What Is an Action Item and How to Write Action Items That Really Work

Writing action items seems like the easiest thing to do – you have a task, you write it down somewhere, and then you do it.

But how come then almost half the tasks on our to-do lists are never completed? Worse yet, research shows that unfinished tasks inflict additional stress and, in some cases, even impair weekend sleep. 

So let’s get back to the definition of an action item.

An action item is a documented, discrete, and specific task or activity that can be handled by a particular person.

But here’s a catch: if you even drop one noun or adjective from this definition, the chances that you won’t complete your action items increase dramatically.

And given that action items are the backbone of any type of project or goal, the way you use them will define how successful you are in projects, teams, and personal development.

In this article, we’ll talk about how to tell a good action item from a bad one, how to write action items that will be completed, and how to use action items in a team.

What’s An Action Item?

Let’s start with a more detailed definition of what an action item is. 

An action item is a documented, discrete, and specific task, event, unit, or activity that can be assigned to and completed by a particular person. Action items are typically documented and contain attributes that better clarify their context, timeline, progress, and responsible parties.

Each action item is accompanied by several attributes. 

Here are the key attributes of an action item:

  • Description
  • Due date
  • Owner/Assigned to

The simplest What-When-Who action item, e.g. “to Bill: Send a weekly report by 18th August” contains enough information for successful execution. 

There are additional attributes to action items that may facilitate more effective execution for more challenging tasks:

  • Do date. Different from the “Due date”, the “Do date” is a date that you allocate for performing the task. “Do date” is less ambiguous and more actionable than the common “Due date” because it implies a time commitment. 
  • Status. Indicates current progress with the action item. Common statuses are “Planned”, “In Progress”, “Completed”, “Archived”, or “Canceled”. Statuses are best used with task management or project management software.
  • Creation date. The date of creation, as well as the Completion date, will allow you to track the average completion rates of action items over a given time period. This attribute is more useful in larger companies that try to optimize inner processes and workflows.
  • Priority. If you work on several action items on the same day, it’s crucial to prioritize them to avoid confusion or loss of focus. 

If your action items contain several attributes, it’s recommended to use task management or project management tools that present action items with their attributes in an easy-to-read form, e.g. spreadsheet or databases. 

Example of an action item in Asana (source, direct source)

Here are the most crucial characteristics of an action item.

  1. Action Item Is The Most Basic Unit in Task Management and Project Management Methodologies

Every project or product strategy consists of goals, tasks, and activities. These are the building blocks that collectively lead to successful achievement of company goals.

What separates action items from other types of tasks in project management is that they cannot be broken down into smaller pieces. For example, you can break down a complex task into a group of smaller tasks, or divide a large project into smaller parts.

In contrast, an action item should be defined as a discrete unit in project management that can’t be broken down into smaller action items or tasks. It’s already the smallest unit. If you think that your action item is too big and requires multiple steps to be completed, that’s no action item and should be, instead, treated as a task with subtasks. 

  1. Action Item Is Not a Goal

Goals indicate the direction of work, while action items are specific steps in the required direction. 

Goals can be vague and ambiguous, but action items should always be specific and discrete.

Goals can consist of multiple actions, an action item always implies a single action.

  1. Action Item is Not an Action Plan

Every action plan indicates steps your team or company should take to achieve specific goals. Action plans are more specific compared to goals. Action plans can include action items as steps. 

There are different kinds of action plans: management plans, operation plans, marketing plans, and so on. It is common for these plans to differ based on the activities they cover or the departments that execute them.

Good Action Items vs Bad Action Items [With Examples]

Example #1. Key Attribute Is Missing

Often the lack of one key attribute leads to vague action items that are hard to achieve or can’t be completed at all.

Bad: Deliver onboarding report on Monday 

Bad: Jessica should deliver the onboarding report

Task doesn’t contain information on who will be performing it or the deadline. 

Good: Jessica should deliver the report on Monday

Example #2. Lack of Specifics

Bad: Bill needs to fix the bug by Friday

Good: Bill needs to fix the gif freezing on the main page by Friday

Example #3. Too Extensive or Too Complicated To Be Executed in a Single Action

Bad: Angela to restructure the entire marketing strategy 

Good: Angela to prepare a report on website conversion

Example #4. Lack of Additional Attributes 

Some additional attributes become crucial in certain scenarios, e.g. priority is crucial when you deal with several action items at once

Bad: 

action item 1,
action item 2,
action item 3

Good: 

action item 1 [low priority],
action item 2[high priority],
action item 3 [low priority]

Example #5. Not Actionable

Bad: can’t access figma

Good: fix access to Figma for Jennie [today]

How to Write An Action Item: 3 Approaches

  1. 3W: Who, What, When. 

The 3W framework (Who, What, When) for writing action items is the easiest one to remember and follow through.

There are rules, however, to making sure your action items are well-written and feasible. 

What always starts with an active verb. Avoid passive verbs.

Who is always a person. Who is either you or someone this item is assigned to.

When is always a date. Use either “Due date” or “Do date”.

The main advantage of the 3W framework is that action items can be written as a single sentence.

Examples of a 3W framework in practice:

Margaret (who), send quarterly recruitment report (what) by the 25th July (when).

