The real power in GTD is not really in the hand writing or typing we do onto lists—it's in the executive and creative thinking triggered as we engage with them. This month I explore the one list that can easily be the most powerful in terms of maintaining ongoing control and focus in work and life—the Projects list. Here's a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they can get along without it.
All the best,
DAVID'S FOOD FOR THOUGHT
IS A PROJECTS LIST NECESSARY?
One of the most common questions we get, as people begin to implement the GTD method, is "Why do I need to have a Projects list?" In other words, people want to know if they can get away with simply creating and looking at lists of Next Actions.
A current, clear, and complete Projects list is the key tool for managing the horizon of our commitments that, in my experience, has the greatest improvement opportunity for anyone leading a life of any significant complexity.
How do I define Projects? Any and all those things that need to get done within the next few weeks or months that require more than one action step to complete. This would include getting tires on the car, getting your kids set up for their summer activities, hiring a new assistant, launching an ad campaign, buying a company, getting a tooth fixed, researching local yoga classes, resolving a contract dispute, extending your credit line with the bank, and the like. They range all over the map, and most people have between thirty and a hundred such commitments, at any point in time.
Each one of these agreements with ourselves needs some sort of "stake in the ground" anchored in such a way that we revisit it frequently enough to trust nothing is being missed or falling through the cracks about it, and that forward motion is appropriately happening. If you only tracked Next Actions, then once you finished the action, without a trusted placeholder for the final outcome, you would have to keep track of that desired result in your head. That's a lousy place to manage that stuff! You'll lose objective awareness of all the content, as well as your ability to make the best intuitive decisions about what to move on, and when.
And the real problem is that you can't fool your own psyche by not tracking and reviewing these commitments in an external, intelligent format. You can fool me, but not yourself. A part of you will continually be trying to remember and remind yourself what you should be thinking about and doing, but never really finishing that thinking, decision-making, and reminding process. You'll live with an eternal, gnawing sense of anxiety about what you maybe ought to be doing, but not knowing exactly what that might be.
People started keeping calendars a century ago. Why? Because life's time-based commitments got more complex than they could trust their mind to manage. If you think that a Projects list is unnecessary, then throw away your calendar and trust life will just let you know what you should be doing, in the moment. Good luck. If you decide you need a calendar, then keep a list of your projects you're committed to completing, as well as appointments to keep. Otherwise you're intellectually dishonest.
If you're still trying to get your arms around the concept of Projects, a Projects list, and GTD, you're not alone. "Projects" does seem to be one of the toughest inventories or concepts for people to grasp with GTD—even very sophisticated folks. I think the word "project" is laden with so many heavyweight events in their companies, they don't acknowledge that something in their own life and work deserves that kind of rigorous thinking and tracking, if it's not of the nature of "construct building" or "design car."
So, call these things whatever you want. If you can't put "Get new babysitter" or "Create my ideal retirement scenario" on a Projects list, put it on the "Outcomes I need and want to have happen" list! And they don't have to go into a computer, each with a formal project plan. You could just write them as a list on the whiteboard in your kitchen or keep a file folder with separate pieces of paper for each item, labeled "Things to finish." But for heaven's sake, capture all of them, clarify what it is you're committed to complete, and keep them in an easily reviewed index.
The last and necessary key to graduate to a next level of control and focus in your life will be to ensure that you've not only captured and clarified all of your projects, but that you also revisit each of those entries often enough, deciding each one's next action, and keeping the list current. Weekly is the most common interval for this kind of executive oversight.
Stop! Reflect for a second: What's occurred in your life and work in the last seven days, about which you know that you've got something you need to handle, finish, resolve, or clarify, but you haven't taken the few moments yet required to define the project that signifies or the next step required? Tricky business, to stay on top of all this...but absolutely necessary if you're going to win at the game of work and business of life.
Good to begin well, better to end well.
If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time.
Q&A WITH DAVID
Q: What do you mean by "edges of work"?
A: It's a great question and a profound issue for all of us—where do our commitments end, and others' responsibilities pick up? Until you have something like an elder-care situation with a parent show up, it's hard to comprehend the critical nature of these self-management algorithms. In truth, it is no more or less than defining the edges of what your agreements with yourself are. When have you done "enough"? What, exactly, are your accountabilities, versus someone else's? No small task, for sure. But if you're looking for something more sophisticated than that, you're probably avoiding it.
David Allen feature article in the New York Times business section
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