I wrote earlier in my draft on planning that we don’t explicitly plan all of our projects. In that piece, I shared the example of planning a party. I wrote about how we might not think of such an example as a project, but it is one. Most people would also put this on their list as a single task, not a project. What’s the problem with that thinking? The task “plan party” requires you to do a few things — set the party date, decide who to invite, invite the guests, set up the venue, arrange food and drinks, etc. These things cannot all be done in a single step.
Because we don’t think of it as a project, we don’t write them down as a project. Because we don’t write them down as projects, we don’t think through the next steps required to complete the project. Instead, we might choose to do it all in our heads. The closest we’ll come to articulating the project is to making a guest list on paper.
We also tend to mistake “organizing” with “project planning”. However, organizing is something that comes only after we have found out the purpose of our project, defined the outcome, and explored some ideas for the same — before we can even begin to see patterns — maybe then we can begin to organize those ideas in a project. That’s how we naturally think, whether planning a party or setting up a meeting at work. I wrote about this in my draft, Explore, Evaluate, Execute.
Now, we can’t finish a project by itself (such as “plan party”). We can only do the steps required to complete them. I define a project as something that requires more than one step to finish; something that takes anywhere from a week to a few months to finish. It answers the questions: what do I need to finish? What does done look like? That will be your project outcome/result.
By the way, a task is different from a project, which is different from an area of focus. In our example above, “Plan party” is a project, “invite guests” could be tasks, and “spending quality time with friends and family” could be an area of focus under which this project resides. Every project needs a verb somewhere in its title.
Think of projects as a tangible means to improving the areas of your lives in some way. They are either complete or finalized (the thinking/planning part). Projects are about creating outcomes/results for your commitments. By defining projects, we are simply putting a stake in the ground and pulling the trigger on things that have our attention.
Now, while the obvious projects like planning a meeting or fixing a computer may come to mind first, it’s the ones that are less obvious that are a challenge to articulate, but which are equally important to identify nonetheless (if not more so). Another way to think about a project is when you have a “problem” of some kind. These could be thought of as “problems” gnawing away at your sub-conscious waiting for you to define them as projects at some point only if we can identify them as such. Examples may include getting your pants altered, finalizing research, getting closure on something, etc. While we may not recognize them as projects upfront, they exist somewhere on our radar and they need to be resolved at some level.
One of the reasons we don’t articulate a project is because we wait to identify all the steps required to complete it before we get started with it. We don’t have to know all the steps in a project before we create one. In fact, it’s the reverse. More often than not, only when you set up a project will you be able to think about the next steps required to complete it. The overarching idea being that it’s only when you know where you want to go that you figure out ways to get there — but you have to define the outcome first.
A lot of times, that outcome is self-evident. Other times, it may not be evident, in which case you have to go through a process to determine the outcome for your project — but that should not keep you from getting started. For instance, you could have a “Look into…” project where the first step is “Draft ideas for this project”.
There are two kinds of projects: parallel and sequential. In parallel projects, the tasks are not dependent on each other and can be started at any time. In sequential projects, you have task dependencies, meaning you might have to do a task before you do the next one, and so on. You can also have projects that are a mix of both parallel and sequential sub-projects and tasks. A sub-project is a nested project. In any given project, only when you’re done with the sub-projects can you mark the project as done. In our example above (Plan Party), some of the tasks may be parallel, while some may be sequential. Moreover, there could be sub-projects such as “finalize guests” or “arrange food and drinks”.
So, how do we go about planning our projects? Well, we plan our projects just as we naturally think. We start by asking why we need to do something (for example, plan party). We define the outcome/result, then we ideate (by deferring judgement) on how we’ll get there using some kind of idea generation tool (such as mind mapping or outlining). Once we have enough ideas, we can begin to organize those ideas into a project, which can be parked in our list manager.
Other times, we may need to do a “brain dump” of things that have our attention before we can find out what truly has our attention. Then, there might be “problems” lurking in our sub-conscious somewhere that might potentially be projects in disguise.
After we have defined our projects and need help with generating ideas for it, divergent tools like mind mapping and outlining work great.
The idea is not to immediately do your projects (at least to begin with), but to finish the thinking required for your projects and park them appropriately in your list manager, which is part of your trusted system (more later), fully knowing that you’ll get to it when the time is right, hereby trusting your intuition to make good choices about doing the work. It’s not about doing things necessarily, it’s about not doing things and not feeling bad about it. But, you can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing. That requires us to have a complete inventory of projects and the tasks associated with those projects. Only then can we be free to live in the moment and to focus on what’s in front of us without thinking about the past or future.