  • “Mark will schedule a meeting with a product team on Wednesday” 
  • “Update XYZ content calendar on Tuesday, 17th September”
  • “Export last 3-month team performance report from X tool”
  1. GTD: Getting Things Done

Although Getting Things Done, or GTD’s work-life management system doesn’t define action items specifically, it provides a well-balanced context for their creation and implementation.

For example, the five GTD steps: Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage provide a handy framework for managing action items throughout their entire lifecycle. 

At the Capture stage, your goal is to capture any information relevant to your goals or project. Write down ideas, email summaries, or task drafts. Some ideas you capture at this stage will inevitably become action items in the future. 

At the Clarify stage, you separate action items from goals, ideas, and projects. At this stage, your action items obtain some attributes to become actionable and specific. 

At the Organize stage, your action items receive additional attributes, such as Priority, Assignee, Due/Do Dates, and Status, Additional attributes let you more efficiently organize many action items and prioritize which ones to work on next.

At the Reflect stage, you review and update your current system to understand how action items are getting completed within it. Are you completing action items within a day or should you actually aim for smaller action items? Are there any action item attributes you’re not using or should be using for better efficiency? 

At the Engage stage, you take action, trusting that your system provides you with action items that need to be made in a particular order to achieve maximum efficiency. 

  1. S.M.A.R.T. Approach

S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-Related) is a framework commonly used for goals and objectives. Although goals are not action items, the S.M.A.R.T. approach is still a valuable approach to better outline your action items.

Check your action items against S.M.A.R.T criteria to make sure they have key attributes:

  • what specific action should I or someone else take
  • Is this action item measurable (Note: action items should not always be measurable, but typically benefit from that, e.g. “Send 5 emails to prospects today” or “Shortlist 3 candidates…”
  • Is this action item assignable (if you can’t assign an action item to anyone, then it’s not an action item)
  • Is this action item realistic (the scale of your action items is crucial. If they can’t be completed within a day, there’s a great chance these are projects that consist of several action items)
  • Action item should be time-related (i.e. contains at least one of the date attributes, “Due Date” or “Do Date”)

Action Item Templates

If you write a simple action item using the 3W framework (Who, What, When), you probably won’t need a template.

If, however, you track several action items at once and want to track their progress, change priorities, and assign them to different people, you can use the following Google Spreadsheet template for action items. 

Template link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1MY5Bqm5re2zqRJZlpBf7S-xA8rnZdXLQsybItn7db0A/edit?usp=sharing

DescriptionAssigned toStatusPriorityDue Date
design onboarding emailMarkPlannedHigh2022-08-10
approve candidate listOliviaPostponedLow2022-08-16
fix image display bug in the 2.03 releaseStephenIn ProgressMedium2022-08-29
create a recruitment tracking dashboardOliviaIn ProgressLow2022-08-30

How to Keep Track of Your Action Items

You can track your action items by using todo-list or checklist apps, project management tools, or using spreadsheets and notepads.

Google Spreadsheets

If you are familiar with Google Spreadsheets or Excel, build a simple spreadsheet with columns such as Assignee, Due date, and Item Description. Use conditional formatting and data validation to improve the spreadsheet’s readability and ease of use. 

You can use the google spreadsheet template for action items from the previous section as a starting point. 

Todoist

Todoist is a simple task tracking software that you can use for logging action items. With Todoist you can choose priority for each task, due date, labels for organization, and reminders (pro feature).

(Source)

Use Todoist projects to group action items by project or department. You can also assign Todoist tasks to members of your team.

A great feature of Todoist is task nesting: you can easily turn each task into subtasks by dragging them under other tasks and creating as many subtask levels as you need. Remember that action items are the most basic unit in task management and should not contain any other subtasks. 

Notion

Using Notion databases, you can create a Google-like spreadsheet with more powerful features such as different views for your action items (Board, Gallery, Calendar views), automation, database relations, and rich media information.

(Source)

Asana

If you work in a team and juggle several projects with many tasks and action items assigned to different team members, you are likely already using a project management tool such as Asana.

(Sourcedirect source)

You can track action items in Asana just as usual tasks, just make sure they follow the main principles of action items and have all the key attributes.

ClickUp

Same as Asana, ClickUp is a project management tool that can be used for tracking projects and action items. Each action item will have required attributes such as Due Date, Assignee, and Status.

(Source)

You can also use additional attributes and add custom fields with properties for these specific projects. For example, if you want to track time spent on each action item, ClickUp offers a time-tracking extension for free. 

Geekbot

Geekbot is a tool that lets you run asynchronous meetings directly in Slack and MS Teams, saving hours and hours each week you would otherwise spend on useless meetings.

But it’s also a great tool for tracking your action items in Slack/Teams and automatically sharing your progress on these items with your team.

Using Geekbot Focus mode, you can add new action items to the Slack. Whenever you start working on these action items, Geekbot will automatically update your Slack status to DnD to avoid any distractions.

Whenever you are finished, Geekbot will automatically share your progress with action items during your next standup meeting. 

In addition to that, Geekbot lets you run surveys, team-bonding events, and all kinds of meetings in Slack and MS Teams. Join the likes of Shopify and Gitlab and take your team productivity to the next level with Geekbot’s free 30-day trial.

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