Back to Basics: Projects

One of the things that is so hard to grasp about “next actions” or “tasks” is that they are single actions – buy something, call someone, go somewhere, look something up. In and of themselves, they have no end goal other than their own immediate completion.

People don’t think like that way, for the most part, and it is the challenge of productivity experts like David Allen or Stephen Covey to lead their students to do so. The first thing a newly-arrived student of productivity wants to put on his or her list is “write novel” or “write grant proposal” or “acquire Acme Co.” or “sue Google” or “save marriage” – big, huge undertakings that can’t just be “done”. You need a plan, you need resources that you probably don’t have immediate access to, you need coordination with other people, and you need time.

These big undertakings are projects — “bundles” of actions devoted towards the achievement of some goal. In the lingo of GTD, a project is anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. I’m not a big fan of that definition, because it gives no sense of where to divide the stream of motion and time into discrete “actions”. At a small enough scale, everything requires more than one action to accomplish – to brush my teeth, I have to wet my toothbrush, apply toothpaste to the brush, open my mouth, brush my the back of my furthest-back molar, then brush the back of the one in front of it, and on and on through the bicuspids and incisors and the tops and fronts and gums and…

But brushing my teeth is not a project. Nor is sharpening a pencil, or driving to work, or calling the power company with a question about my bill. Common sense tells me that.

What, then, is the defining feature of a project? For me, a project is not about the number of actions but about the outcome of those actions. A project is a set of actions that are intended to bring about a transformation in my life. Brushing my teeth is a change (dirty to clean) but it’s not a life transformation.

Writing a book is a life transformation – you become an author. Saving your marriage is a life transformation. Building a company is a life transformation.

But the transformation doesn’t have to be that drastic. A project can be part of the bigger transformation of your life – writing that grant proposal so you can launch that social program so that you can build up your organization’s community profile so that you can build up your own career – those are all little transformations directed at the big transformation of becoming a philanthropist (or maybe becoming the President of your company).

Even those little transformations change us, though – they move us in meaningful ways towards life goals, and nobody except the shallowest of people reach life goals without changing along the way.

Heavy stuff for a project, yes? But I think that this internal view is important, because from it flows the motivation to continue plugging away at something over days, weeks, months, or years. Looked at this way, projects become less a way to organize our tasks — which the productivity gurus frown on, anyway — and more a way of structuring our lives.

On a practical note

Of course, projects are a way to organize our files as well. Unlike a todo list or contextual task lists, which are meant to be referred to constantly, project files only need to be referred to when you’re actively working on that project. Your task list cuts across your projects, telling you what to do and when, while project files tell you what you need to know to work on your project.

Because of this, project files can “live” safely out of the way most of the time, being taken out only as needed. Active projects should be within reach, but not in your main working area. A desktop file box or desk filing drawer is ideal for active projects, unless your projects consist of things like “Invade Syria” or “Build skyscraper complex” — in which case, you’re going to need at least a file cabinet just for active files.

Into your active file goes everything meaningful associated with that project. Evaluate everything before filing it — is the information on it something you’re likely to need to complete the project. If not, leave it out of your project file.

One thing you probably are going to want to make sure goes into your project file is a plan. You can buy planning paper at your local office supply store, download templates from DIY Planner, or make your own — the important thing is that you have a few essential pieces of information:

  • Objective: What do you hope to gain by completing this project?
  • Requirements: What resources do you need — materials, but also personal contacts and skills you might need to develop — in order to complete the project?
  • Milestones: What “chunks” of the project do you have to do, and by when do you want or need to do them?
  • Actions: What are the actual tasks you need to do in order to finish the project?

Including a list of actions or tasks in your project plan is, I should say, very un-GTD — the whole point of which is to focus your attention on the very next thing you have to do to move the project forward. If you’ve developed that “mind like water” flow state, more power to you; I, and most other people, like a little more to go on than that.

When a project is finished, the folder moves from your readily available active files to long-term storage — a filing cabinet or file storage boxes. Not everything in the file needs to be kept, though — make sure you weed out everything but the essentials. In many cases, you won’t have anything in your file worth keeping, and that’s fine — empty the folder, slap on a new label, and use it for your next project.

Projects are important because they are the basic building blocks of a meaningful life. Actions can advance our projects, but they can also move us away from our goals. Having a set of well-defined projects, then, can help make sure our actions and goals stay in line.

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