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Working in Project Space

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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.

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    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”?

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

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    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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