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Productivity Made Simple: How to Keep Your Projects from Killing You

Productivity Made Simple: How to Keep Your Projects from Killing You

    Some projects can be a real pain in the you know what. Not all of them, of course. But there are some that just keep us awake at night. There can be many reasons of such a situation. Sometimes the tasks that need to be done are simply difficult to perform. Other times it’s the amount of time required that frightens us.

    But sometimes the most frightening thing of them all is that we don’t know what’s going on in a project, and can’t seem to find a way to plan everything out and get a clear picture of what needs to be done.

    In the previous parts of the series we were discussing what to do once everything is perfectly laid out. Once we’re clear about the exact tasks that need to be done, and once we even know when we want to take care of them. But there’s one part missing, and that’s of course the part of planning your projects and selecting your priorities.

    Most projects we decide to execute should be defined and planned according to five main steps. These are:

    1. Setting goals and rules.
    2. Defining your vision for the end result.
    3. Brainstorming.
    4. Organizing.
    5. Selecting next tasks.

    Of course, not every project requires such an elaborate sequence of steps. Some projects are really simple, and defining things like goals or visions would be a complete overkill.

    If you just want to get your car fixed then you don’t need any smart rules to be able to get it done … you probably know what needs to be done without any additional help.

    However, GTD was designed to be able to handle any kind of project, no matter how big or small.

    The steps mentioned above are doing just that. They can be applied to anything. And after you go through all of them you can be sure that your project will be clear and understandable. This, in the end, will improve your chance of executing the project successfully.

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    To explain this whole thing we’ll have to leave our simple examples and take on something a bit more complicated… So imagine that you’re buying a new apartment for you and your family.

    1. Setting goals and rules.

    This is the part where you answer the questions of why and what for.

    For our example the question is: Why do you want a new apartment?

    Some possible answers: you want to live closer to your workplace, you want your kids to live closer to school, you want to have more space for yourself and your family, you want to live in the city center because all the interesting things are happening there, you want a more modern environment, and so on.

    The reasons behind every project are of course different. Furthermore, personal projects are entirely different in nature from business-centered projects. But they still have a lot in common. If, for example, instead of buying a new apartment you’re starting a business then the question remains – why do you want to start a business?

    So no matter what you’re thinking of doing you always need to start with your goals and rules. Goals we have covered (it’s the why). Rules are even easier to grasp.

    Going back to our example; some rules: what is your budget? where do you want to live (what neighborhood)? do you want to get one room for everybody? do you need a garage? and so on.

    Once you have all these things lined up you can go to the next step.

    2. Defining your vision for the end result.

    This is where you’re answering the question of what.

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    Create a complete vision of what you want to get as the end result of the project. The more details the better.

    Your vision reflects the goals and rules you’ve set in the previous step. The goals are the main guidelines on what should and shouldn’t be done inside a given project. So now, you’re using these goals to come up with your vision for the final result of the project.

    A possible vision for our project:

    I want a 4 bedroom apartment in the city center. At least X square meters of space. Large kitchen. It must have a garage. The price should be less than X. Modern furniture.

    This sounds like a good vision. Of course there’s a lot more things we could include here, but for now it’ll do.

    The next step is to take this vision and do some brainstorming around it.

    3. Brainstorming.

    Brainstorming is probably the most creative activity for any project. You’ve been doing it many times, I’m sure. However, brainstorming has very little point when done prior to executing the two previous steps.

    A brainstorming session always has to be created around a strongly defined main idea, so we have some guidance and know where we’re going with it. And this is exactly what defining goals and vision gives us.

    The brainstorming session itself is a very simple thing to do. Essentially, it’s the answer to the question of how.

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    Some people like to set some restrictions, for example, time constraints. This is good if we’re working on a given project at work, and more than one person is doing the brainstorming. But if it’s just you then you can spend as much time as you want. Of course, within reason.

    Start by taking your goals and visions and placing them in a visible place. Then simply let your creative mind loose and write down every idea that comes to mind about the things you might do in the project. And I mean EVERY.

    This is not the time to assess the ideas and erase the bad ones. Not now. This is the time to write everything down, no matter how stupid it sounds at first.

    Our example: call the real estate agency, go to IKEA, hire a contractor, ask around and find out if it’s a good neighborhood or not, choose paint colors, get a full-size Elvis sculpture, get an internet connection, get a bank loan, hire a van, check all the installations (electricity, etc.), and so on. The list for such an example can go on and on, so we’ll just stop here.

    Once you reach a point when you can’t think of anything else it’s probably a good moment to stop brainstorming and go to the next step.

    4. Organizing.

    Yes, this is where you get to select the good ideas and remove the bad ones. Brainstorming should give you a lot of both.

    Why brainstorming and organizing at the same time is not the best choice? Because these activities are opposing to one another. On one hand you have to be creative and invent stuff, but on the other you have to get back to the ground and be reasonable while assessing it. Doing this at the same time simply doesn’t work. That’s why organizing is a separate step.

    The process is simple. Just look at your brainstorming list and remove everything that doesn’t have much to do with your goals and visions, or is simply stupid (like the Elvis sculpture … or is it?).

    Once you spend some time on looking through all those things your brain will automatically start to arrange things according to their priorities and what needs to be done first. You should use this state of mind and quickly shift to the final step.

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    5. Selecting next tasks.

    This is where our old friend – the Next Tasks List – comes back into play.

    At this point selecting the next task for your project should be easy. After the phase of organizing all ideas you should have a nice set of actionable things that are in tune with your goals and visions. Things that are absolutely crucial for implementing the project. Now, simply select your next task for the project.

    Everything you have at this point goes into your Projects List. And the next possible task goes to your Next Tasks List. From that point on you can go back to your usual work (GTD style). This is where everything ties together.

    What’s next?

    Basically, that’s it. All you have to do now is use the system to help you get more organized and execute your projects more effectively. Both in personal life and in business.

    Just to recap, and point you towards the specific parts in this series.

    I admit, there’s a lot to do if you want to have GTD fully implemented in your daily life. But would you rather be running around like a chicken with its head cut off because you don’t have a clue what to do next? Probably not.

    One final encouragement for you: if you think you don’t have time for playing around with such methodologies then suspend your disbelief for a moment and have a little trust because after you implement GTD you will find time for everything.

    Feel free to share how GTD is working for you. I’m curious to know. I, for example, have been using it since 2009 and it truly works like a charm.

    (Photo credit: Productivity or Motivation via Shutterstock)

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    Karol Krol

    Blogger, published author, and founder of a site that's all about delivering online business advice

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

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

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

    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.”[1]

    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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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    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 6 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.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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