Getting Things Done: The Five Phases of Project Planning

This is the third 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.


Last time, we looked at the five stages of a healthy task and information management workflow (collect, process, organize, review, do). Of course, one of the big revelations is that while this works really well for short, individual, discrete tasks, it doesn’t immediately seem to work all that well for larger multi-step tasks, i.e. projects.

Without these larger tasks, the whole system is easy. Toss stuff in your inbox, go through them regularly, take care of them, done. The challenge comes about when you have something that can’t simply be done in a session or two – particularly things that require feedback and input from others. How do you handle these?

The key, of course, is to break down these larger projects into bite-sized pieces that you can take action on right away. In order to do this effectively, Allen argues (on page 56) that we need five elements, which we often already use in a very informal way:

You’re already familiar with the most brilliant and creative planner in the world: your brain. You yourself are actually a planning machine. You’re planning when you get dressed, eat lunch, go to the store, or simply talk. Although the process may seem somewhat random, a quite complex series of steps in fact has to occur before your brain can make anything happen physically. Your mind goes through five steps to accomplish virtually any task:

1 | Defining purpose and principles
2 | Outcome visioning
3 | Brainstorming
4 | Organizing
5 | Identifying next actions

A great way to demonstrate this process is to look at how I think about preparing supper.

First, I decide on my purpose and principles. My family needs supper. I have about three hours between now and suppertime.

Next, I imagine the outcome. I want to cook something fairly healthy but also tasty.

Then, I brainstorm. What meals might fit that bill? A taco salad. A vegetarian pizza.

After that, I organize. I look in the refrigerator and the cupboards to identify what ingredients we have on hand, which quickly narrows down the brainstorming. I eventually settle on vegetarian pizza – I’m going to make vegetarian pizza for supper. What steps go into that? First, I make the dough. I then bake the crust, put toppings on it, and bake the pizza.

Finally, I proceed to the next action: I make the dough. Making pizza dough is a simple enough standalone action that it would be just fine in my inbox.

Here’s the thing: for simple things like dinner, most of us just shoot through this process without even thinking about it. It’s incredibly automatic for simple tasks like dinner.

Where people get stymied is when they have to apply the same process to a much bigger project.

Here’s an example of that. I had a great idea for a huge ebook project a while back. The thing is, every time I would think about it, I would get almost overwhelmed at the sheer size of the project. What’s the general concept of it? What are the specific things that would go into it? How would it be designed and laid out? Where would all of the content come from? How would I distribute or sell it? Every time I sat down and looked at this idea, I was stymied.

Another, more personal example would be our shed installation project. We have a perfect spot in our backyard for a shed – and having such a place would be very helpful, as it’d be a great spot to store a lot of the larger equipment that eats up space in our garage. How would I build it? Should I build it myself or hire someone to do it? What options are out there? Do we want a small one or a bigger one? How will it affect property values? Again, I’m stymied without some sort of process to work through this stuff.

That is, until I spent some serious time applying those natural five steps to these ideas.

Purpose and Principles
The purpose part of the equation is easy. Why are you doing this? Asking yourself why has a lot of benefits (p. 63):

It defines success.
It creates decision-making criteria.
It aligns resources.
It motivates.
It clarifies focus.
It expands options.

In other words, it helps you to figure out exactly what you want to do. A clear goal, then, makes it easier to plan everything it takes to get there.

So, with my ebook project: I’m doing it because I think there’s a great deal of value in the idea. I also would like to eventually reach a point where I’m financially independent from advertisements for income on The Simple Dollar, and a really high-quality ebook would be one way to open that channel.

What about the shed? My reason for doing that is to increase the property value of our home as well as provide a place to store tools and equipment (like our snowblower, for example).

The other half of the equation is the principles of the matter. In other words (p. 66):

A great way to think about what your principles are is to complete this sentence: “I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they…”

With the ebook project, my biggest “as long as” would be that the quality of the material produced remains high. With the shed, my biggest “as long as” would be that the cost is kept under control. Of course, each one has a few more minor “as long as” statements attached to them, which is useful to think about and know before continuing.

