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Help! Too many projects and next actions

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  • Help! Too many projects and next actions

    If people have 50-100+ projects, how do they organize the next actions if there are often 5 or more steps associated with each project (and sometimes dozens)? If you just let your brain do the linking and don't actively organize at all ... isn't it burdensome to look at a list of hundreds of next actions multiple times each day (or how many times do people look)? That's a whole lot to continually try to process, and can distract from doing real work!

    I've read some of the debates on this forum about linking actions to projects. In short, my personal experience in this domain is the big lists have been really unwieldy, while the project based lists (i.e., linked) have been good but it's hard to keep things sorted by context.

    I apologize for the newbie question, but I just can't quite identify the best way to fix this from reading GTD. The goals of a new process would be to have the next actions easily viewable without lots of clutter.

    Thank you!

  • #2
    No silver bullet

    Originally posted by GTDUS View Post
    If people have 50-100+ projects, how do they organize the next actions if there are often 5 or more steps associated with each project (and sometimes dozens)? If you just let your brain do the linking and don't actively organize at all ... isn't it burdensome to look at a list of hundreds of next actions multiple times each day (or how many times do people look)? That's a whole lot to continually try to process, and can distract from doing real work!

    I've read some of the debates on this forum about linking actions to projects. In short, my personal experience in this domain is the big lists have been really unwieldy, while the project based lists (i.e., linked) have been good but it's hard to keep things sorted by context.

    I apologize for the newbie question, but I just can't quite identify the best way to fix this from reading GTD. The goals of a new process would be to have the next actions easily viewable without lots of clutter.

    Thank you!
    In my experience, most projects have one next action at any given time, and the vast majority have one or two. My most complicated project right now, which concerns care for my elderly parents, has five independent next actions. Steps on a project plan may not be current next actions; some parts of project plans may never be implemented at all. Anything that you could not or would not do right away is not a next action. GTD tries to separate honest next actions from all the should-would-could-someday-sortof-planto-probably stuff that really gets in the way of getting next actions done.

    There are lots of ways to handle project plans, but the techniques do depend on your tools and your tastes. For people with digital lists, brief notes associated with a project on a project list can be a simple and effective way to capture possible future steps. Lots of people use mind maps, especially for more complicated projects. Outlines work well for some.

    Associating next actions with projects is also a matter of individual choice. Some people need no explicit connection, or may use a simple text tag, as in "Next Action [Project]." At the other end are programs like OmniFocus and Things (both for mac and iPhone/iPad) that explicitly connect project and next actions.

    The other thing I should mention is that 50-100 projects may just be too much right now, in which case you should consider moving some projects to someday/maybe.

    I hope this is of some help.

    Comment


    • #3
      I try not to have more than one next action per project--usually the next action is pretty obvious, and there's no need to write a bunch of actions for the project. If the project is so non-obvious that I do need to do more planning than that, I do that in product support material, rather than in my action lists.

      Also, I don't have 50-100 projects--if I had that many, I would move a large percentage of them to Someday/Maybe. This isn't universal, of course--some people do have that many active projects. But in my case, if I'm not going to work on the project in the next week or two, I dump it in Someday/Maybe.

      I think that linking projects and actions depends on what tool you're using--paper? A spreadsheet? Software created specifically for GTD?

      I use OmniFocus, which automatically links actions to projects and lets me easily view projects, actions by project, actions by context, actions for a subset of projects or contexts, and so on.

      Moving on to an example:

      Let's pretend that I'm new to GTD and I've planned all of my sewing for the next year in GTD. Imagine that I write projects like:

      Project: Make white linen shirt
      Action: Preshrink linen
      Action: Press linen
      Action: Alter pattern to narrow shoulders
      Action: Cut out shirt
      Action: Finish piece edges with server.
      Action: Apply interfacing.

      And so on and so on. Imagine that I have fifteen or twenty projects like this, so that I have about a hundred sewing tasks.

      Following what I've said above, I would first eliminate the extra tasks from the projects. Most of the tasks in the sample project above are obvious--I know that I need to preshrink, press, blah. The only thing that I might forget is that I planned to alter the pattern. So I would change the project to:

      Project: Make white linen shirt, altered to narrow shoulders.
      Action: Preshrink linen.

      And that's all that I'd have for that project, until I work that action. Once it's worked, I'll write another action. Actually, once it's worked, I'll probably work through several other actions in the same work session without writing those actions down, and then when I'm about to stop I'll write down an action as a "bookmark" for starting the next time.

      Then, if I have fifteen or twenty sewing projects, I'll move all but two or three of them out to project support material--I'll make a "sewing project ideas" list and keep it around to refer to when I finish my current projects.