We need a trusted system to manage our projects. We need a list manager that lets us capture inputs on our computer and on our mobile phones and one that syncs (and shows) you the same information in real time. It must have the ability to organize those inputs later. I use Things to manage my projects, but any list manager that has the ability to make lists and sync between your devices should suffice.
The whole idea of having your projects parked in an external system is to have a clear head, which can only happen when you have your reminders parked appropriately and review them regularly.
You need a place to hold your Project Support material — physical/digital or both. Project Support includes notes, plans, files, folders, etc. that helps you keep all of the material about a project in or out of your list manager. You could also use some combination of a physical and digital folder and a reference application to keep track of the same.
You also need an Action Support folder to store your files for tasks that don’t belong to any projects.
Here are some best practices for managing your projects:
Learn to differentiate between a task, project, and an area of focus. For instance, one of the tasks on my list was getting a health checkup done. In actuality, it was a project (not a task). The steps in the project could potentially include researching the different options of where I could get the checkup done, calling to schedule a mutually convenient time, getting the checkup done, picking up the results, etc.
The best time to create a project is when it shows up rather than when it blows up. I wrote about this in my draft on dealbreakers. I wrote about how we can start small and early on a project rather than starting big and late.
When you need clarity on a project, you move up to a higher level of thinking (such as an area of focus). Other times, it may be the reverse. There are times when your area of focus helps you define your project. For instance, if you’re having some challenges in your relationships (area of focus), you may need to create a project to get resolution or closure. Then, the key question you have to ask is what do you have to do to get this project off your mind.
Our projects either attract or repel us. If they repel you, you need to slow down and have a conversation with yourself about it. You have to ask yourself the reason you are procrastinating on it. Sometimes, it may be that the project is not relevant any more, in which case we’ll have to clear it up. Other times, it may still be relevant, but you may have not correctly identified all the steps or it may have gained irrelevance for other reasons. Whatever it is, you have to have a conversation with yourself to figure it out.
As a best practice, we need to be reviewing our projects every week to get it off our mind. Doing your weekly planning and review helps you accomplish that.
We need to have a complete projects list; otherwise, we won’t trust it. By the way, a project list is only meant to be an index (and not meant for planning or project support). We also tend to overcommit when we don’t have a complete list of our commitments and it gets hard to evaluate future projects. Not having a complete project list could be the reason between trusting your lists and not trusting it entirely. Frankly, it’s the thing that makes the whole process work. Most importantly, your current inventory of projects need to reflect what your work looks like. Doing your weekly reviews will ensure that your project list is complete.
Of course, we need bandwidth and resources to work on our projects. If you have 30 different projects with next steps for each of them, you have to pause and ask yourself if it seems realistic to work on all those projects at the same time. You might be better off putting most of those projects on the back-burner so you can give your full attention to fewer projects, thereby also spreading yourself less thin. In addition, you have to learn to say no — “Sorry, I don’t have the bandwidth to take on that project”.
Use recurring project checklists or templates. A weekly review is a good example of such a project, where the same tasks need to be done as part of the review every week. Getting ready for a business trip could be another example of a template project.
How do you keep track of ideas related to a project? For instance, if you’re using a reference (or a note-taking) application of some kind that is accessible to you on your phone, you could quickly capture those ideas and decide what to do with them later. The point is, you don’t want to lose any ideas about a project.
If your project gets too big with various sub-projects, you might be better off having multiple projects, but that is on a case-by-case basis.
With shared projects, the question to ask is: who owns the project? Ownership will drive everything.
Sometimes, you might have projects that you have delegated to others, in which case you might need to have a high-level reminder of some sort in your system as a way to keep track of it, which will help you follow up with them at appropriate times.
We are all project planners. We plan things implicitly all the time. We naturally plan our projects at work. We need to do the same for our personal projects. We need to start thinking of them as projects. Only then can we articulate them as projects and do the thinking required to write down the steps so that we can eventually finish the project.
We don’t always clarify our commitments, and we don’t always finish our thinking. We are more likely to procrastinate on our projects when something is unclear and/or we haven’t finished thinking about it. The challenge lies not with doing things necessarily, but knowing (and defining) what done looks like. When you’ve defined the work, you’ll be more inclined to do it. We need to finish our thinking, verbalize it, and put it on paper.
Of course, there is a lot more to managing projects than I’ve covered here, which is beyond the scope of this piece, but it’s enough to set you in the right direction.