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Working in Project Space

Working in Project Space
Working in Product Space

    One of the givens in David Allen’s Getting Things Done is that you can’t “do” a project. Instead, Allen recommends you break projects down into immediate “next actions”, discrete doable chunks that can be “cranked through” with a minimum of effort.

    While this approach works pretty well for a lot of tasks, it falls short for a lot of creative people for whom the “meat” of their work cannot easily be reduced to simple tasks.

    Let me give you an example. I am putting together a paper to present at an academic conference in a couple of weeks. Some of the steps I need to take are clear: gather research materials, create an outline, build a bibliography, and so on. But at the core of this project there’s a big task that can’t be broken down to component tasks: actually writing the paper.

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    Of course, there are smaller tasks involved in writing, but it would be foolish to think of them as separate actions, and even more foolish to write them down in my lists. Tasks such as:

    • Have an idea
    • Construct an argument
    • Shape persuasive paragraphs
    • Develop my thesis
    • Support argument with evidence
    • And so on…

    Knowing where to draw the line around a specific action is already a sticking point for a lot of new GTD’ers. (Is “Write next sentence” a next action?) Add in the complexity of working through a creative project, and it’s not hard to see why people have a hard time wrapping their heads around Allen’s insistence on tasks, not projects.

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    Project Flow is the Opposite of Next Actions

    There’s a state that people sometimes achieve when they’re working on a project and everything else just goes away, where decisions are made and acted on without conscious thought or effort, where the work just seems to “flow” from your fingertips.

    We could put this into GTD terms, seeing “flow” as simply the rapid succession of next actions, but this is somehow unsatisfying; the doing doesn’t feel like “one thing after another”. Instead, it feels like everything happening all at once, almost on its own.

    There’s no sure-fire way to bring this state on, although we can certainly eliminate barriers — including the insistence that projects always be broken down into tasks and planned out. I like to see GTD’s list-making and project planning as ways of carving out space for real work — getting the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life off our mind so we can work in the non-GTD-able space of creative productivity where, in fact, we do projects.

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    Creating the Project Space

    There are two kinds of mindsets that things are done in. GTD takes place largely in only one of them, what I’ll call the “task space”. Individual tasks are done, one at a time, until things get done.

    The other one, the one I’m trying to describe here, is the “project space”, the space that creative people fear will be strangled by too much planning (which is why a lot of creative types avoid systems like GTD). I see the two “spaces” as intimately related, with task-oriented thinking essential to the creation of the project space. Once in the project space, though, task-oriented thinking fades away, or at least becomes secondary.

    Here are some of the things you need to do to make room in your life for creative productivity in the project space:

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    1. Schedule project time: This is about where GTD end — schedule blocks of time to work on big projects. Unfortunately, this is where most creative work starts.

      Scheduling is important for three reasons:

      1. Start-up time: It takes a while to clear the mind of unrelated stuff and get into the project in front of us. If we don’t schedule enough time for that “warm-up”, we’ll end up having to move on before we’re really started.
      2. Commitment produces action: We tend to be protective of the commitments we make to ourselves. Committing to a specific time to work on a particular project increases the likelihood that we’ll actually do that work during that time.
      3. Helps reduce procrastination: Trusting yourself to work on something “when it feels right” is just asking for trouble. There will always be something else that demands attention. Knowing that “now it is time to work” will help keep the “faffing” down at least to non-work time.
    2. Use a timer: Using a timer can help motivate you to work more quickly and efficiently (again, reducing procrastination because it would eat into your available time) but also helps you gauge your ability to estimate the time you need — and schedule more (or less) next time.
    3. Set a goal for project time: Always go into your scheduled project time with a single, well-defined goal. For example:
      1. I will write 1,500 words.
      2. I will complete this painting.
      3. I will finish the third section of my report.
      4. I will have a list of ten experts to solicit testimonials from.
      5. I will create three thumbnail sketches of ideas for the new site design.

      Again, having a clear immediate goal (rather than a clear set of tasks to achieve it) will help you stay on track and stay motivated. If you meet your goal and have time left, you can of course keep going; if your time runs up before your goal is reached, you’ll know to either change your goal or schedule more time next time.