      So now I've shrunk about a hundred actions (15-20 projects with about 5 tasks/project) to three to five actions (1-3 projects with one or two tasks/project).

      And in OmniFocus I can easily view my tasks based on context. For example, if I have a "sewing" context, I can view only my sewing actions without being distracted by others.

      Comment


      • #4
        Back to basic

        It depends on what worries you the most. For me, missing projects and commitments worry me. So I make sure the project list (and a few independent tasks) is complete. For each project I will generate the next action items - otherwise things will not happen. I will organize them into a few practical lists (At Office, To Call, At Home etc). Then I am basically happy here.

        I am not really concerned about the internal logic among the tasks. After all, I am not a computer and I need to attend to them one after the other.

        Comment


        • #5
          I'd like to emphasize what @mcogilvie and @Gardener already said about not putting all your projects actions on the Next lists. Only those that would be possible for you to start doing should go on the Next list. It would seem that this should reduce the number of tasks quite a bit in your case. For me personally, I tend to have 2-3 next actions per project on average, and maybe 10-30 projects, typically around 50 next actions all in all (15-150). (Usually when I have few next actions I have much more on the Waiting For list.)

          For me the linking is no effort at all. As soon as I move (or create) a task into a project it remains linked to that project, and the project is linked to an area or goal etc. I like extensive linking. Makes my reviews easier.

          Then the question comes up of where to keep the not-yet-Next (and not-yet-Waiting) actions in the projects. They are considered "project support" in GTD, but personally I see no point in writing those on an external Excel sheet or Word document and put among my other project support material, and then have to transfer them one or a few at a time into my task app. If there are tasks that I expect to have on my next and waiting for lists one day I prefer to enter them in my app straight away - BUT it is essential that you then have a way to "hide" them within the project view, such that these tasks do bot pollute your next and waiting for lists. The majority of apps are not too flexible or powerful when it comes to this, but you can usually find a reasonable workaround. (I could describe how I did this in Nirvana or now do it in Doit). Some apps (like Nirvana) have something called a "sequential" project setup that allows you to have exactly one task at a time on the next list and the rest "hidden" within the project. I am not OK with being limited to just one task, but many people are perfectly happy with it, and if you're OK with it you could choose an app that has this (Nirvana, Omnifocus, MyLifeOrganized). Zendone is the most flexible app in this particular regard (but has other shortcomings).

          Another tip I have for you, a bit unorthodox, perhaps, but not contrary to GTD as I understand it, is that if your app has, say, a "priority" field (perhaps with a colored bar etc) for each task, this is very useful as an indicator of when and how often you need to look at each task on the Next list. I may have a few tasks with a red bar that I look at every single time I even glance at any of my Next actions (regardless of context, regardless of time of day etc). These tasks are so "late" and so important that they may even influence my choice of context to be in, and I have decided I want to at least see them every single time I look there. Then my normal tasks have a blue bar. Those I normally go through every morning, all of them. Then I also have a bunch of tasks with a turquoise bar. Those I need not hurry with, but I'd be fully prepared to do them anytime now if I happen to be in the neighborhood etc (no hesitation, no Someday/Maybe; they are definitely committed Next actions). These I review as a whole only weekly (but I typically stumble across them several times a week when looking at particular contexts etc).

          In addition to all this, I recommend you to get an app that has a Star or similar device for simply marking whatever you think will be useful to have handy for the next few hours (or whole day). For example, if you are having an appointment somewhere, you can star a few errands that are nearby or en route (regardless of whether they are important or urgent or not; if you find later that you do not have the time for them you just un-star them). The star can save you many unnecessary visits to the Next list and can remind you of good ideas for what you may want to consider later.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by GTDUS View Post
            If people have 50-100+ projects, how do they organize the next actions if there are often 5 or more steps associated with each project (and sometimes dozens)?
            I use Omnifocus and manage my projects and actions so that only actions I can actually do are on my lists of actions and then sort by context. I use a variety of parallel and sequential projects to accomplish this. I also create as many contexts as I need to keep my mind at ease and make it easy to stay in a mode and work on stuff with focus. I review my lists at logical breaks, when I move from one location to another, when I get up to get water or take a bathroom break, when I finish a set of tasks on a given project or in a given context and need to choose which context to move to or what project needs attention and when my brain needs a break as well as other logical points of change. I've never counted but I guess I review my action lists maybe 20 times a day or so.

            Currently I have 182 active projects with 258 available actions sorted into 44 active contexts. At any given time I can immediately eliminate 3/4 or more of the contexts so I don't even have to look at them when choosing what to do next.

