Why verbs are important: creating better to do lists

Why verbs are important Creating better to do lists

When you’re planning a project, creating an action list for an event, writing an everyday ‘to do’ list, it can be tempting not to be too specific. Capture everything, the advice goes, on one piece of paper. Get it all down. Just as David Allen says in Getting Things Done, when he tells us to get all our stuff and pile it up in one place in order to organise it, we can do the same with actions: get them all in one place. When I organised my son’s birthday party, recently here are the things I had to consider:

  • Expectations
  • Invitations
  • Whether to do DIY or bought – decorations, craft, party bags, food, entertainment, invitations (time / money equation)
  • Budget
  • Theme (dinosaurs)
  • Venue
  • Max number of kids? Who to invite (whole class / few friends)
  • Entertainer
  • Games
  • Decorations
  • Food
  • Cake
  • Party bags
  • Crafts
  • Helpers?
  • Clearing up
  • Music / playlist?
  • Is my mum coming? Is she staying over?
  • Is my brother’s dog allowed?
  • Any vegetarians?
  • Disabilities
  • Transport
  • Tea and coffee / nibbles for grown ups

This is my ‘get it all down’ list. When I first wrote it down it was messy. This is the neatened up version. Writing it messy was the point – I was trying to get everything out of my head and onto the paper. Also, I’ve organised several of these now – therefore my prior experience affected my process. That’s fine. If I had no experience, I would have come up with a different list.

ACTION: Stop reading now and write a messy ‘get it all down list’ for whatever it is you’re trying to write, organise, or plan.

So, what now? Lots of people stop there. They use the list – or maybe a neatened up version – and work through it. Nothing wrong with that UNLESS the thing you’re doing is hard or complicated.

I’ll let you into a secret, the secret that applies to so many different things in our lives. Specificity is the answer! How do you know, looking at your list, WHAT it is you need to do with each of those actions.

Maybe that doesn’t matter so much with a birthday party – we can organise it, with the help of friends and family. Although there are several elements, we can get there without creating spreadsheets or using project management systems!

But when it comes to our dreams, the things we’ve always wanted to do, perhaps the things we don’t know how to do, or that we need to learn more about – then we really need specificity.

Also, lack of specificity can be a form of procrastination, something that seems like the equivalent of writer’s block (whether you’re writing or planning something else). Sometimes lack of specificity  is an indication that we don’t know enough about the thing in order to do it. Let me pick something I don’t know very much about to illustrate this point.

Imagine I fancy taking up book making or book binding. This is what I write down when I do my ‘get it all down’ list:



Kid’s workshop

How do I find out more?

Internet? Facebook?


St Bride’s in London??

To actually prompt myself to take action I need to ADD VERBS. Verbs are ACTION words: find, buy, look, run, schedule. (If you don’t know how to do something, then you probably need to add ‘research’ or ‘discuss xxx with’.) Use verbs to identify the problem and the way that you think you can solve it. Create action statements.

Here’s my list. This is where it starts to sound possible:

  • Research courses
  • Research museums
  • Find kid’s workshop
  • Research book making and papermaking
  • Schedule internet research.
  • Search Facebook
  • Google St Bride’s in London.

You can make this list for free. No money required, just 15 minutes with a pen and paper. You could also perform all of the actions on this list virtually free – you pay for the internet connection and the trip to the library or museum.

Make your actions seem even more concrete. By the way, you’re not committed. If you no longer want to learn book making by the end of this process, good – it was worth doing the exercise to find out. I’ve done this exercise with writers who think they’re committing themselves by making the list. You’re not. Not yet, anyway.

Here’s how I made my list of action statements even more specific:

  • Research courses on book binding and find out how much they are.
  • Research museums to do with book making
  • Find out if there’s a local kid’s workshop under £25
  • Go to the Central library to search for material on book making and papermaking
  • Schedule time to spend doing internet research.
  • Search Facebook for special interest groups.
  • Look at St Bride’s website to see if there are any guided tours.

You can add notes (in a different colour if you like) and annotate as much as you like. Of course, getting this specific takes a bit of thinking time. It’s time well spent.

ACTION: Take your messy ‘get it all down list’ and add verbs to it. Then make those actions as specific as possible.

Now I picked this topic at random – it’s not something I’m really going to go and do right now otherwise I would spend longer on it, but about 5 minutes of internet research has shown me that:

  • there are several books on book binding and papermaking on Amazon – and I could create a list and print it out to take to the library.
  • I could learn book binding fairly locally at The Old Rectory Adult Education College, Pulborough
  • I could learn book and paper making fairly locally at Lindfield Art Studio, Nr Haywards Heath
  • kids can do papermaking workshops at the Observatory, Herstmonceux,, Hailsham
  • the St Bride Foundation in London have a book binding workshop I could sign up for

Again, this has cost me virtually nothing so far. Now I am in a position to decide whether I want to commit to a course, read a book, or take my son to a kids’ workshop. At this point I could decide to quit, decide to wait, or take action.

You can actually do this when you’ve missed out the ‘get it all down’ stage, too. We’re planning a dinner party this weekend. I’ve been collecting suggestions from friends about what to cook and thinking about it for a while. When I finally committed actions to paper, I wasn’t creating an information dump from what was in my head, I needed an urgent reminder to DO SOMETHING! I don’t remember what I had when I originally made this list, but it was something like this. Not very inspiring:




Eaton Mess

Packed lunch items

When we get back?


Also, not very helpful. This quick list doesn’t identify the problem and the way that I think I can solve it. I know what each thing means, but I might not remember next time I look at it. We needed to discuss the list as a family too.

Adding verbs and getting specific helps. This is just an extract from what we came up with:

  • Buy two folding chairs
  • Finalize menu
  • Spinach and parsley soup
  • Roast chicken
  • Salad potatoes
  • Couscous and roasted vegetables
  • Eaton Mess
  • Order shopping for tomorrow morning.
  • Buy something quick to cook when we get back from seeing Grannie.
  • Look up recipe for Eaton Mess online
  • Decide on packed lunch items for next week
  • Tidy up downstairs:
  • Toys
  • Rug
  • Sofa
  • Dressers
  • Clean garden furniture

Now it’s much easier to prioritize. I ordered chairs online, I finalized the menu, I came up with some packed lunch ideas for next week, and I turned all of that into a shopping list, which I copied and pasted into the supermarket app to place the order.

This might seem trivial when it comes to a dinner party, but automating a food order like this gives me more time to hang out with my family and more time to write (neither of these are at all trivial). Planning a fun menu everyone will enjoy allows me to have special time with my friends (again, not at all trivial).

We can get even more serious (and non-trivial) than that. What if you ‘add verbs’ to one of your life goals, or something you’ve always wanted to do but never dared to? Dance more, practice yoga, learn the cello, do a sculpting course, start life drawing, finding a job, set up your own business, get better at maths, whatever it is, it starts with VERBS.

When I invented my list of research actions about bookmaking, while I was making the list I spent virtually nothing and I was able to get ACTION BASED and SPECIFIC fairly quickly, but still with no real commitment. Once you’ve got your fledgling list, then you can decide whether to commit to the next stage. Whether to do the research, to read the book, to phone the guitar teacher, to enrol in the course, or whatever it is.

Action: Take your thing you want to do, but didn’t think you had time, or the thing you didn’t dare to do, or the dream you’ve been harbouring, and just get as far as a list of specific actions, with VERBS added. (Remember use ‘research’ or ‘discuss’ if you don’t know which verb to use.) Now try to make your action statements as specific as possible.

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