    4. Eliminate distractions: You want to stay as focused as possible. My post on distraction-free writing has a number of ideas that would apply to any type of project. Make sure that the people likeliest to distract you know you’re not to be disturbed, turn off your phone’s ringer, close all non-essential applications — do whatever it takes to make sure your attention is limited to the project at hand.
    5. Have a project book/folder: Start a new folder or notebook for each project (I use hard-bound notebooks that are easily labeled, stand up neatly on my desk or a shelf, and can take the abuse of being thrown in my bag). Put into it every piece of information — passwords, website addresses, contacts, notes, references, drawings, magazine clippings, whatever it takes — you need to work. Don’t waste time and, more importantly, creative energy scavenging for information when you’re really focused.
    6. Make a mess: Or as much mess as you need. Have everything you need at hand — references, your project notebook, sketches, rough drafts, proposals, storyboards, again: whatever it takes — to stay targeted. Don’t spend your time making sure everything goes back to it’s proper place — clean up afterward (or keep the last 10 minutes of your scheduled time for decluttering).
    7. Promise yourself review: One thing that creative people get hung up on is getting things “just so” while they’re working. For creative time, let worries about perfection slide for a while, and focus on getting words on paper, ideas captured, paint on canvas, bits on the screen, and so on. Promise yourself that you will take the time to tidy up your work later, to revise and rethink whatever needs revising or rethinking. Make sure you keep this promise; the last thing you need is to stop trusting yourself to follow through!
    8. Don’t think about outcomes: While you’re welcome to visualize perfect outcomes all you want outside of the creative space, while you’re inside the creative space focus just on the work in front of you and your immediate goal.

    The trick is to eliminate thinking about, worrying about, and looking towards all the unrelated stuff that GTD is actually quite good at dealing with. That means that while I’m writing my presentation, I need to stop thinking about the outcome of delivering my paper in front of a large audience. I’ve promised myself review, which means I’ll have a chance to tidy it up, smooth out any difficult-to-say bits, practice for time, and so on — later. In the project space, it’s only the project, not the outcome.

    As I said, there’s no way to guarantee that flow state will come over you (though it’s not entirely necessary that it does; it’s just a nice bonus). What tricks and tips do other people have for working creatively and productively or for getting into “flow”?

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    Last Updated on November 12, 2020

    5 Reasons Why Being a Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect

    5 Reasons Why Being a Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect

    As a perfectionist, do you spend a lot of time “perfecting” your work so that everything comes out the way you want it to?

    I believe many of us are perfectionists in our own right. We set high bars for ourselves and put our best foot forward to achieve them. We dedicate copious amounts of attention and time to our work to maintain our high personal standards. Our passion for excellence drives us to run the extra mile, never stopping, never relenting.

    Dedication towards perfection undoubtedly helps us to achieve great results. Yet, there is a hidden flip side to being perfectionists that we may not be aware of. Sure, being a perfectionist and having a keen eye for details help us improve and reach our goals. 

    However, as ironic as it might sound, a high level of perfectionism prevents us from being our best as we begin to set unrealistic standards and let the fear of failure hold us back.

    Below, we’ll go over some of the reasons why being a perfectionist may not be so perfect and how it can inhibit you from being the best version of yourself.

    Why Perfectionism Isn’t So Perfect?

    1. Less Efficiency

    As a perfectionist, even when you are done with a task, you linger to find new things to improve on. This lingering process starts off as 10 minutes, then extends to 30 minutes, then to an hour, and more. We spend way more time on a task than is actually required.

    In order to be truly efficient, we need to strike a balance between the best we could possibly do and the level of “good” a specific project requires. No one will expect perfection from you because it will ultimately be impossible to attain. Do the best you can in a reasonable time frame, and allow yourself to put it into the world.

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    2. Less Effectiveness

    We do little things because they seem like a “good addition” without consciously thinking about whether they’re really necessary. Sometimes, not only do the additions add no value, but they might even ruin things.

    For example, over-cluttering a presentation with unneeded details can make it confusing for listeners. Jam-packing a blog layout with too many add-ons can make it less user friendly. Sometimes, consistency is key, and if you continuously change things, this will become much more difficult.

    3. More Procrastination

    Our desire to “perfect” everything makes us overcomplicate a project. What’s actually a simple task may get blown out of proportion to the extent that it becomes subconsciously intimidating. This makes us procrastinate on it, waiting for the ever “perfect” moment before we get to it. This “perfect” moment never strikes until it is too late.

    Instead of overthinking it, set small objectives if you have a big project ahead of you. This will help you tackle it step-by-step and complete it before the deadline.

    If you need help tackling procrastination, check out this article.

    4. Missing the Bigger Picture

    As a perfectionist, you get so hung up on details that you forget about the bigger picture and the end vision. It’s not uncommon to see better jobs done in pruning the trees than growing the forest.

