Working in Product Space

One of the givens in David Allen’s Getting Things Done is that you can’t “do” a project. Instead, Allen recommends you break projects down into immediate “next actions”, discrete doable chunks that can be “cranked through” with a minimum of effort.

While this approach works pretty well for a lot of tasks, it falls short for a lot of creative people for whom the “meat” of their work cannot easily be reduced to simple tasks.

Let me give you an example. I am putting together a paper to present at an academic conference in a couple of weeks. Some of the steps I need to take are clear: gather research materials, create an outline, build a bibliography, and so on. But at the core of this project there’s a big task that can’t be broken down to component tasks: actually writing the paper.

Of course, there are smaller tasks involved in writing, but it would be foolish to think of them as separate actions, and even more foolish to write them down in my lists. Tasks such as:

  • Have an idea
  • Construct an argument
  • Shape persuasive paragraphs
  • Develop my thesis
  • Support argument with evidence
  • And so on…

Knowing where to draw the line around a specific action is already a sticking point for a lot of new GTD’ers. (Is “Write next sentence” a next action?) Add in the complexity of working through a creative project, and it’s not hard to see why people have a hard time wrapping their heads around Allen’s insistence on tasks, not projects.

Project Flow is the Opposite of Next Actions

There’s a state that people sometimes achieve when they’re working on a project and everything else just goes away, where decisions are made and acted on without conscious thought or effort, where the work just seems to “flow” from your fingertips.

We could put this into GTD terms, seeing “flow” as simply the rapid succession of next actions, but this is somehow unsatisfying; the doing doesn’t feel like “one thing after another”. Instead, it feels like everything happening all at once, almost on its own.

There’s no sure-fire way to bring this state on, although we can certainly eliminate barriers — including the insistence that projects always be broken down into tasks and planned out. I like to see GTD’s list-making and project planning as ways of carving out space for real work — getting the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life off our mind so we can work in the non-GTD-able space of creative productivity where, in fact, we do projects.

Creating the Project Space

There are two kinds of mindsets that things are done in. GTD takes place largely in only one of them, what I’ll call the “task space”. Individual tasks are done, one at a time, until things get done.

The other one, the one I’m trying to describe here, is the “project space”, the space that creative people fear will be strangled by too much planning (which is why a lot of creative types avoid systems like GTD). I see the two “spaces” as intimately related, with task-oriented thinking essential to the creation of the project space. Once in the project space, though, task-oriented thinking fades away, or at least becomes secondary.

Here are some of the things you need to do to make room in your life for creative productivity in the project space:

  1. Schedule project time: This is about where GTD end — schedule blocks of time to work on big projects. Unfortunately, this is where most creative work starts.

    Scheduling is important for three reasons:

    1. Start-up time: It takes a while to clear the mind of unrelated stuff and get into the project in front of us. If we don’t schedule enough time for that “warm-up”, we’ll end up having to move on before we’re really started.
    2. Commitment produces action: We tend to be protective of the commitments we make to ourselves. Committing to a specific time to work on a particular project increases the likelihood that we’ll actually do that work during that time.
    3. Helps reduce procrastination: Trusting yourself to work on something “when it feels right” is just asking for trouble. There will always be something else that demands attention. Knowing that “now it is time to work” will help keep the “faffing” down at least to non-work time.
  2. Use a timer: Using a timer can help motivate you to work more quickly and efficiently (again, reducing procrastination because it would eat into your available time) but also helps you gauge your ability to estimate the time you need — and schedule more (or less) next time.
  3. Set a goal for project time: Always go into your scheduled project time with a single, well-defined goal. For example:
    1. I will write 1,500 words.
    2. I will complete this painting.
    3. I will finish the third section of my report.
    4. I will have a list of ten experts to solicit testimonials from.
    5. I will create three thumbnail sketches of ideas for the new site design.

    Again, having a clear immediate goal (rather than a clear set of tasks to achieve it) will help you stay on track and stay motivated. If you meet your goal and have time left, you can of course keep going; if your time runs up before your goal is reached, you’ll know to either change your goal or schedule more time next time.

  4. Eliminate distractions: You want to stay as focused as possible. My post on distraction-free writing has a number of ideas that would apply to any type of project. Make sure that the people likeliest to distract you know you’re not to be disturbed, turn off your phone’s ringer, close all non-essential applications — do whatever it takes to make sure your attention is limited to the project at hand.
  5. Have a project book/folder: Start a new folder or notebook for each project (I use hard-bound notebooks that are easily labeled, stand up neatly on my desk or a shelf, and can take the abuse of being thrown in my bag). Put into it every piece of information — passwords, website addresses, contacts, notes, references, drawings, magazine clippings, whatever it takes — you need to work. Don’t waste time and, more importantly, creative energy scavenging for information when you’re really focused.
  6. Make a mess: Or as much mess as you need. Have everything you need at hand — references, your project notebook, sketches, rough drafts, proposals, storyboards, again: whatever it takes — to stay targeted. Don’t spend your time making sure everything goes back to it’s proper place — clean up afterward (or keep the last 10 minutes of your scheduled time for decluttering).
  7. Promise yourself review: One thing that creative people get hung up on is getting things “just so” while they’re working. For creative time, let worries about perfection slide for a while, and focus on getting words on paper, ideas captured, paint on canvas, bits on the screen, and so on. Promise yourself that you will take the time to tidy up your work later, to revise and rethink whatever needs revising or rethinking. Make sure you keep this promise; the last thing you need is to stop trusting yourself to follow through!
  8. Don’t think about outcomes: While you’re welcome to visualize perfect outcomes all you want outside of the creative space, while you’re inside the creative space focus just on the work in front of you and your immediate goal.

The trick is to eliminate thinking about, worrying about, and looking towards all the unrelated stuff that GTD is actually quite good at dealing with. That means that while I’m writing my presentation, I need to stop thinking about the outcome of delivering my paper in front of a large audience. I’ve promised myself review, which means I’ll have a chance to tidy it up, smooth out any difficult-to-say bits, practice for time, and so on — later. In the project space, it’s only the project, not the outcome.

As I said, there’s no way to guarantee that flow state will come over you (though it’s not entirely necessary that it does; it’s just a nice bonus). What tricks and tips do other people have for working creatively and productively or for getting into “flow”?

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