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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 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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