Action vs. Reference

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This article is an elaboration on the idea of factoring action items from reference information. Ultimately, your ability to organize and act on your information is one of the most effective ways to improve your personal productivity and effectiveness.


  • Learn the difference between action information and reference information.
  • Learn how to factor out action from reference more effectively.
  • Learn how to make more effective use of your reference information.

When I first joined Microsoft Developer Support several years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that the Knowledge Base was factored by reference and action. Some articles were literally step by step instructions for how to perform a task. Other articles were more conceptual or background information. This separation of action from reference was a powerful pattern. What I was used to in the past, was having actionable information buried or interspersed. This was a shift from information that you “read,” to information that you “execute.”

This concept of “executable” content helped me see everything in a new light, from email to meetings to checklists. Of course it helped that Microsoft had an action-oriented bias. For every goal, I could ask, “What are the action steps?” For every meeting, I could ask, “Next steps?” For every email I could ask, “What’s the action?” I quickly realized that my email inbox was a mix of action and reference. By factoring action items from all the supporting reference information, I streamlined my focus. I made simple To Do lists and I wrote down step by step instructions for some routines that I needed to perform. I later referred to these step by step instructions as “scripts,” just like an actor might perform their script. I also later found out that the Air Force makes heavy use of checklists to avoid “task saturation.” Even the most experienced pilots benefit from checklists for routine tasks. It also turns out that checklists help you avoid burning out your pre-frontal cortex throughout the day, which is where you do your best thinking.

Action versus Reference

Action information is anything actionable. This includes: action steps, action items, To Do lists, action plans, checklists, work items, tasks, … etc. The simple check is, “Is it actionable?” In other words, can you “do” or “act” on the information? It’s common for actionable information to be interspersed among conversations, email, your own thoughts, etc. Simply start asking, “What’s the action here?” The more you look for action, the more you will quickly see it. The more you gain clarity on action, the more you can avoid problems like “analysis paralysis” and “perfectionism.” You’ll also cut out a lot of waste in your day. Once you start using action as your filter for information, you’ll quickly chop your information overload down to size.

Reference information is anything that you reference or refer to. It could be your list of contacts, it could be emails that have information that you like to look back on, it could be information that you refer to while performing your actions or tasks. It also includes your goals and objectives. Your goals and objectives are the reference since you refer to them, while the actions, tasks, work items, action plans, and action items are the action. If the answer to “Is it actionable?” is no, then it’s reference information.

Sometimes the lines will blur but simply by looking for action versus reference will get you results pretty quickly. Just think of all those emails, conversations, and thoughts and how much is actually actionable. Whittling down to precise action items and action steps is the mark of productivity prowess.

Action Information

The following are some common examples of action information:

  • Action Items
  • Action Plans
  • Action Steps
  • Checklists
  • Scripts
  • Tasks
  • To Do lists
  • Work Items

Whatever method you use to track your actions, whether it’s pen and paper, or electronic spreadsheets, the key is to keep it simple and avoid mixing it in with reference information. For example, let’s say you have 30 emails sitting in your inbox. Rather than have the actions hidden among your emails, identify the action items and write those down in a list. You can then put the actions on this list in priority order or in whatever order makes the most sense for you to execute. Simply by doing this, not only have you reduced your clutter, but you’ve just compressed the information you’re shuffling down into the most important elements: the actions. One way to think of this exercise is “squeezing” out the actions. Another way to think about it is, fishing your streams for action, where your streams can be your email, your conversations, your bug tracking database, or any other source of potential actions.

The key to effective action management is creating consolidated lists of actions in priority order.

Reference Information

The following are some common examples of reference information:

  • C.Y.A (Cover Your Arse) information
  • Conceptual information
  • Data points
  • Explanations of things
  • Key Take Aways
  • Notes
  • Reference examples

While reference information is certainly useful, don’t let it get in the way of your action information. Think in terms of collections and usage scenarios. For example, if you refer to quotes a lot, then it might be nice to have a quotes collection, where you consolidate your favorite quotes so that you can look them up faster. You might be an avid note taker. Consolidate your notes so that you can quickly flip through your notes at a later point. Test how you store your reference information against your most common usage scenarios. You might find that you store things that you’ll never use. You also might find that the way you store things, gets in the way of using them. For example, if you make it too tough to easily browse your ideas, then your ideas might be lost among the sea of your personal information collections.

One of my favorite ways to distill reference information, is to turn it into “Key Take Aways.” To do so, I’ll simply add 3 key take aways to the top of the information. This way, whenever I’m flipping through, I can quickly see my take aways before I drill in or scan the rest of the information. The act of distilling information down into key take aways, also helps me pay attention and find the learnings, whether it’s training material or a lecture … etc.

The Power of Lists

Lists are a powerful way to organize and prioritize items. Whether it’s a To-Do list or a checklist, lists help you dump what’s on your mind down into a form where you can arrange and act on it more effectively. This also helps reduce the “buzz” in your brain where something nags at you in the back of your mind, or you keep churning over the same thoughts, issues or concerns. Instead of churning, write the items down.

Beware of the “laundry list.” Laundry lists are long lists of items that don’t have any prioritized order. While you might start with a laundry list when you first enumerate or gather all the items into the list, turn that list into something more actionable by carving it down to size and prioritizing the items.

The Power of Collections

Have a place for things and put everything in their place. By thinking in terms of collections, you make better use of your information. You can optimize how you store your information. You reduce the pain of trying to figure out where to store something every time. When you have collections, you can slice and dice information as you see fit.

Don’t let friction get in the way. If a collection of information is more burden than help, then consider whether to change how your storing your information or whether you need a different collection.