Outcome visioning
From there, you can start adding some attributes to the project that specifies exactly what you want in the end. From page 67:

In order most productively to access the conscious and unconscious resources available to you, you must have a clear picture in your mind of what success would look, sound, and feel like. […] This is the “what?” instead of the “why?”

In other words, you’re focused entirely on what the end product will look like, not what steps are required to get there.

So, for my ebook project, my end product would be a beautifully designed document that includes a lot of valuable content based around the central theme. It’d be available at a special site created just for it that provides extensive previewing of the content included in the document.

For the shed, the end result is simple: a shed in the yard. How big? 10′ by 15′, according to my measurements and some additional thought. I’m already sure of the location, but I also know I’d rather build it well rather than cheaply so that it stands for a very long time without leaks or maintenance.

Here’s where the meat of the business can be found. On page 70:

Once you know what you want to have happen, and why, the “how” mechanism is brought into play. When you identify with some picture in your head that is different than your current reality, you automatically start filling in the gaps, or brainstorming.

In other words, once you know your goal clearly, you start assembling the steps to get there. Obviously, a full-fledged plan isn’t going to pop right out. Instead, you have to sit down and start breaking down the process.

There are a lot of ways to do this. Many people use a “mind map,” in which they just write down ideas as they come into their head and connect those ideas together with lines and sometimes additional notes. I tend to write my ideas down in a double-spaced list, just dumping them out as fast as I can, and I connect any related ideas together with a thick line.

The best part about brainstorming is that it’s easy to utilize other people since you’re just gathering ideas. This is the stage where you look for advice from your social network, from websites, and so on.

Also, don’t waste your energy judging the relative merits of your ideas right now. Just focus on accumulating ideas and potential steps for how to move from where you’re at now to your goal.

Once you’re satisfied with your collection of ideas, the next step is transforming that mess into some form of organized plan. On page 75, Allen suggests a simple way for doing that:

The key steps here are
+ Identify the significant pieces.
+ Sort by (one or more):
+ components
+ sequences
+ priorities
+ Detail to the required degree

You have this big collection of ideas from your brainstorming session. The first thing to do is to simply go through them and pull out the significant ones. You’re looking for the essential pieces that will take you from here or there. Don’t worry about lots of specifics yet – you just want a good framework to build on. Also, don’t worry about order yet.

Once you have the key pieces, you’re going to order them. Often, some steps rely on earlier steps to be accomplished, so they should be put into the obvious order. If two things can happen at the same time, you can make up your own mind which one has priority based on your own prerogatives. I like to list these in order with plenty of space between them.

Finally, add in details until the steps are comfortable for you. For me, “comfortable” means “small enough that they can be done in reasonable chunks, like an hour or two.” If a remaining piece is too big for me to accomplish in that short of a timeframe, I keep breaking it down into smaller details.

Next Actions
The final step is really to get started. Most projects have one or two (or several) pieces that you can get started on right away.

For example, with my ebook project, I can start gathering the written content, gathering the image content, and coming up with basic layout ideas in Adobe InDesign. With the shed project, I can gather lots of options and quotes for the assembly of the shed in preparation for a meeting with my wife to discuss exactly what we want to put up.

When I’ve got a project rolling, I usually have a few things I’ve added to my “next actions” pile. I’ve also started a folder that contains all of this material for the project, especially the list I made during the “organizing” part of setting up the project. This gives me something to look at each week during my “weekly review” so that I can keep tabs with the progress on that project.

The basic idea here – and how it fits into the previous chapter’s great workflow – is that whenever you’re faced with something too big to deal with in one swoop, you use this process to break it down. You start a folder for that project, keep that folder, and review it regularly to make sure you’re keeping up with the next actions.

Next time, we’ll look at chapter four, which focuses on how to get this entire system started in terms of the time, space, and tools needed.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.