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Back to Basics: Projects

Back to Basics: Projects

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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