One of the simplest systems of work is what might be called a “Next-Up” list.

The process is to list what you’d like to get to in the near future, choose one to do, and start working. Often, the process is regularly repeated. In other words:

  • Write a list.
  • Choose work to do.
  • Do that work.
  • Write a new list…

and continue this same process for as long as you’d like.

Benefits of Next-Up Lists

While it has some issues, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach. In fact, it has several strengths, not the least of which is that it includes a regular practice of settling what’s on your mind and making a clear decision as to what to do next. Doing so helps to engage work with solid focus. (See Being Productive – Module 2 – Choosing Focus.)

Secondly, the approach can incorporate a make-shift Inbox. As you work, if something comes to mind, you can add it to the end of the most recent Next-Up list. When done working, you could then draft a new list based on the old, prioritizing the newly added items as desired.

I often find that those who use this system have some issues with attention, be that ADHD or otherwise. The Next-Up approach provides a simple singular habit to work from a present-centered focus.

Limitations of Next-Up Lists

However, one does need to be aware of the Next-Up list’s limitations, especially if it is relied upon as the only part of a system of work.

First, it is not useful for long-term reminders. For instance, remembering to pay a bill on a certain date is not automatically integrated into this approach.

Certainly, you could use a calendar, reminder system or otherwise. When an alert goes off or when you look at the calendar, you could add it to the list of the moment. But, those who use the above approach tend to already have troubles with reminders and calendars. The calendar relies on a regular habit of looking at it, which is not often in tune with an approach entirely reliant on momentary decision.

Meanwhile, reminders rely on responding to an alert when it appears, which inherently disrupts flow. They are therefore often shoved aside without looking at them. It is for this same reason of ignoring reminders that one can often bulldoze past other important matters without realizing they are doing so.

Another problem is the constant redrafting of Next-Up lists can become its own form of procrastination. Though, of course, the same may be said of any form of planning.

Finally, one can become myopic in this approach. Larger projects that tend to stir anxiety and other emotions fueling procrastination can be readily avoided. An example may be a paper due in 3 weeks. Such projects may consistently find their way to the bottom of Next-Up lists or, perhaps more likely, not even come to mind while drafting a list, further proving the strength of the mind’s unconscious abilities to repress undesired feelings, as short-sighted as they can often be.

Addressing Limitations

So, how do we address these concerns?

First, I don’t believe it is always necessary to completely overhaul a system, particularly if it has some aspects that work. In other words, if this is your mode of approach, you likely don’t have to toss it, but you do likely need to make additions.

The main issue is one of developing habit. Particularly for those who struggle with attention, developing new habits can seem impossible. It is useful to focus on developing them one at a time. (See below for resources.)

One habit is to create and regularly visit a second list: a Master Projects list. On this list, you could have a set of larger projects. These would be projects on the horizon, often with far off due dates (that inevitably become near due dates) or with no due dates but would be good to do. While looking at such a list, for example every morning, you could add items to your first Next-Up list for the day. This would help avoid “forgetting” about larger projects.

Second, consider placing those larger projects up top, with the idea of visiting the work and focus on doing a single action, i.e. “touch the keys”. Recognize the overwhelm of considering all the work that may need doing. Instead, stay with just sitting there with the work for a few moments, preferably pushing it forward just a little bit.


Third, consider using a task manager that includes repeating tasks. One of the benefits of repeating tasks is that you can easily orchestrate your habits. You can add a repeating task to visit your master list to a single Today list. From there, you could flag anything you are interested in working on. Those flagged items then show up to the Today list which could now function as your Next-Up list.

In this way, you just have to visit the Today list. That’s it. It has all the reminders you need.

Finally, consider pruning your reminders to make them more useful overall:

  • Turn off all reminders.
  • Go through them one-by-one, turning them back on as needed.
  • Target notifications and reminders to appear at times and places that would be most actionable rather than at any time or place.

Doing so often improves their signal-to-noise ratio, giving you more of a sense of realistic urgency when an alert does go off.

Other resources to consider: