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Back to Basics: Projects

Back to Basics: Projects

Back to Basics: Projects

    One of the things that is so hard to grasp about “next actions” or “tasks” is that they are single actions – buy something, call someone, go somewhere, look something up. In and of themselves, they have no end goal other than their own immediate completion.

    People don’t think like that way, for the most part, and it is the challenge of productivity experts like David Allen or Stephen Covey to lead their students to do so. The first thing a newly-arrived student of productivity wants to put on his or her list is “write novel” or “write grant proposal” or “acquire Acme Co.” or “sue Google” or “save marriage” – big, huge undertakings that can’t just be “done”. You need a plan, you need resources that you probably don’t have immediate access to, you need coordination with other people, and you need time.

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    These big undertakings are projects — “bundles” of actions devoted towards the achievement of some goal. In the lingo of GTD, a project is anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. I’m not a big fan of that definition, because it gives no sense of where to divide the stream of motion and time into discrete “actions”. At a small enough scale, everything requires more than one action to accomplish – to brush my teeth, I have to wet my toothbrush, apply toothpaste to the brush, open my mouth, brush my the back of my furthest-back molar, then brush the back of the one in front of it, and on and on through the bicuspids and incisors and the tops and fronts and gums and…

    But brushing my teeth is not a project. Nor is sharpening a pencil, or driving to work, or calling the power company with a question about my bill. Common sense tells me that.

    What, then, is the defining feature of a project? For me, a project is not about the number of actions but about the outcome of those actions. A project is a set of actions that are intended to bring about a transformation in my life. Brushing my teeth is a change (dirty to clean) but it’s not a life transformation.

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    Writing a book is a life transformation – you become an author. Saving your marriage is a life transformation. Building a company is a life transformation.

    But the transformation doesn’t have to be that drastic. A project can be part of the bigger transformation of your life – writing that grant proposal so you can launch that social program so that you can build up your organization’s community profile so that you can build up your own career – those are all little transformations directed at the big transformation of becoming a philanthropist (or maybe becoming the President of your company).

    Even those little transformations change us, though – they move us in meaningful ways towards life goals, and nobody except the shallowest of people reach life goals without changing along the way.

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    Heavy stuff for a project, yes? But I think that this internal view is important, because from it flows the motivation to continue plugging away at something over days, weeks, months, or years. Looked at this way, projects become less a way to organize our tasks — which the productivity gurus frown on, anyway — and more a way of structuring our lives.

    On a practical note

    Of course, projects are a way to organize our files as well. Unlike a todo list or contextual task lists, which are meant to be referred to constantly, project files only need to be referred to when you’re actively working on that project. Your task list cuts across your projects, telling you what to do and when, while project files tell you what you need to know to work on your project.

    Because of this, project files can “live” safely out of the way most of the time, being taken out only as needed. Active projects should be within reach, but not in your main working area. A desktop file box or desk filing drawer is ideal for active projects, unless your projects consist of things like “Invade Syria” or “Build skyscraper complex” — in which case, you’re going to need at least a file cabinet just for active files.

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    Into your active file goes everything meaningful associated with that project. Evaluate everything before filing it — is the information on it something you’re likely to need to complete the project. If not, leave it out of your project file.

    One thing you probably are going to want to make sure goes into your project file is a plan. You can buy planning paper at your local office supply store, download templates from DIY Planner, or make your own — the important thing is that you have a few essential pieces of information:

    • Objective: What do you hope to gain by completing this project?
    • Requirements: What resources do you need — materials, but also personal contacts and skills you might need to develop — in order to complete the project?
    • Milestones: What “chunks” of the project do you have to do, and by when do you want or need to do them?
    • Actions: What are the actual tasks you need to do in order to finish the project?

    Including a list of actions or tasks in your project plan is, I should say, very un-GTD — the whole point of which is to focus your attention on the very next thing you have to do to move the project forward. If you’ve developed that “mind like water” flow state, more power to you; I, and most other people, like a little more to go on than that.

    When a project is finished, the folder moves from your readily available active files to long-term storage — a filing cabinet or file storage boxes. Not everything in the file needs to be kept, though — make sure you weed out everything but the essentials. In many cases, you won’t have anything in your file worth keeping, and that’s fine — empty the folder, slap on a new label, and use it for your next project.

    Projects are important because they are the basic building blocks of a meaningful life. Actions can advance our projects, but they can also move us away from our goals. Having a set of well-defined projects, then, can help make sure our actions and goals stay in line.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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