How to create better action items to follow up on

Written by 
David Young
July 27, 2023
A woman writing on a sticky note stuck to a laptop
How to create better action items to follow up on
Written by 
David Young
July 27, 2023

Most people likely don’t put much thought into action items. You might dole them out at the end of a team meeting to make sure a project gets moving, or create lists of them as you work through an assignment. They're neither as significant as goals or as encompassing as strategy. And yet, if they don’t clearly communicate what needs to be done, your whole project may risk falling apart. 

Maybe they’re worth considering more carefully after all?

Let’s take a moment to look into what goes into creating clear, effective action items that get tasks done.

What are action items?

Action items are tasks given out to individual team members or stakeholders that need to be completed to finish a project or meet a larger goal. As their name implies, they typically contain a specific action that needs to be executed. 

While they can range from the simple (such as checking in with a client), to the complex (like planning an event), action items are usually kept smaller and more specific. This way, they can provide team members with clear steps for completing a project, while giving project managers a measurable way to track progress.

Why you should record and track action items

Completing a team project requires careful coordination between multiple team members and stakeholders, all with different skills, responsibilities, and maybe even goals. By recording and tracking action items along the way, you can make sure everyone stays on the same page during this process. Here are few ways they do this:

  • Make goals more approachable. Many projects can seem daunting, even impossible, until they’re broken down into smaller tasks. Regularly creating and handing out achievable actions items for your team can help motivate them to start in on even the biggest challenges.
  • Hold team members accountable. Asking someone to complete a task is a private agreement, but writing that task down and putting their name next to it makes it public. Everyone can see what everyone else needs to do — and that makes each item more likely to get done.
  • Make it easier to track progress. Especially when it comes to complex projects, it can be difficult to keep track of how everything is progressing. But when you write down each action item and one-by-one check them off, you create a clear record of your accomplishments and streamline your daily workflow.
  • Give you a document for reference. Looking back at past projects and how they were accomplished can give you essential insights into how you should do your work today. You can use action items as a record for previous workflows or to track project progress.

How to write better action items

Writing action items is not something you should just toss off. Without first putting some thought into them, you risk taking away their usefulness or, even worse, slowing your project down. 

Instead, a good action item should clearly describe what needs to be done, why this action matters, who's responsible for it, and when it needs to be done. Let’s break that down.

1. Summarize what needs to get done

Begin by writing out a description of the task. Try focusing the action item by leading with the action itself. For example, rather than write “content plan,” make it explicit by saying “create content plan.” Even better, include any additional descriptive information you can. Using our previous example, you could say, “Create a content plan to improve social media engagement.” Try to be as specific as possible in your summary.

Once you have your description, consider adding tags or categories that help further describe the specific task. These could be grouped by action (such as “copywriting”), team (such as “sales”), deliverable (such as “blog post”), or whatever is most relevant to you. As action items add up, doing this can make it easy to sort through and organize them according to your needs.

Finally, it can also be a good idea to make note of any dependencies the action item might have. For instance, if creating that content plan is dependent on first organizing a meeting with the client, then you’ll want to highlight that in the description. Otherwise, whoever is assigned it may move forward without first getting all the information they need.

2. Explain why the action item matters

As part of the description, it can also be a good idea to explicitly call out the impact of the action item. This could describe other tasks that are dependent on the completion of the action item, or more broadly, point out how this action item relates to the larger goals of the project. 

To make the importance of the task even more clear, you could assign it a priority level. Especially when there are multiple action items, this will make it easier for team members to focus on the ones that matter most, rather than just the ones that came in first. Consider including the priority level alongside the tags so that you can organize action items by importance.

3. Assign an owner or stakeholder

Make someone responsible for completing the action item. The task owner should also be accountable for any questions or issues that are related to it. Try to choose someone who's either already closely involved with the task at hand or has a stake in its successful outcome — or, if possible, both. This will make it more likely that the action item will be completed efficiently and effectively.

Once you’ve decided who’s the best fit, be sure to notify them in some way. This could be through chat or email, or by tagging them in a comment (a feature you can easily take advantage of in Mural.)

4. Set a due date

Assign a date for when you'd like the action item to be completed. As you do this, consider what other action items are dependent on this one getting done, as well as the current workload of the action item’s owner. Is it due by the start of the next meeting, or by ‌EOD (end of day) today? You don’t want to delay other items by giving this task too much time, but you also don’t want to overburden your team. 

If the action item has a more flexible due date, you could try to keep things moving by assigning it an earlier preferred completion date as well as a later final completion date. This way, the owner will have greater leeway in managing their own workload to meet their deadlines and avoid any possible bottlenecks.

Action item examples

Sometimes the best way to understand how to do something is to see it in person. So here are two ways you can write action items that demonstrate the qualities described above.

Example 1: Project management

Action Item: Conduct a risk assessment for the new product launch by the end of Q1.

Description: The project manager, in collaboration with the risk assessment team, is responsible for conducting a thorough risk assessment for the upcoming product launch. This assessment should identify potential risks, their impact on the project, and propose mitigation strategies. The action item must be completed and the risk assessment report submitted by the final day of Q1.

Status: High priority

Tags: risk assessment, project management, product launch

Example 2: Personal task management

Action Item: Prepare a comprehensive budget proposal for the marketing campaign by end of day on Friday.

Description: As the marketing coordinator, your task is to create a detailed budget proposal for the upcoming marketing campaign. This proposal should include itemized expenses for various marketing activities, such as advertising, promotions, and event costs. Submit the budget proposal to the department head by end of day on Friday (or end of week — EOW), making sure that it aligns with the overall marketing strategy and financial guidelines.

Status: Very high priority

Tags: budget, marketing campaign, advertising

Templates to help you get started

Creating action items that lead to results doesn’t have to start with a blank page. As specialists in organizations all over level up their productivity, we have a few action item templates to help you out:

  • To-do list: Try this simple task list to help give you a better, clearer overview of all the tasks you or your team need to complete. Move your list of action items from “to-do,” to “in progress,” and again to “done” as you get through each project task step.
  • Meeting notes: This template can help you document what goes on in your meetings, including agendas discussed, decisions made, and action items agreed on. Choose an assignee to take notes, or record the meeting notes with your team in real-time to crowdsource meeting action items.
  • Project kickoff: Use this template to get your next project started the right way. This includes defining its scope, creating a project plan, and setting up communication plans to make sure everyone knows what needs to be done.
  • Mutual action plan: This template will get you on the same page with multiple stakeholders so you'll all have a better understanding and can develop a strategic action plan together.
  • Project planning: Use this project planning template to align with key stakeholders and leadership on the goals and scope of a project before kicking it off with the whole team.

Action item: Help your team work together, better

Never underestimate the power of clear, well-written action items. They may describe small tasks and incremental next steps, or may seem far removed from a project’s overarching goal, but they're nevertheless essential to your success. 

If you don’t have consistent clarity and understanding across your team at every level, then ambiguity creeps in, bottlenecks form, and mistakes can crop up. But when you know how to write out an effective action item, you’ll be able to keep your team moving forward until the job gets done.

This is where Mural can help keep your team aligned.

What is Mural?

Mural is the visual work platform for all kinds of teams to do better work together — from anywhere. Get team members aligned faster with templates, prompts, and proven methods that guide them to quickly solve any problem. They can gather their ideas and feedback in one spot to see the big picture of any project and act decisively. 

That’s what happens when you change not just where, but how you work.

Get started with the free, forever plan with Mural to start collaborating with your team.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.