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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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