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GTD Refresh, Part 3: Projects

GTD Refresh, Part 3: Projects

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    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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