Nouns, Verbs, Time Management and You Are your to-do lists filled with nouns or verbs? Here's how to work smarter.

By Jason Womack

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Are you a "verb" person or a "noun" person? Does it matter? Knowing how you relate to the world around you does matter. In the grand scheme of things, it isn't critical whether you coordinate your engagement with the world around you using just verbs or only nouns, but knowing which you focus on does matter. "Why?" you might ask.

In the past two years, I have had more than 100 conversations about productivity with chief executives, managers and company founders. I found there are generally two kinds of people: Those who think in verbs and those who think in nouns. Which are you? An easy way to find out is to locate a recent "to do" list you've created, one from the past 30 days if possible. If you cannot quickly find one, take a few moments now to jot down 30 or more items you know you need to accomplish before this quarter ends.

Look at the first word of each item on your "to do" list. Are those first words verbs or nouns? Typically the tasks on my "to do" list start with an action verb resulting in entries such as, "Email Marty about project x," or, "Call meeting planner in Quebec. . . ," or "Listen to the new book by. . ."

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Please note: Neither nouns nor verbs are "better" than the other. They each have their benefits. However, over the years I have worked with business people all over the world, I find that although everyone switches between nouns and verbs here and there, some prefer nouns over verbs while others prefer verbs over nouns.

So why is your preference for nouns or verbs important? Noun/verb preference helps identify how you think. . . and how you work. When striving to work smarter knowing your noun/verb preference gives you important awareness about how you view the world.

For example, people who have lots of nouns in their "to do" lists tend to be visionary, big-picture thinkers. They easily talk in generalities and often want to discuss global aspects of a project before identifying the details and actions needed to get the job done. Of course many of these "noun defined" tasks also have several actions (verbs) involved in their completion. However, the nouns often act as benchmarks, or placeholders, for things you might need to think about, plan or take action on.

On the other hand, people who have lots of verbs in their "to do" lists tend to have clearly defined tasks that need to be completed (generally sooner than later). Every task on each line of a verb-focused person typically starts with an action verb, large or small. "Verb workers" manage their productivity in terms of action, delegation and progress. They see the steps that need to be accomplished to make the long-term vision (noun) come true.

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Of course, if there are "big" action verbs such as "Plan," "Discuss," or "Implement," it is important to identify how to break that large task into manageable smaller tasks to get the larger task started and moving forward. Personally, I strive to have the smaller tasks on my list be things that can be accomplished in blocks of 15-30 minutes, allowing me to easily keep moving forward, making consistent progress.

Try this experiment. Take a piece of paper and for the next 15 minutes write in your handwriting a list of the many big things you are thinking about. . . the nouns on the "to do" list in your mind. Maybe include a seminar you're attending, a trip you're planning or someone you need to talk, for example.

When the time is up, turn the page over and for each item you listed, identify one single action you can take in the next 24 to 96 hours. One action (verb) that moves you forward on (or completes) that task. Even if the task is huge (like your next promotion or saving for your child's future college) identify one task you can absolutely, positively achieve in the next one to four days. When you identify work at this do-able level of action you will see progress consistently.

Make this exercise of breaking the visionary "noun" tasks and the huge "verb" tasks into smaller, manageable action-oriented tasks part of your process for task completion, and you'll consistently work smarter resulting in making your best even better.

Related: How to Use Your Time Wisely by Prioritizing Your Goals

Jason Womack


Jason W. Womack is the CEO of The Womack Company, an international training firm that helps busy professionals be more productive through coaching and consulting. He is co-founder of the Get Momentum Leadership Academy, author of Your Best Just Got Better (Wiley, 2012) and co-author with his wife, Jodi Womack, of Get Momentum: How To Start When You’re Stuck (Wiley, 2016). Since 2000 he has coached leaders across industries and trained them in the art of increasing their workplace productivity and achieving personal happiness.


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