Action Method I: Breaking Projects into Primary Elements

If you know anything about magic, you know that the best tricks are the ones that are the most simple to perform. Levitation relies on pulleys, floating dollars need thread, and the disappearing coin depends on hidden pockets; all of the most remarkable tricks have the most “obvious” explanations. Similarly, the best methods for managing projects are simple and intuitive. They help you capture ideas and do something with them—no more, no less. This simple efficiency keeps you engaged and on task with as little effort as possible.

The Action Method begins with a simple premise: everything is a project. This applies not only to the big presentation on Wednesday or the new campaign you’re preparing, but also to the stuff you do to advance your career (a “career development” project), or to employee development (each of your subordinates represents a single “project” in which you keep track of performance and the steps you plan to take to help him or her develop as an employee). Managing your finances is a project, as is doing your taxes or arranging the upcoming house move.Like most creative people, I’m sure you struggle to make progress in all of your projects, with the greatest challenge being the sheer number of projects before you! But once you have everything classified as a project, you can start breaking each one down into its primary components: Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.

Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components.

Action Steps

are the specific, concrete tasks that inch you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc.


are any project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, websites, or ongoing discussions that you may want to refer back to. It is important to note that references are not actionable—they are simply there for reference when focusing on any particular project. Finally, there are

Backburner Items

—things that are not actionable now but may be someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it is something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen time in the future.

Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components.

Let’s consider a sample project for a client. Imagine a folder with that client’s name on it. Inside the folder you would have a lot of References—perhaps a copy of the contract, notes from meetings, and background information on the client. The Action Steps—the stuff you need to do—could be written as a list, attached to the front of the folder. And then, perhaps on a sheet stapled to the inside back cover of the folder, your Backburner list could keep track of the non-actionable ideas that come up while working on the project—the stuff you may want to do in the future.

With this hypothetical folder in mind, you can imagine that the majority of your focus would be on the Action Steps visible on the front cover. These Action Steps are always in plain view. They catch your eye every time you glance at the project folder. And, as you review all of your project folders every day, what you’re really doing is just glancing over all of the pending Action Steps.

We call it the “Action Method” because it helps us live and work with a bias toward action. The actionable aspects of every project pop out at us, and the other components are organized enough to provide peace of mind while not getting in the way of taking action.

Personal projects can also be broken down into the same three elements. If you take some time to look around your desk, you might find some notes or reminders that you’ve left for yourself. Perhaps you see a household bill that requires payment (an Action Step in the project “Household Management”), or a copy of your car insurance certificate (a Reference in the project “Insurance”). Maybe it is a cutout of a great vacation spot you want to visit someday (a Backburner Item in the project “Vacation Planning”).

Consider a few projects in your life—some work-related and some personal. The components of these projects are either in your head or all around you—sentences in emails, sketches in notebooks, and scribbles on Post-it notes. The Action Method starts by considering everything around you with a project lens and then breaking it down.

The Action Method starts by considering everything around you with a project lens and then breaking it down.

Perhaps you have an idea for a screenplay that you’d like to write someday. If so, make it a “Backburner Item” in the “New Screenplay Ideas” project or perhaps in a more general “Bold Ideas” project that you may review only a couple of times every year. (In ActionMethod Online, “Backburner Items” can be captured by creating an Action Step without a due date, which will automatically be displayed at the bottom of each project.) While some projects realistically won’t get much of your focus, they will help store the Backburner Items and References that you generate.

Of course, your hope is that someday a few of these Backburner Items will be converted into real Action Steps—which will, in turn, lead to a new and more active project, like your screenplay. Action Steps are the building blocks of accomplishment. But sometimes, at certain periods of life, you can’t afford to take certain actions. For this reason, it is okay to have dormant projects filled with References and Backburner Items. The time will come when some of these projects return to the surface with some Action Steps.

As you go about your day, you should think in terms of which project is associated with what you are doing at any point in time. Whether in a meeting, brainstorming session, chance conversation, article, dream, or eureka moment in the shower, you are generating Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items at a fast clip. Everything is associated with a project. Sadly, much of this output will be lost unless you capture it and assign it properly.

In the sections ahead, we will explore the three primary components of projects in more detail and how they should be managed. But the key realization should be that everything in life is a project, and every project must be broken down into Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items. It’s that simple.

The key realization is that everything in life is a project, and every project must be broken down into Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.

