will involve listing all current and someday/maybe projects in your mind. You will eventually place all of these projects into a reliable system that will help you manage them in the next step (Step 9). 

Give yourself about 30 minutes for this exercise. 

I would recommend taking out a physical notepad and writing everything down that is taking up any mental space in your mind. This can include things from work, personal life, health, other people, ideas, tasks. Literally anything that is occupying your mind, no matter how big or small you may think that thought is. Any and all ideas should be externalized. 

If you truly wrote out all projects that were occupying your mental space you should have a feeling of immediate mental relief. 

Moving forward, do not treat your mind as a place holder for thoughts anymore, any thought that comes into your mind should immediately be externalized (we will discuss where and how these thoughts can be stored in Step 9)

Define an Immediate Next Action for each Project

David Allen defines a next action as the immediate action that leads to the completion of a project. This is usually something simple such as send email to colleague, brainstorm topic, outline project, call someone, etc. 

Without actively defining next actions, projects will become stale with no direction. Next actions allow you to have a feeling of control over all of your projects because you know what you need to DO about each project. 

The reason large projects are difficult for people to complete is because people think of a project and what the end product should look like. They then see so many steps to reach that end product that it seems daunting to even start the project. So, what do they do? They start an easier project and tell themselves they will get to the larger project “later.” Often times, “later,” never comes.

Let’s reframe and stop thinking of the end product of a project. Instead, try to only think about the immediate next action to complete a project and ONLY focus on that. Any project, regardless of complexity, is completed by a series of next actions. If you complete enough of these small and manageable next actions, any project can be completed!

Think about climbing a mountain. If you were at the base of the mountain and then look at the peak, you might be discouraged to even start climbing the mountain. Now instead of looking at the peak of the mountain you just focused on what is the best way to take the first step to go up the mountain. 

All it takes is for you to lift your leg and move one step up that mountain, no big deal. The next thought you have is how to take the next step and so on. Eventually, with enough of these small manageable steps, you will climb that mountain! This is exactly how you should think about completing projects. 

So let’s get started and go ahead and list the immediate Next Action for each one of the projects you listed. 

Clarity of Mind and Sense of Direction in your Life

If you completed the above actions, you will not only have a clear mind but will also have a sense of direction for all projects in your life. I think this is one of the most important steps to be productive and stress free. Moving forward, in order to maintain this clarity of mind and direction in your life, never allow your mind to be used as a reminder or storage system anymore. It should primarily be used to create and produce high quality content.  

Now that you have all of your projects and next actions listed, in the next step will go over how to place these projects and next actions into a productivity app that will bring your productivity to a whole new level!

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[…] 8. Clear your Mind by Defining all Projects and Next Actions […]

4 years ago

I do find that I get the most accomplished and in the most efficient way when I actually have a task list and can then prioritize it.

Plus it is satisfying when you can cross an activity off the list

Zen Productivity
4 years ago
Reply to  Xrayvsn

Thanks so much Zrayvsn for the comment! I agree that is a great way to keep track of tasks and feel a sense of achievement with crossing items off the list 🙂


[…] over all of your projects during the weekly review, also look at the next actions for each project (see Step 8). Sometimes the project has shifted or changed, and the next action needs to be redefined or […]


[…] of the greatest benefits of implementing a productivity system is that it allows you to have a clear view of what is going on in your life. All projects in your mind are listed with next actions for each project. You will be astonished […]

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