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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 September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

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    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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