Action Items: What They Are & How To Use Them |

Set Super Action Items for Streamlined Tasking

Posted by Brandon Evans

In the business world, you can be bombarded by endless jargon-- “let’s get the ball rolling and drill down on leveraging the team to synergize streams and strengthen core competency, before circling back later to touch base.” -- that makes life too confusing. 

To slice through the lingo, consider action items. They don’t sound that impressive or revolutionary.  But they are far more effective for getting things done than a traditional to-do list, whether that’s in the office or the kitchen.

The key for action items is they indicate something to be done. A dedicated method for phrasing tasks in terms of their required action, and not desired result, can significantly boost productivity and get you closer to your long-term ambitions.

What Is an Action Item?

At first glance, tasks and action items appear to be identical, perhaps because they fill a similar role. However, while tasks on a to-do list can be as vague and distant as a New Year’s resolution – “get fit”, “save money”, “read more books” – your action item list is completely grounded and present the task as explicit, actionable information.

So while an action item may seem like a corporate nickname for a task, they are different things. A task most commonly appears on a to-do list as a short, simple bullet point. There isn’t usually any substantial information, other than the what.

An action item, on the other hand, is a more comprehensive, yet still relatively concise task with a description that outlines the task in terms of who, what, how and when. Thus, anyone receiving it can become somewhat familiar instantly. 

At the same time, at work, presenting the task in such a way can make it more obvious to determine which employee would best complete the task. This is part of your action plan.

This allows a manager to delegate more easily, without having to slow down and explain things twice. Action items speak for themselves.

What Makes A Good Action Item? 

First, consider the task: “Find wholesalers for new products.” What are the limitations? Well, this is really just the end result, which is obviously relevant but doesn’t really do much in itself. 

There’s no indication of who is in charge of the task, how it should be done or when it needs to be finished. It really isn’t very useful.

Action items should capture:

  • Who is responsible for completing the work?
  • What action needs to be undertaken?
  • How can the action be done?
  • When is the due date?

So, using this model, the action item may read as: “Operations Department to call potential wholesalers (see directory) to secure deal for new kitchenware range – due 10th March.” 

The advantages are plentiful. 

There is a clear task owner, a solid outline of what should be done, and a due date. 

There’s even some relevant information which may speed up the process, too.

Don’t go crazy with extra details, as that can be counterproductive. An action item isn’t a walkthrough for aliens: “call wholesalers by picking up the telecommunication device with your dominant hand and dialing the correct 11 digit number sequence.” 

If you’re going to add extra information, make sure it’s valuable and relevant.

Just as you have many objectives towards one larger goal, you can have many action items per objective. To recap, 

  • Tasks express desired results (goals). 
  • Action items show literal actions required to fulfill them.

Need help with making better goals? Try the goal-setting guide!

How Do You Write Action Items?

As we now know, action items are used to define actions needed for the completion of a task or job. “Monkey see, monkey do,” so to speak. Therefore, to create an action item, ask yourself what needs to be done and how you can do it. 

Try to describe the action in one or two sentences. 

If your action item seems to contain too many steps, break it down into smaller tasks.

If an action item requires the completion of another, focus on finishing the most immediate action item first, similar to what David Allen calls the “next action” in his Getting Things Done (GTD) method.

The key is to write down the action item as soon as you come up with it. If it’s clear, concise and communicable, phrased in a way that allows you to complete the task in a small number of steps, you can call it an action item and get cracking! 

A good example can be acted upon straight after being set. If you find this not to be the case, you’ve likely made the action item too complicated, or too ambiguous.

Action Item Examples

  • Sales to contact Springleaf client about shipping delays
  • IT & Agency discussion to finalize next week’s website updates - must be done by Thursday
  • HR to send performance report (due 25th July) to assistant director – physical copy.
  • Follow up with project manager about the budget and additional costs (Feb through April) by Wednesday

Even if you’re writing action items for yourself, it’s still good practice to include all of the parts. You’ll (hopefully!) understand what you’re talking about. 

You may be able to get away with omitting certain details, though if a company uses action items for employee daily reports or performance reviews, including this information proves better for keeping a record of your work.

5 Best Tips For Creating Fantastic Action Items

Still unsure? Here are our five main tips for creating fantastic action items that help you maintain focus, complete tasks and realize goals:

1. Make your action items concrete, not abstract

As we mentioned earlier, tasks are typically written out as intangible, abstract outcomes, like “create pitch deck”, whereas action items need to be assessable, concrete actions, such as “collaborate with marketing on 20 minute pitch presentation with handouts for Monday.” For brilliant action items, you’ll need to get out of the clouds and down to earth.

2. Break down action items to fit in one line BUT include a description

If it takes as long to read as to do, you’re going about things the wrong way. While lengthy action items might look more informative, they are more often confusing and unproductive. They don’t need to be as funny as a zingy, one-liner at the comedy club, but they should be as brief! That being said, be sure to add supplementary information if it’s integral to an assignee’s understanding. If you’re writing for yourself, you may forget details so you can add a short description to play it safe.

3. Work with a consistent format

In much the same way that art historians can spot their Rembrandt from their Caravaggio, your action items might just make a name for themselves if they come in consistent, effective fashion. Consistency leads to better understanding, with the added bonus that you’ll become more efficient at preparing action items by practicing the same format.

