Getting things done 101: Keep that project moving

One key part of getting things done is a master list with an entry for each project under way.

John Cross/Mankato Press Press/AP/File
Nick Greig takes a lunch break June 7 from his landscaping job near the Veterans Bridge in Mankato, Minn. One key to any project is to get the next steps down on paper.

This is the tenth entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

One of the biggest difficulties in modern life is dealing with projects. We deal with so many projects in our life, from personal ones like getting an exercise routine in place or planning your wife’s surprise fortieth birthday party to professional ones like starting a blog or writing a killer piece of software.

Our biggest challenge is that with so many projects going on and filling our mindspace, we often feel like we don’t have time to concentrate on any one project. I know that at various points in my life, I fell into this exact trap. I’d be sitting at work engaging in a project when I’d suddenly be reminded of my plans to teach my son how to read, so I’d wind up wandering mentally for a bit thinking about that project and when I got back to the work at hand, I’d completely lost my flow.

Obviously, the best way to handle a project you’re working on is just like everything else we’ve talked about in this series. You’ve got to have the pieces of it out of your head, a clear plan for the project in place, and know what the next action step you need to take is so that you can include it on your list of things to do.

That’s basically the idea behind this chapter. How do you take an idea for a big project and develop it in such a way that it fits in with all of the other projects you’re doing, doesn’t mentally distract you when you’re working on something else, and makes the next step that you need to take with the project very self-evident?

Fitting the Project In
For me, the single most effective way to fit a new project into my life is to keep it accessible and make it consistent with the other projects I have going on.

For every project I’m involved with, a few central things are always true. I keep a master list of ongoing projects and each project has an entry on that list. I have a folder for each project that keeps my ideas for it, any information I have for it, and an outline of what needs to be done to bring the project to completion. I review that project each week until it’s completed or it’s abandoned for some reason (the project isn’t working or my goals have changed).

The project master list is really, really important. I use this each week to make sure that I’m actually making progress on each of my projects. I go through the entire list and I usually pull out the folder for each one just to keep things in mind.

Allen touches on this on page 222:

Just as your “Next Actions” lists need to be up-to-date, so, too, does your “Projects” list. That done, give yourself a block of time, ideally between one and three hours, to handle as much of the “vertical” thinking about each project as you can.

At the very least, right now or as soon as possible, take those few of your projects that you have the most attention on or interest in right now and do some thinking and collecting and organizing on them, using whatever tools seem most appropriate.

Focus on each one, one at a time, top to bottom. As you do, ask yourself, “What about this do I want to know, capture, or remember?”

In other words, you should have a list of all of your projects and you should regularly spend some time going through that list, focusing on each project and adding to it or just making sure you’re moving forward on it.

Bringing the Project Together
Whenever I first sit down to think about a project, I set aside at least an hour to get it correct right off the bat.

I get out a folder. I get out a piece of paper (you can also do this on a computer, but paper works better for me). And I simply start throwing down my ideas for the project.

Allen spells the importance of writing tools out on page 216:

Keep good writing tools around all the time so you never have any unconscious resistance to thinking due to not having anything to capture it with.

This is yet another reason why I always keep a pocket notebook and a pen on me at all times. Not only does it help me write down things I need to do (to get them out of my mind), but it’s also an essential aid for brainstorming projects when I’m just sitting there waiting for something.

Here are some of the big pieces for turning a vague idea of a project into something workable.

Have an end goal I usually start with the end goal – what do I want to accomplish with this project? I try to state it in such a way that success for the project is very clear – either this statement is true or it isn’t and the truth of the statement can be very easily identified by looking at data or a final product. This takes some revision.

Make it specific So, for example, a goal like I want to get in better shape doesn’t fly because it’s really impossible to measure. Instead, try something like I want to lose 25 pounds or I want to run a 5K in 30 minutes.

Figure out big steps Let’s say you decide on the 5K goal. What do you need to do to get there? Training. Possibly a better diet. Before that training, you may want to visit a doctor. You’ll probably want to do some “dry run” 5Ks, too.

Break them down until they’re small steps that you could add to your “next action” list So, what does “training” mean? What does that mean in terms of a weekly schedule? Do the research. Figure out what action you need to take. Print off a 5K training plan that meets your needs, like this couch to 5K plan. Each of those training sessions is an individual action you can add to your list. Make a doctor’s appointment and add that appointment to your calendar.

Make a list of those “next actions.” Now that the brainstorming and collection is over, turn that material into a coherent list of actions you would need to follow in order to reach your goal. That way, as you achieve them, you can cross them off your project list. These don’t have to specifically be next actions, but they need to be close enough that they can be quickly broken down into next actions. So, for example, you might have “week one training” and “week two training” and so on on your project list if you also have materials explaining what “week one training” is.

Maximizing the Next Step
The final piece of the equation is to keep translating the next step in each of your projects into something on your “next action” list.

For me, the key to doing this is a weekly review of all of my projects. Not only do I make sure that there’s an action from each of them on my “next action” list, I also spend a bit of time thinking about each project again. Is it going well? Is it going poorly? Why? Am I still invested in this project? What are the rewards of success? What are the consequences of failure?

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve completely thrown out my project plans and done something completely different. Some people might think that the first plans were a waste of time, but almost every time it’s happened, I would have never found a much better plan without coming up with that initial plan and reviewing it regularly and rethinking it over time.

In the end, this all saves a lot of time. A lot of it. You find yourself moving forward on stuff instead of idling on it. You have more efficient plans because of the time you spent focusing on the project and you’re able to do each step more efficiently because you’re not trying to keep the plan in your head.

Projects that literally would take me forty hours in the past now takes ten or fifteen total. I’m not exaggerating a bit. All of that extra time enables me to add a lot of other things to my life that I would never possibly have had time for in the past. Quite simply, it was because of this type of planning and thought that I was able to launch and grow The Simple Dollar while also working a full time job (that required some overtime work, too) and being a good father and husband.

You can’t jump into your dreams if you don’t have things organized.

Next week, we’ll talk about the power of the collection habit.

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