    Take a step back and remind yourself of your end goal. Try setting a timeline to help yourself stick to the work that needs to be done without ruminating on things that could be improved.

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    5. Stressing Over Unfounded Problems

    We anticipate problems before they crop up, and come up with solutions to address these problems. It becomes an obsession to pre-empt problems. As it turns out, most of these problems either never surface or don’t matter that much.

    When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem

    The problem isn’t perfectionism specifically. Perfectionism helps us to continuously strive for excellence and become better, so it can really be a good thing.The problem is when setting high standards turns into an obsession, so much so that the perfectionist becomes neurotic over gaining “perfection” and refuses to accept anything less than perfect. In the process, s/he misses the whole point altogether and does damage to their mental health. Such perfectionists can be known as “maladaptive perfectionists.”[1] Maladaptive perfectionists spend so much time setting high expectations and striving for perfection that they increase levels of depression and anxiety. 

    Diagram showing how a healthy perfectionist and a maladaptive perfectionist respond to failure.

      The answer isn’t to stop being a perfectionist or high achiever. It’s to be conscious of our perfectionist tendencies and manage them accordingly. We want to be healthy perfectionists who are truly achieving personal excellence, not maladaptive perfectionists who are sabotaging our own personal growth efforts[2].

      How to Be a Healthy Perfectionist

      1. Draw a Line

      We have the 80/20 rule, where 80% of output can be achieved in 20% of time spent. We can spend all our time getting the 100% in, or we can draw the line where we get majority of the output, and start on a new project.

      Obsessing over details is draining and tedious, and it doesn’t help us accomplish much. I used to review a blog post 3-4 times before I published. All the reviewing only amounted to subtle changes in phrasing and the occasional typos. It was extremely ineffective, so now I scan it once or twice and publish it.

      2. Be Conscious of Trade-offs

      When we spend time and energy on something, we deny ourselves the opportunity to spend the same time and energy on something else. There are tons of things we can do, and we need to be aware of the trade-offs involved, so we can better draw a line.

      For example, if some unimportant blog admin work takes an hour, that’s an hour I could spend on content creation or blog promotion. Being conscious of this helps me make a better choice on how to spend my time.

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      3. Get a View of the Big Picture

      What is the end objective? What is the desired output? Is what you are doing leading you to the overall vision?

      As a perfectionist, to make sure my attention is set on the end point, I have a monthly and weekly goal sheet my blog that keeps me on track. Every day, I refer to it to make sure what I’m doing contributes to the weekly goals, and ultimately the monthly goals to keep me on track.

      4. Focus on Big Rocks

      Big rocks are the important, high impact activities. Ask yourself if what you are doing makes any real impact. If not, stop working on it.

      If it’s a small yes, deprioritize, delegate it to someone else, or get it done quickly. Seek out high impact tasks and spend time on them instead. Knowing the big picture helps you know the big rocks that contribute to the end goal.

      5. Set a Time Limit

      Parkinson’s Law

      tells us work will take however long we want it to take. If you give yourself 4 hours, you will finish it in 4 hours. If you give yourself 3 hours, you will finish within 3 hours. If you don’t give yourself any time limit, you will take forever to do it.

      Set the time limit and finish the task by then. There can be a million things you can do to improve it, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

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      6. Be Okay With Mistakes

      Part of the reason why a perfectionist obsesses over their work is because they want it to be mistake-free. However, trying to achieve 100% perfection is highly ineffective. If we’re busy perfecting this thing, we can’t get to other important things.

      Realize that making mistakes is a trade off we have to embrace. The more we open ourselves to making mistakes, the faster we can get down to learning from them, and the quicker we can grow.

      7. Realize Concerns Usually Amount to Nothing

      It’s good to plan and prepare, but there comes a time when we should let things roll and deal with problems as they crop up. Being overly preemptive makes us live in an imaginary future versus in the present.

      This doesn’t mean you don’t care. What it means that most of the things that do crop up can always be controlled on the spot, without worrying about them beforehand.

      8. Take Breaks

      If your productivity is waning, take a break. Resting and coming back to the same thing later on gives you a renewed perspective and fresh focus.

      The Bottom Line

      Perfectionism doesn’t have to be the enemy. If you’re a perfectionist, you can use it to help you be better at what you love to do. However, there’s a time and a place for it, and it’s important to learn strategies to start overcoming perfectionism when it becomes an obsession.

      Instead of doing work perfectly, do your best and move on. This will help you go farther, faster.

      More on Being Your Best

      Featured photo credit: Elsa T. via unsplash.com

      Reference

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