4. Categorize your action items by context, action, and resource. 

It’s important, not least from an efficiency standpoint, to organize and categorize where applicable. With regard to action items, you should absolutely arrange them in terms on their context (which project, type of work, area of business), the actions themselves (creative, communicative, administrative), and the resources needed (personnel, materials, time, outsourcing). Even if merely a way to stay organized, you’ll see a huge benefit to arranging your action items in this manner.

5. Relay while collaborating

If outstanding action items are dependent on the collaboration of various people, you should be particularly clear about that fact, making sure all individuals know their role in the task. In instances where the action item will be passed along and relayed to others, everyone should be able to pick it up and run with it. Upon completing your action item, there must be a new item to replace it, one which updates everyone. With collaborative work, it’s especially important to reassess the information that needs to be relayed and whether the same collaboration is still required.

How Do You Write Action Items for Someone Else? 

In a professional setting, where departments continuously communicate and pass work along, one will sometimes be required to write out action items for their coworkers, employees or even boss.

This can be tricky. You cannot assume assigned employees will share the same methods or prior knowledge as you, so you’ll need to translate that understanding as simply as possible to make sure they know exactly what needs to be done. At the same time, you don’t want to patronize anyone by making action items so obvious that they become a little insulting.

It’s a balancing act of trusting the assignee’s capability (by not over-explaining) and ensuring you’ve provided the right information, in terms of action, for them to fully understand the work. 

As a side note, the action item should be specific enough so that an assignee can determine when they’ve completed it; if this isn’t evident, break the action item down into smaller jobs that have more clear achievement criteria.

  • Be specific
  • Break it down into smaller tasks
  • Provide relevant context if needed

What is a Meeting Action Item?

You probably don’t need any help with this one, but here we go: a meeting action item is an action item that came from a meeting. Common problems here are that people often leave meetings unsure of their jobs, the exact opposite of what action items are designed for!

Just like any other, a meeting action item is a task that can be done immediately. The only difference is that meeting tasks come from the sharing of ideas within a meeting. For example, if someone brings up something that needs to be done, you instantly write that down, turning it into an action item as soon as possible. It can then be assigned before the meeting’s end.

The nature of meetings often leads to runaway thoughts and off-topic chatting, so it’s crucial to capture an action item as they crop up (especially if there are no meeting minutes). Otherwise, you’ll promptly discover your meeting was an utter debacle.

How Do You Ensure Action Items Get Done After Meetings?

In order to avoid wasting time, it is necessary to make sure that the action items are clear and concise, initially as they’re said during the meeting and once more after. If action items require one person only, they should be written in a way that enables the attendees to complete them independently, in efforts to avoid the inefficient to and fro of constant clarification and checking.

While the action item creator is primarily responsible for ensuring the task is expressed clearly and comprehensively, the meeting leader should also make sure everyone understands their responsibilities before they leave the meeting. 

This can help ensure that all of the action items will be completed successfully, with minimal misunderstanding.

Though, another common complaint is that, after these meetings, businesses fail to effectively track the action items, leaving people feeling unsupported or more dangerously as if their work doesn’t matter. 

Managers or team leaders needn’t fret, as there are many ways to track meeting action items. Some people enjoy creating a checklist of all of the items and then having each person sign off the work as it’s completed. In lieu of a physical sheet, everyone can just email the meeting leader.

How To Use Friday To Help With Your Action Items

Use applications like Friday to assist in communicating goals and you can set action items without meetings. 

 Friday automates status updates, provides routines and check-ins, and helps teams feel connected while avoiding another meeting

Your work routines provide updates, and also potential action items. 

The Friday planner connects with your team’s task management software, so users can pull over specific tasks and add them to their daily schedule. They’ll have a focused time to work on their action items. 

Your team will have a solution that they love to use, while also integrating with your specific tech stack, such as team communication (Slack, Teams, Zoom) calendars (Google Calendar and Outlook) and project management tools. 

Best Features of Friday

  • Planner: Start your day knowing exactly what you need to accomplish. Combine all of your calendars, integrate your project management software, add your must-do tasks in an online checklist, and know what your day looks like. 
  • Automated Work Routines and Stand-Ups: Automate your daily stand-ups and status updates with Friday. Ask questions to your teams, provide weekly CEO updates, and know what your team’s priorities are for the week.  
  • Power-Ups: Say thanks, track goals, offer ideas for improvement, and connect with icebreaker questions. Power-ups boost your workday to help stay on track--both personally and professionally. 

Ready for Your Action Items? 

In a business application, action items include creator and assignee names, tracking numbers, priority ratings, resource assessment, and all manner of specifics. On a personal level, however, you can still reap the productivity rewards of using action items, without the need for such formalities. After all, action items are a method for visualizing your goals,

Not every task on a to-do list can be drawn up as an action item. Though, the larger projects in your work and life are made greatly easier by upgrading bullet points into effective action cues that encourage proactivity, ultimately making you a more productive person. The best part is that anyone can make them. Just think about something you’d love to achieve and what you can do to reach it. And… ACTION!


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