The Power of Scannability

Be able to quickly scan and drill into your information as needed. When you scan information, you simply glance from point to point either casually or with focus and intent. Your ability to quickly and easily scan your information, exponentially improves your ability to find, organize, and act on information. When you can’t easily scan, it’s easy to get buried or to follow tangents. You lose your ability to see the forest from the trees.

Think of scanning as glancing across before drilling down. It’s taking a look across the overall structure of the tree, before following the branches and leaves, or it’s looking across the trees before zoning in on one tree in particular.

Scannable Outcomes

One of my favorite practices is to create what I call, “scannable outcomes.” I create lists of the results or things I want to achieve. Instead of listing activities or tasks, I simply track the end results that I want to accomplish. For example, when working on this chapter, I would simply write down the outcome as “draft complete.” This way, instead of tracking lots of activities and small items, I can focus on the higher level result. While I might have a long To Do list for the day, I’ll simply add 3 key outcomes to the top of it, and that will help me prioritize and focus throughout the day, as well as prioritize against incoming action items.

I use scannable outcomes to track the results I want for my day, my week, my month, and my year. I also identify scannable outcomes for my life hot spots: mind, body, emotions, career, financial, relationships, and fun. For each of those buckets, I identify the outcomes or results that I want, and I keep them as simple lists.

12 Ways to Improve Your Information Management

Here are some simple ways to improve your information management:

  1. Factor reference from action. Start by carving out action items, To Dos, and tasks from your incoming streams of information.
  2. Create lists. Make a new To Do list each day and use it to organize your key action items for the day. Create checklists for your common routines.
  3. Create collections. Put things into collections or think in terms of collections. Consolidate your notes into a single collection that you access quickly, such as in a personal notebook, a Word document or etc. Consolidate your thoughts or ideas into a single collection. Consolidate reference examples of your heroes or stories you can use for inspiration. Consolidate your “ah-has” into a single collection. Note that by single collection, I don’t mean you have it all in a single document, although you can. Instead, I’m thinking of collections of items, much like a photo album music collection. By stashing things of a similar type, such as “idea” or “note” … etc., you can determine the best way to arrange that collection. Maybe it’s a simple A through Z list or maybe you arrange it by time. For example, when I keep a journal of my insights, and each time I get an “ah ha”, I write it down under the current date. This way I can easily flip back through days and see my insights in chronological order. While I could arrange them A through Z, I like having my most recent ideas or inspirations bubbled to the top, since chances are I’m finding ways to act on them.
  4. Put things where you look for them. Where ever you look for it, that’s where it should be. If you keep looking for something in a certain place, either just put it there when you find it or add some sort of pointer to the actual location. While you might logically think something belongs in a certain place, the real test is where you intuitively look for it.
  5. Keep things flat. Out of sight, out of mind holds true for information. Avoid nesting information. Keep it flat and simple where you can. Think in terms of a playlist. A well organized playlist is easy to jump to what you need.
  6. Organize long lists or folders using A-Z. When you have long lists or big collections, then listing things A-Z tends to be a simple way to store things and to look things up fast.
  7. Archive old things. When information is no longer useful for you, consider archiving it to get it out of your way. This usually means having a separate location.
  8. Bubble up key things to the top. When you have a lot of information, rather than worry about organizing all of it, bubble up things to the top. You can effectively have a quick, simple list or key things up top, followed by more information. Keep the things up front simple. This way you get the benefits of both exhaustive or complete, as well as simple. Whenever you have a large body of information, just add a simple entry point or key take aways or summary up front.
  9. Know whether you’re optimizing for storing or retrieving. Distinguish whether you are storing something because you will need to look it up or refer to it a lot, or if you are simply storing it because you might need it in the future. For information that I need to look up a lot, I create a view or I make it easy to get to the information fast. For example, I might use a sticky note since I can quickly put it wherever I need to. For a lot of information, you simply need a quick way to store it. What you don’t want to do is have to work to hard, each time you need to file a piece of information. This I is where having a place for things, using lists, and organizing information in a meaningful way comes in handy. For most of my reference information, I organize it either by A-Z or by time. This way I don’t have to think too hard. I don’t create a bunch of folders for my email. Instead, I just store it all flat so it’s easy to search or browse or sort. For example, if I need to find an email from somebody, I simply sort my email by their name. Just by asking the question whether you’re optimizing for fast filing or for fast lookup will get you improving your information management in the right direction.
  10. Create views. Create views for the information that you need to frequently access. For example, you might put sticky notes of information that consolidate just the key things. As an analogy, think of your music store versus your playlists. You store might be a large collection organized A-Z, but your playlists are views that are more focused or have themes. You can apply this metaphor to any of your information collections.
  11. Periodically sweep things. No matter how well you organize things, you’ll need to periodically sweep. Time changes what’s important. You also gain the benefit of hind sight. Make the time now and then to make a pass through your collections. Get rid of what you don’t need. Archive things that you don’t currently need. Restructure your information to support your usage scenarios.
  12. Reduce friction. Whenever you find that you’re working too hard to either find, organize, or use your information, pay attention to the friction. Work to reduce the friction. This might mean getting more information out of your way. It might mean bubbling more things up to where you can find them quickly. The key is to make it easy to use your information, and don’t let it become a burden.

Test Yourself Against Scenarios

These are some usage scenarios that you can test your information management against:

  • How quickly can you find your To Dos for today?
  • How quickly can you find your goals and objectives?
  • How quickly can you lookup day to day information, such as your contacts or supporting details for your job at hand?

In Summary

  • Factor reference from action.
  • Use lists to help you organize and prioritize information.
  • Use collections to help you improve how you store and use your information.
  • Optimize for scanning and fast look ups where you can.

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