            That is the power of GTD, you don't lose track of all the stuff but can focus on what you can realistically do in a given situation,

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Gardener View Post
              If the project is so non-obvious that I do need to do more planning than that, I do that in product support material, rather than in my action lists.
              I have a technical question; just double-checking here, just in case I have misunderstood:

              When you say project support material, do you mean that your app (OF) has such a classification option for tasks, or do you mean (as I assume) that you physically write them in some totally different place than in your app? (If it is the former, this is what I do, too, using app-specific workarounds. If it is the latter, am I right in assuming that this is because you have found no good way to "hide" them inside the app?)

              Originally posted by Gardener View Post
              I try not to have more than one next action per project--usually the next action is pretty obvious, and there's no need to write a bunch of actions for the project.
              In a way, this reminds me a bit of the other recent discussion about chopping up tasks into bite-sized chunks http://www.davidco.com/forum/showthr...-complex-tasks

              I also have a question: If a project is so obvious that there is only one obvious next action after another obvious action, and no planning is necessary, why do you make it a project at all rather than keep it as a single action?

              I have lots of single actions that I am sure many people would consider to be projects - something that definitely has a lot of steps in it if you analyze it, but where to me the steps are so obvious that I cannot be bothered to write them down as individual tasks. These I treat as "one-line projects" . This is something the other discussion also touched upon - how some people prefer to (perhaps artificially) create bite-sized chunks out of something obvious, whereas others (e.g. me) have no qualms about having one single looong action.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Folke View Post
                I also have a question: If a project is so obvious that there is only one obvious next action after another obvious action, and no planning is necessary, why do you make it a project at all rather than keep it as a single action?
                Others may have different answers, but to me the reason is so that I look at the project in light of my other choices at my weekly review. Next Actions are a distillation of the thought and prioritization that has already gone into my projects and higher-level views. I plan on doing them soon and I pick the one that is appropriate given my available time, energy level, location, etc. Projects, by contrast, get reviewed weekly.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Mike L View Post
                  ... to me the reason is so that I look at the project in light of my other choices at my weekly review.
                  Very good point. I too like being able to see the big picture and avoid clutter.

                  Do you apply that principle the other way round, too? If something has distinct steps in it, and is therefore technically a GTD project, but is so insignificant overall that it does not really deserve to be part of the "big picture review", would you demote it as a "task with subtasks" or "task with notes etc" or otherwise separate it from the "heavier" ("real") projects in the projects list?

                  For me, this is yet another reason why I keep quite a few "projects" listed as one-line tasks, and conversely (just like you) also keep some things listed as a project (or even Goal) even if it has only one single next action in it right now but that next action is vital for something very important that I hope will grow and evolve over time and therefore deserves my attention at the "big picture" level.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Folke View Post
                    When you say project support material, do you mean that your app (OF) has such a classification option for tasks, or do you mean (as I assume) that you physically write them in some totally different place than in your app? (If it is the former, this is what I do, too, using app-specific workarounds. If it is the latter, am I right in assuming that this is because you have found no good way to "hide" them inside the app?)
                    A different place. Right now, I'm experimenting with putting project support material in OmniOutliner, where I can easily play around and brainstorm, and link to non-OmniOutliner files if I need to. In OmniFocus, each major folder (Home, Health, Sewing, etc.) has an "on hold" task whose sole purpose is to hold a link to the appropriate OmniOutliner file, so that I can get to the right repository of project support material with a minimum of clicks.

                    I used to store a lot of project support material in OmniFocus, in actions that were set to "on hold" and would therefore not show on active lists, but it annoyed and distracted me there. I think that it's not so much about "hiding" as about...I think I'd call it "action rot". A lot of those actions will be overcome by events and never worked; they'll rot. I don't want them rotting in my main action lists.

                    Originally posted by Folke View Post
                    I also have a question: If a project is so obvious that there is only one obvious next action after another obvious action, and no planning is necessary, why do you make it a project at all rather than keep it as a single action?
                    Well, I mean "obvious" in the sense that the next action is obvious when I'm working on the project, so there's no need for me to write down a sequence of planned actions. But the next action may not be instantly remembered once I step away from the project. And it may be a different context from the last action.

                    Say I just finished preshrinking the fabric for a sewing project (context: Laundry). It's obvious that I now need to press it (context: Big Ironing Board). But I'm out of time, so I bundle the wrinkled but preshrunk fabric away in the project box, and I'm done sewing for the weekend.

                    When I can sew again, in three days or a week or a month, there's no assurance that I'll remember that the context needed for this project to continue is Big Ironing Board--which is a context that isn't always available. (Gotta get out the board, move a piece of furniture to set it up near an outlet, make sure the floor is clean, and if I'm ironing white fabric lay a sheet on the floor even if it is clean, because no floor is clean enough for white fabric to trail on it.)

