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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 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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