GTD Refresh: Projects

Months ago now, I announced I was going to “reboot” my GTD setup, returning as close to an “orthodox”, by-the-book GTD setup as I could manage. Out the gate, I started “off”, working not from tasks up but from the middle, David Allen’s 30,000 and 40,000-foot levels, by drawing up a mindmap of my areas of focus and my vision for myself in a few years time.

Taking a big step downward, over the 20,000-foot level to somewhere near the runway, I decided on a set of contexts. Since I work primarily from home, distinguishing a bunch of contexts wasn’t very meaningful. I settled, then, on @computer for all the work I do at home using a computer, @home for everything else I do at home, and @away for everything I need to leave home to do.

Which brings me to projects. Projects tie all our tasks together into some sort of meaningful action, providing objectives towards which those tasks are directed. While not every task is part of a project, for most of us the majority will tend to be – especially as we sort out our work to privilege the meaningful.

Allen defines a project quite simply: any objective that takes more than two steps to accomplish. Though I’m trying to keep as close to Allen’s system as possible, this is a little simplistic for me. Implicit in his concept are two other things, I think: intentionality and time. That is, to merit treating a collection of tasks as a project, the tasks need to be “held together” by a goal that has some meaning, and they need to be spread out over a significant piece of time.

I get the second characteristic, time, from the way Allen talks about project planning. For Allen, the ideal way to deal with most projects is to focus no further than the next action – with the idea that, once we perform that next action, the further action will be obvious and, if we can, we’ll just do it. It’s not until we reach a task that can’t be performed at the moment, whether that’s due to lack of time, resources, or will, that we put a new next action on our context lists.

With that in mind, I  finally got the time to start doing a sweep of my life. The occasion was not entirely orthodox: I left home for 5 weeks in another state, where I am currently living and working. To make that work, I needed to take a pretty big inventory of my life at the moment – what projects do I have to do over the next few weeks, and what kind of “personal” projects will I also have time to work on? Since this is more than a weekend away, packing meant winnowing my life down to the bare essentials, the things I was pretty sure I’d need and wouldn’t want to wait until I could find time to replace them if I left something out.

So call this a “mini-sweep”; when I get home, I’ll have to extend this kernel of GTD-ness to the rest of my life. But the process was the same: first, I listed all the projects that would be part of the work I’d be doing while away, as well as ongoing tasks here at Lifehack and at my university. Allen calls tat part “getting clear”, dumping everything out of my head and into a form that I can easily manage. Although I’ve taken to using Nozbe lately, I wasn’t sure whether and how soon I’d have reliable broadband access, so my tool of choice was, you guessed it, my trusty Moleskine.

With the stuff already on the schedule dumped, it was time to, as Allen says, “get creative”. With my areas of focus mindmap in front of me, I stepped branch-by-branch through my life, stopping at each node to determine whether there was anything I needed or wanted to do in that are over the next 5 weeks. The I repeated the process with my personal vision mindmap, again asking myself if there was anything I could do for each item to advance it over the next five weeks.

Since my time and resources out-of-state will be limited, some projects didn’t make it; these got written up in my notes and will be worked into “Someday/Maybe” items. The rest went onto the list, which then guided me in packing to make sure I had whatever I needed (office supplies, research materials, tech gear, etc.).

While I’m away, my project list serves as a daily trigger list to spur next actions, and as a set of goals reminding why I’m here, far away from home, in the first place. When I get home, I’ll revisit the process on a wider scale, and enter everything into my project management software, which I’ll talk about in the next post in this series (maybe…).

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