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The Macaroni and Cheese Project

The Macaroni and Cheese Project
Macaroni and Cheese

If you live in a civilized nation (especially the United States), chances are you’ve had occasion to make yourself up a batch of Macaroni and Cheese. It’s something of a staple of young adult life, especially in college dorms where cash is scarce and any meal that costs less than $2 to make is just fine. And even though it’s a multi-step process, most people can hammer out a plate of this stuff with little effort after just a couple of attempts.

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Personally, I found the making of this pauper’s delicassie to be a rather excellent example of how to effectively manage a “project” (in the GTD sense, a set of two or more physical actions which produce a well-defined outcome). Here are a few tips to illustrate what I mean more clearly:

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  • Know your outcome – A bit overly simplistic when talking about Mac n’ Cheese, but something that’s often overlooked when planning a project. What is your goal, exactly? Or, to use the parlance of The David, what would the successful completion of this project look like? In this case, obviously, it’d be a steaming plate of cheap pasta with some cheese-like dressing all over it. The important thing is to avoid ambiguity when defining your project outcomes (like, for instance, “Learn to Dance”).
  • Be Prepared – You wouldn’t set out to make Mac n’ Cheese without the proper ingredients and utensils, would you? Selecting and gathering the appropriate tools and information needed to complete a project should be part of the project itself. If I decide to make Mac n’ Cheese, the first thing I’d do (beside actually getting the box from the grocery store) would be to make sure I have the milk and butter. Next, the sauce pot and strainer, and so forth. Again, sounds extremely obvious, but I know I’ve personally set out to complete projects for which I was absolutely ill-equipped! Like going and buying an orange tree to plant in my backyard without having ever verified that I had a functional shovel waiting for me (don’t laugh). When you choose that Next Action, make sure you’re actually ready to perform it when the time comes!
  • Spice it Up and Be Flexible – If you’ve committed yourself to learning how to program in Ruby, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to follow your Ruby text’s tutorial instructions exactly. If you come to a point where you’re thinking “I wonder if I can do [something]”, give it a shot! Same thing with our old Mac n’ Cheese. In addition to the normal “box” preparation, there are countless ways to trick out your meal (fresh ground pepper and a whole bunch of parmesan cheese – and thank me later). Bottom line, be ready for your project to take slight changes in direction based on intermediate outcomes or changes in priority. And you never know what enlightening little tidbits you’ll pick up if you manage your projects creatively!
  • Monitoring your Progress – Very few projects (especially Mac n’ Cheese) are “set it and forget it” operations. You need to keep an eye on the state of affairs to make sure no funny business is going down while your back is turned. How many overly-confident Macaroni chefs out there have overcooked the noodles because they were off reading RSS feeds? Or let the pot boil over because they didn’t adjust the post-boil temperature correctly? No, the conscientious cook knows that, after the first few minutes, you need to pull a noodle out every 30 seconds or so to see if they’re ready to come off of the heat. In a very bohemian sort of way, this would be like doing your weekly review – except you’re tracking the progress every few minutes instead of once per week.

Again, a somewhat silly example, but once you’ve allowed the GTD mindset to pervade all of your practices and procedures, it really is quite amazing how these principles will shine through, even from the most unlikely of situations!

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Brett Kelly is a computer programmer, coffee roaster and productivity geek from Southern California. In addition to driving his wife crazy, he also provides relevant, practical (and often humorous) tips on GTD, Technology and Productivity at The Cranking Widgets Blog (feed).

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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