                    Big Ironing Board may not be a context that I care to make available right now; I might prefer to shift to a project whose next action requires Pattern Table or Hand Sewing. And if I do set up Big Ironing Board, and there are two other projects also waiting for that context, I'll be irritated if I don't remember those actions and get them done, too.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Thank you!! Throughout the discussion a lot of my questions that might have also come up were answered, and each of you have had excellent input. I'll try to work with this; I have a habit of listing too many next actions, so perhaps I will try moving those to project support for the longer term things. Good idea on the priority option also Folke (I use Evernote, so perhaps I will bold certain things). Too bad Omnifocus is Mac only Thanks again!

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Folke View Post
                        Do you apply that principle the other way round, too? If something has distinct steps in it, and is therefore technically a GTD project, but is so insignificant overall that it does not really deserve to be part of the "big picture review", would you demote it as a "task with subtasks" or "task with notes etc" or otherwise separate it from the "heavier" ("real") projects in the projects list?
                        I'm no purist on this. If it was insignificant I'd leave it out. But for now I put everything into the project list so that it is part of my weekly review.

                        On a related area, its easy to have too many "Someday/Maybe" items, which is just the OPs issue moved to a different list. I don't want to look at "trip to Spain" every week when it may not happen for years if ever. So I have 2 "Someday/Maybe" lists. One I call "Someday/Maybe Soon" and that's the one I review weekly, the other less frequently.

                        I'd also add that I'm not dogmatic about how I use the system. From what I've read the "Next Actions" list represents distilled thinking; one simply looks at the list (perhaps arranged by context) and selects. Therefore it wouldn't really be part of the weekly review. But I read thru mine at the weekly review to see items that are stuck on the list. I can't find a quote from David Allen saying this directly, but one could come away from the book with the impression that the big hangup people have is un-captured thoughts leading to anxiety that something is missing. Use the system and you'll become a happy lean-mean-executing machine. I find that while capturing my committments is huge, it isn't everything. I make promises to myself that I find myself breaking; I decide this is the time to start learning Spanish for that trip to Spain and order a book, but the next action after that is to start studying and I find I haven't done it. My next-action list helps me know myself better. I don't think I've seen this mentioned in the GTD book, but I find that looking at my "Next Actions" list for stuck items helps me uncover things I'm not really committed to doing.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Mike L View Post
                          From what I've read the "Next Actions" list represents distilled thinking; one simply looks at the list (perhaps arranged by context) and selects. Therefore it wouldn't really be part of the weekly review.
                          This puzzles me--for me, the Next Actions list is one of the most important products of the weekly review. I would certainly think that it would be part of the review.

                          Now, in a proper review (mine isn't as proper as it should be) it is a product rather than something that I should work on directly. That is, I think that I should properly be going through my projects, making sure that each one has a valid actionable next action, and then when I change my view, those actions that I tidied up are now displayed in the Next Action list. Is that what you mean?

                          In my less-proper review, I am very conscious of the Next Action list, and I use it as a barometer for whether my current workload is excessive. I'm likely to trim the projects from the Next Actions list, rather than properly building the next Actions list by working on the projects.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Yes it seems having as little next actions for each project is a tricky one. But it can be done and there are not many other ways to tackle everything...

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Mike L View Post
                              From what I've read the "Next Actions" list represents distilled thinking; one simply looks at the list (perhaps arranged by context) and selects. Therefore it wouldn't really be part of the weekly review. But I read thru mine at the weekly review to see items that are stuck on the list.
                              You have to review your next actions regularly because circumstances change. Just because something is on a next action list doesn't mean it can sit there unchanged and unchallenged for years until you get around to it. Reviewing next actions is an important part of the weekly review.

                              Originally posted by Mike L View Post
                              I can't find a quote from David Allen saying this directly, but one could come away from the book with the impression that the big hangup people have is un-captured thoughts leading to anxiety that something is missing. Use the system and you'll become a happy lean-mean-executing machine. I find that while capturing my committments is huge, it isn't everything.
                              Capturing is the first step of the five phases of workflow: capture, process, organize, review and do. If you do an inadequate job at any step, it has the potential to come back and bite you. People do derive a lot of value from collecting, but it's just the first step.

                              For those who have read the book, but feel they aren't convinced that GTD will work for them, I recommend considering the GTD Live audio seminar, available for download from the online store. It's a recording of a 2-day seminar. David Allen is a great presenter, and is clear, pragmatic and engaging.

                              Comment

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