I’ve been set to think about my GTD setup again because of three reasons:
I haven’t done any maintenance on my GTD system (omnifocus in my case) in months. So I’ve been more or less been working by accident and by deadline in the last months.
One note I’d like to make is that I’ve effectively dropped most of my home/private projects and that I’ve worked almost fulltime on my model railway (see a full description in Dutch). So my work was cut out for me: just get it working. I did some brainstorming and planning of course, but the whole process was quite clear.
I’ve got a new project for which I really want to keep track of what I need to do. But I noticed I didn’t trust my own system for that… Time for long-overdue maintenance!
A recent David Allen (GTD creator) video. 20 minutes. With a focus on projects. And that’s the number one area where I have problems getting the system to work right.
Some of my problems with projects:
I have no problems thinking up new ones. I have lots of them.
They tend to overlap if they’re not too clear. Or they’re too big.
Many of them run for a long time.
Many are never worked on. So I should probably scrap them as they’re not worth doing.
I keep them around anyway.
I want to structure them in folders, which sometimes gives too much structure. Or I’ve got a huge plain list that really needs structuring. Aargh.
Main problem: many projects have lots of actions. I tend to brainstorm and put all the tasks I can think of in the project. Followed by some ordering (“this needs to happen first”). In practice I need just one task to get started and then the rest follows along. Which means I next have to go through the list of actions again and re-order them.
Should I only keep one or two (next) actions in there? Should the brainstorm results be stored somewhere else? I can re-brainstorm easily. I often do that anyway when re-starting work on a project.
Should I re-start with a clean list once a year (like, right now)?
Back to that recent video I mentioned. Per project (which is defined as a multi-step something you want to accomplish) it defines five stages. In GTD terms: “the natural planning model”.
What is the purpose? From the video: “Some real intention. Something you need to have occur or happen. What is the main reason this thing exists? What is the primary purpose for this thing?”
So the purpose of a project isn’t “my bike’s light must be fixed”. That’s more the title of the project. The purpose is something at a higher level. “My bike commute should be safe”, for instance.
The purpose connects your project to the whole of your life. That might sound a bit melodramatic for mundane projects. Something simpler like “because its my job to fix misbehaving websites” is fine, too.
What is the vision of success. Paint a picture in your mind of the successful end result. “My bike light works again and keeps working without any maintenance for the next three years”, for instance.
Painting the end result helps you get ideas. Your brain automatically notices a difference between the current state and the desired future state. So it starts coming up with ideas (see the next phase).
As an example, look at your desk if it is cluttered with papers and stuff. And then imagine it completely clean. Really imagine it. Notice how your brain starts planning automatically?
Brainstorm ideas. With a good picture in your mind of what success means, your brain will start doing this automatically. Just write it down. Or use a whiteboard or so.
Structure the brainstormed ideas. For instance, pick the three most relevant or important items. What is big? What is little? What is important to do? What is critical? What is a priority? What is (im)possible?
Pick the next action. “This might be the most important part of the natural planning model” according to David Allen. What is the very next physical action you can take on this project.
It needs to be very specific and visual. “Fix the light” is too vague. “Unscrew the current defective light” is fine.
There are some ideas I got out of this. Main take-away is to not just create a new project and slap some actions on it. I need to plan a project properly. At least I’ve got to write down the project’s purpose and vision. That can go nicely in omnifocus’ comment field.
Part of the vision should end up in the title of the project to make it more explicit and attractive.
And… I don’t need to store my brainstorm results (“a huge list of possible actions”) in my project. Perhaps on a paper note somewhere else? Perhaps just throw it away? Just keep the important ones and/or the actions I promised others to do. And the next action.
What I’m probably going to do:
Look through my current projects. Which ones are on that list for more than a year? Why didn’t I finish them? Are they ill-defined? Did they just lack priority?
Go through my current actions. Flag the ones that still need doing and print them out.
And then…. restart with a blank slate in omnifocus. That’ll take a day!
Good to be thinking about this!
My name is Reinout van Rees and I work a lot with Python (programming language) and Django (website framework). I live in The Netherlands and I'm happily married to Annie van Rees-Kooiman.
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