Of course, in the digital era, information comes to us in many forms. Projects are not always kept in folders. In fact, projects are managed across many mediums. And the components of projects come to us in the form of emails, status updates, files as downloads, and a barrage of links that we save daily. Nevertheless, the Action Method still applies; everything belongs to a project. With the Action Method in mind, we can make better use of online and offline tools that organize information.

This Action Method tip series is excerpted from Behance founder Scott Belsky’s national bestseller, “Making Ideas Happen.” You can explore Behance’s Action Method-related products here.

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Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.
load comments (13)
  • John Doe

    This is my handleddd

    THis is my spout.

  • Daniel Smedegaard Buus

    What a wonderful piece about productivityyyy

    I would lvoe to see this atthe conference.

  • Matt Hixson

    This is great and I have used and love the interface of the action method. I recently finished the book and liked it too. I am moving back into the action method today but I have some concerns that the platform will continue to develop. You guys seem very slow in making improvements. What’s the deal?

  • Em

    I love the Behance site and am looking forward to reading Scott’s book; I’m just wondering, how is this different to the GTD system? Is it only that you don’t have to contextualise your action steps (ie @email etc)

  • Scott

    @Matt – Regarding “Action Method Online,” the online/mobile application we developed based on these principles, we are developing the platform to be MORE focused on task management – and expending mobile offerings. Refer to a recent post on the forum about the particulars.

  • Scott

    @Em – There are a few major differences between the Action Methodology and David Allen’s GTD.

    (1) While GTD is based on WHERE you are when you do stuff (eg: @work, @home), the Action Method is project centric (not context centric). Especially for the creative world, we believe that, in many cases, work is home, home is on the road, etc. It all blends these days…

    (2) While GTD is focused on the integration of email into workflow, we believe that Actions should be kept separate and center. As such, the Action Method views the inbox as a means of communication rather than a tool for action management.

    (3) The GTD best practices were created for an office environment – and fine-tuned for the bureaucratic cycles of organizations. In contrast, the Action Method is based on how creative individuals and teams function – and their tendencies.

    (4) The Action Method is an attempt to use design to boost productivity, while GTD proclaims to be design agnostic. The forces of design (and branding) can be used to push us towards action… As such, one’s productivity system should be design-centric. We’ll touch upon this a bit more in future articles…

  • Marin Santic

    Usually I do my organization of the project in a sketchbook. It’s faster and easier. I write, sketch, connect… Only I, of corse, know why, when and where, and I don’t expect from anyone to understand or criticize my work process. That’s the beauty of it: everyone do it on characteristic way and it has a great impact on a result after. On a product we see everything of it in a background through it.
    These components are great for understanding things in our heads, when we want to explain ourselves and to ask ourselves the quality of work, and to make better in the future. To make application of it is not good for creativity, for creative process. Also it’s much slower if you want to scan and then upload every sketch you made. Of course I speak as a freelance designer. I believe that managers can afford something like this.

  • Em

    @Scott – Thanks for the considered reply; very helpful :)

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  • V Chiodini

    Thanks, i’ve been searching for 40 years for a method to organize my ideas and project, and i think that i’ve found it.

  • custom folders printing

    Idea doesn’t worth able until it should be execute, without execution
    the ideas just like a imaginative thing which will never be unique or achievable.
    So action should necessary to fulfill every idea. Great article Scott, it’s
    really impressive and courage to those who wanna start up and need to show some
    action but can’t yet execute their ideas.

  • CrazyEye Music Services

    Hmm. It may be time to change this page seeing that References and Backburners are no longer a part of the product.

  • Scott Belsky

    Within the updated ActionMethod application, the methodology is the same but we’ve streamlined these features based on how people were using them.

    “Backburner Items” can be captured as Action Steps without due dates – and will be displayed at the bottom of each project as potential Action Steps that you can take if/when appropriate in the future. We find this especially helpful since stuff is either actionable – or may someday be in the future…so, having them collect at the bottom of every project is ideal.

    As for Reference Items – these are the notes and attachments that can be collected and stored within each project, whether you use ActionMethod or some other application.

    Hope that helps!

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  • Benosborne1

    So, in a nutshell, you are saying. “Try to prioritise.”?
    Wellll, durrrr!

  • bingbingwa

    I have 20+ goals (which I guess are really projects). How would you suggest ‘prioritizing them’ without have some fall through the cracks and not get worked on for 6 months or more. I tried working on at least one a day in sequential order, but inevitably one goal becomes a big priority in my head, and the rest suffer….

  • Josh Lawson

    Not really. In a nutshell, the goal is to get everything to action. Thus the name: Action Method.

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