Making It All Work – getting perspective at 10,000 feet: projects

This is the thirteenth entry in a twenty part series discussing the wonderful time and priority management book Making It All Work by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings.

Penguin Group (USA)
'Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life,' David Allen, Penguin Group (USA), December 2008, 256pp.

All of us have ongoing tasks in our lives – individual things that need to be done but are too large to be accomplished in a single sitting or require various things for various steps along the way.

I know that my own life is littered with such projects. I’d like to rearrange my office, moving my mostly-empty bookshelf over to another wall and replacing it with shelving for my game collection. I’d like to write a third book. The list goes on and on.

I like how Allen describes them, on page 217:

A project is essentially a miniature goal, something that can be finished and marked off as “done.” The reason for the “within a year” parameter is that any commitment you have that can be completed in that time period – even very big ones – should probably be reviewed at least once a week.

In other words, a project is any large task that you can reasonably complete within a year. It’s usually composed of enough work that you can’t get it all done in one session – instead, you have to break it down into smaller chunks, spread out over time. Sometimes, those chunks require something to happen between them – time must pass, someone else must accomplish something, or so on.

A big key to completing your projects is review. In other words, keep track of your ongoing projects, then once a week, review all of those projects and determine what your specific next action for each of those projects is. A “next action” should be something small enough that you can do it in one session.

So, for example, with the projects listed above, I might have a “next action” of looking for an appropriate shelving unit for the games. I might have another “next action” that involves an outline of the book.

It should be noted that projects are tangible things that you can wrap your hands around. They’re not nebulous – they have a clear and definite conclusion, one that can be reached within a year.

Allen offers up some keywords that can help you define the projects in your life. On page 218:

The following verbs point to typical outcomes that I refer to as projects:

Set up

If you’re curious about what and how many projects you actually have, just use the above as a checklist, and include everything that can be linked with one of these words.

I currently have a list of forty-five ongoing projects that almost entirely match up with the words on that list.

Each week, I do a review of this project list and try to look for the “next step” with each of these projects. This keeps them all moving forward or helps me to realize that I need to abandon them.

Allen riffs on the weekly project review idea on page 222:

During a weekly look at all your projects, actions, and schedule provides an “inner coordination” that is fundamentally intuitive because of all the shifitng factors involved in the complexities of your life.

In other words, you’ll find that when you look at your project list at the end of a week, you’ve changed a bit as a person. You no longer find one project to be as vital, but now find this other project to be really important to you.

In many ways, this reflection helps you to connect your ongoing projects to the higher level things going on in life – your areas of focus, your goals, your purpose in life. As these subtly shift over time, you’ll find more radical shifts at the lower levels.

I can make a very clear example of this in my own life. Five years ago, being a parent was barely on my radar screen as a central value in life and my day-to-day activities showed it. Today, that’s completely different – one of my main life goals is to be a great parent to my kids. This shows up not only at the “purpose in life” level, but it begins to have bigger and bigger effects going down. Today, some of my projects involve things like potty training and teaching reading and teaching arithmetic, things that would not be projects in my life if I didn’t value my role as a parent so highly. The broader elements of my life greatly affect the projects I choose, which thus affect the things I choose to do every day.

A final thought: one really compelling idea I found in this chapter comes on page 224:

One of the most inspiring examples of how this elevated look at your commitments can add huge value to your life is the family weekly review. Establishing a context in which life partners (and children) can mutually debrief their past week, share a thorough and concrete overview of their commitments and projects, compare calendars, look ahead to the immediate future, and make decisions and plans together can be a phenomenal way to experience winning at the business of life.

I can’t tell you how much I love this idea nd I can’t wait until my children are a bit older so we can start doing this. Right now, my children are a little young to have ongoing projects of any real kind other than their ongoing epic castle made out of Magna-Tiles and Legos.

What sorts of projects will our family members have and share when we grow older together? It’s really hard to say, but I not only see this as a way to teach my children how to be more organized, but also a way to bond more deeply as a family.

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