Getting Things Done: Getting Projects Under Control

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.

gtdOne 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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10 thoughts on “Getting Things Done: Getting Projects Under Control

  1. Debbie M says:

    This is showing me that my list of projects I want to get done for the year isn’t really good enough. I need to narrow that down each week on the way to choosing my next steps.

  2. chacha1 says:

    “unconscious resistance to thinking”

    Oh man, there’s a post in that phrase alone!

  3. Jackie says:

    Thank you for this series! You inspired me to check out GTD from the library and I’m really excited to implement it. This weekend I”m going to start my file system and begin my collecting, I’ll be referring back to your blogs as I go for tips and advice. So much of the book is “work related” rather than work/life related. I like your approach.

  4. lynnette says:

    I had read GTD a while back and it seemed like so much work. Adding more work to my day just seemed too overwhelming to consider. Thank you for breaking it down into manageable parts. I’ve started carrying a notebook and that alone has made a big difference in my productivity.

  5. Allison says:

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

    I have been SO inspired by this series of posts, Trent. I picked up GTD several years ago and then abandoned it because I derailed myself looking for the perfect software to run all my contexts and sorting and what-not. I got lost in the system instead of letting the system help me achieve forward movement.

    Thank you so much for putting this into real-life examples! Unlike other commenters, I am not planning on picking up the book again. Instead, I have made a collection of hyperlinks to each of your posts to review when I need them! I have corraled everything in my brain now and am “keeping up” with thoughts as they come and will do the “house tour” round-up over the long weekend coming up. Yesterday, after 15 years, I finally cleaned out the four-drawer file cabinet I have in anticipation of “processing” this weekend as well.

    I LOVE the idea of A-Z files for most things. I am keeping the top drawer for all the household bills/tax info/college loan stuff. (I guess that’s my financial drawer?) And the bottom drawer is the empties: file folder, hanging files and notebooks. The middle two drawers will be the A-M and N-Z.

    And now projects?! I’m so glad to finally have a real-life connection to help me put this all together. Doing GTD on my own left me completely boggled. But now I can see the beauty of this system and how I will be free to pursue the dreams I THOUGHT had to be put on hold until my little ones grew up. Now I see how things can work together, moving forward on all KINDS of fronts!

  6. Stacy says:

    I am loving this series! I think when it is completed you should compile the entire thing into an e-book and sell it, perhaps with some of the most helpful reader tips integrated into each section. I know that even though it is available here for free I’d probably pay a few dollars to have all of this great information in one document.

  7. Eva says:

    I love this series, too. Thanks for sharing it. This summer, I’m taking a few months off between working full time (well, double-time, really, hence the being able to take time off now — overtime pay adds up!) and starting graduate school (debt-free and with no need for student loans!), and it’s the *perfect* time to start to implement a system like this. I’m so excited to get in the swing of it.

    “Unconscious resistance to thinking” — yes! I know exactly what that is. I experience it several times a day. And having the ability to welcome it into my mind and then push it right onto paper is so freeing. Wow.

  8. Theresa says:

    I have really been enjoying this series and your thoughts about the GTD method – I have attempted to this previously, with some success – The addition og your notesd has prompted me to review & revise and to see what more I could incorporate Cheers!!!

  9. maggy says:

    From maggy — Like Theresa I have attempted GTD several times, always with “some” success.
    [If I've said all of this to comment on an earlier GTD post, forgive me--I know I started to do so, but I think I gave up and deleted it.]

    This time around with GTD, I’m taking some steps to make a permanent difference, mainly in simple LABELING!

    I’ve always been oblivious to physical surroundings anyway, and now–really old–just staying AWARE and focused is difficult. I have a habit of — say — posting a sign or reminder which is effective fora day or so and then I just don’t SEE IT anymore, whether it is on the refrigerator or near my computer. Ditto, taking notes, planning a project. I get it all down and almost feel like it’s DONE — don’t re-read my own notes!! My own handwriting is defeating.
    Changes this time? Stickers in strategic places (my super-organized daughter does this). On the door above the door knob for errands and “out” things. On the coffeemaker for next-day priorities. I even have a sticker there that says LOOK AT THE DAMNED CALENDAR TO YOUR RIGHT! So help me, I need it.
    As to the project that is driving me to distraction — promoting a book that I KNOW requires getting into blogging and/or Facebook and my “resistance” is overwhelming — THIS TIME I give myself one hour to read and plan and take notes by hand–45 minutes only, THEN spend 15 minutes to summarize into action steps and type it out in OVERSIZE PRINT (18-20)–toss the handwritten stuff.

    I’m following that process also for your GTD series–Oversize typed summaries of each in a GTD folder.
    It SEEMS to be working. Will finish up not only collection process of everything I have to do but, at the same time, plan/organize book marketing project by the weekend.
    I also did some serious re-thinking of how I have actually finished other projects in my long life that I resisted doing. Invariably, one or two books I came across did the trick, and a couple of mantras/slogans. Whether it was sheer desperation or serendipity I invariably invest some one-two books and a mantra/slogan with magical properties to get big jobs done. These are the gimmicks that have worked for me.
    All I know is that without two books — If You Can Talk You Can Write and The War of Art — I never would have finished my book. War of Art is best thing I’ve read on RESISTANCE and its insidious destructive ability to keep you from doing what you know you want to do. That and this ntra — Failure cannot tolerate/withstand PERSISTENCE.
    I’m hoping my LARGE PRINT summaries of this GTD series will provide a permanent way to keep on track (make part of weekly review). And my mantra now in several places (REALLY LARGE AND TYPED) is:

    “There’s nothing so exhausting as an undone task.”

    It encapsulates (I think) the GTD approach, but as I remember is a quote from 19th century. Have to try to Google that.

    I also think I’ve finally found my two “magical” books for this major project–a manual on Facebook and one on internet marketing. No more procrastination LOOKING for yet another instruction book!

    Good luck to all fellow/sister GTD-ers!

  10. maggy says:

    That elusive quote is by William James, and original reads like this:

    “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”–William James

    Far better than my version above.

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