If you live in a civilized nation (especially the United States), chances are you’ve had occasion to make yourself up a batch of Macaroni and Cheese. It’s something of a staple of young adult life, especially in college dorms where cash is scarce and any meal that costs less than $2 to make is just fine. And even though it’s a multi-step process, most people can hammer out a plate of this stuff with little effort after just a couple of attempts.
Personally, I found the making of this pauper’s delicassie to be a rather excellent example of how to effectively manage a “project” (in the GTD sense, a set of two or more physical actions which produce a well-defined outcome). Here are a few tips to illustrate what I mean more clearly:
- Know your outcome – A bit overly simplistic when talking about Mac n’ Cheese, but something that’s often overlooked when planning a project. What is your goal, exactly? Or, to use the parlance of The David, what would the successful completion of this project look like? In this case, obviously, it’d be a steaming plate of cheap pasta with some cheese-like dressing all over it. The important thing is to avoid ambiguity when defining your project outcomes (like, for instance, “Learn to Dance”).
- Be Prepared – You wouldn’t set out to make Mac n’ Cheese without the proper ingredients and utensils, would you? Selecting and gathering the appropriate tools and information needed to complete a project should be part of the project itself. If I decide to make Mac n’ Cheese, the first thing I’d do (beside actually getting the box from the grocery store) would be to make sure I have the milk and butter. Next, the sauce pot and strainer, and so forth. Again, sounds extremely obvious, but I know I’ve personally set out to complete projects for which I was absolutely ill-equipped! Like going and buying an orange tree to plant in my backyard without having ever verified that I had a functional shovel waiting for me (don’t laugh). When you choose that Next Action, make sure you’re actually ready to perform it when the time comes!
- Spice it Up and Be Flexible – If you’ve committed yourself to learning how to program in Ruby, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to follow your Ruby text’s tutorial instructions exactly. If you come to a point where you’re thinking “I wonder if I can do [something]“, give it a shot! Same thing with our old Mac n’ Cheese. In addition to the normal “box” preparation, there are countless ways to trick out your meal (fresh ground pepper and a whole bunch of parmesan cheese – and thank me later). Bottom line, be ready for your project to take slight changes in direction based on intermediate outcomes or changes in priority. And you never know what enlightening little tidbits you’ll pick up if you manage your projects creatively!
- Monitoring your Progress – Very few projects (especially Mac n’ Cheese) are “set it and forget it” operations. You need to keep an eye on the state of affairs to make sure no funny business is going down while your back is turned. How many overly-confident Macaroni chefs out there have overcooked the noodles because they were off reading RSS feeds? Or let the pot boil over because they didn’t adjust the post-boil temperature correctly? No, the conscientious cook knows that, after the first few minutes, you need to pull a noodle out every 30 seconds or so to see if they’re ready to come off of the heat. In a very bohemian sort of way, this would be like doing your weekly review – except you’re tracking the progress every few minutes instead of once per week.
Again, a somewhat silly example, but once you’ve allowed the GTD mindset to pervade all of your practices and procedures, it really is quite amazing how these principles will shine through, even from the most unlikely of situations!
Brett Kelly is a computer programmer, coffee roaster and productivity geek from Southern California. In addition to driving his wife crazy, he also provides relevant, practical (and often humorous) tips on GTD, Technology and Productivity at The Cranking Widgets Blog (feed).