You're great at ubiquitous capture, you process your inbox every day, but somewhere between a captured idea and the execution things get gummed up. It's time to overhaul your project list and how you interact with it.
Whether you're an adherent of David Allen's Getting Things Done or any other system that encourages you to capture all the ideas floating around in your head and commit them to paper (or a digital medium), it's likely you've gotten pretty good at the capture side of things. It's on the other end of the conveyor belt, where the ideas get sorted, categorised and made useful, that things tend to get murky. In my productivity workflow, the capture side of things has always been the most enjoyable and easiest — all it really takes is a stack of index cards, a pen and a wandering mind! Even though ubiquitous capture is an awesome habit to have, it has an often overlooked downside. The more ideas or to-dos you increase, the more things you have floating around in your potential workflow. If you don't effectively deal with those things, you end up with a stagnant pool of ideas and the feeling that you'll never do anything with all these ideas/tasks/to-dos you've captured.
Today we're going to look at some methods for keeping the back-end of your productivity machine tidy and ensure that you never end up with a stagnant pool of projects weighing you down.
The Origins of Huge Lists: On Superheroes and Other Metaphors
When we first start practising ubiquitous capture and list keeping we feel empowered. We capture everything we think of: birthdays we would usually forget, errands we'd remember after we'd already sat down at home, great ideas that would have been forgotten by the end of lunch, and hundreds of little actions and ideas that previously just floated through our minds and then away. Getting good at ubiquitous capture is like finding out you have a second memory you never knew about, one impervious to forgetfulness and hardened against calamity. Compared to your past — forgetful! — self you feel like a superhero. Photo by pixelstar.
You capture all these ideas and actions, you do the one-offs — pick up dry cleaning, drop off spare key at neighbour's before leaving on holidays — and you catalogue all the multi-step tasks into projects. This is where things can go terribly wrong for a lot of people, myself included. You keep capturing, you keep adding projects, and pretty soon you've got a lake-sized pool of projects in front of you and regrettably "Buy boat for Lake Project trip" is one of the tasks you hadn't got to yet. We're going to help you navigate and par down that monolithic mix of projects, wishes, and good intentions and get your productivity workflow back and track.
Your Project List Is For The Present
Wishful thinking about the abundance of your time and abilities is a side effect of the superhero-like-buzz you get from capturing everything in your environment and feeling on top of the inputs in your life. This leads to the rapid conversion of captured items into new projects. Noticing the deck needs to be repaired leads to you making a note about the deck, which gets processed and turns out to be more than a single step, which in turn leads to a creation of project surrounding the rehabilitation of your down-and-out deck, which in turn swells your Project List by one more and adds to your general feeling that your Project List might crush you. It's not that repairing your deck is a bad project to have, but unless you're coming up on a long weekend during which you intend to repair that deck, it's a project that will linger on your Project List for a long time, whittling away at the confidence you have in your Project List as a guide for what's really important. Photo by iwanbeijes.
My suggestion: Your Project List is for the present. The only thing that should be on your Project List are things that have an immediate importance to your life and that have current and actionable tasks you can complete. "Graduate School" is a present and immediate project if attending graduate school is part of your career path and you're currently researching and/or enrolling in graduate schools. It's not a present or immediate concern if you've only thought about it in passing and are considering doing it in the future.
I know what you're thinking. "Psssh. What obvious advice. Who would put a project they aren't actively engaged in on their Project List?" You would. Everyone does. Our needs and desires change over time and what was — or at least seemed like it was — and important project a week ago, a month ago, three months ago, is often no longer a matter of importance. If you created a project to repair the deck but you didn't get around to it before the first snow that project is effectively grounded for a good half-year. Alternately you may realise that the repairs the deck needed were entirely cosmetic and financial constraints have made you comfortable sticking with your functional but weathered deck. Photo by Duchesssa.
Get your Project List out right now. It's time to do some heavy pruning, and these questions will help guide you. Several of the entries below refer to the Someday/Maybe List. We'll deal with that list separately in the next section.
Is it important? It's OK to admit that a project was important once but no longer is. Situations and contexts change. Don't keep a project because you feel like it should be important to you. Keep a project only if it is important to who you actually are and the goals you want to achieve. If you can't justify a project just cut it from your Project List with no regrets.
Is it timely? Like with the deck example above, the window of opportunity may have passed. If it will come again next year — gardening, annual charity concert, anything on a rotating schedule — make a note on the calendar at the appropriate time in the future and shelf the project in your Someday/Maybe List. You'll be reminded of the project again when it matters.
Does the project have at least one, preferably multiple, next actions? If it doesn't you have two options. If the project passes the important and timely test of the previous two questions then you can either put the project into your Someday/Maybe List for future review and research or you can take a moment to assign the next action required for the project. Be honest with yourself, however; if a project has been sitting in your Project List with no next action assigned to it, there is a high probability you don't really care about the project and should prune it from your list. Photo by cema.
Be ruthless in your application of these rules. You've read this far in the guide because you've got a Project List that's out of control and it makes you uncomfortable. Don't namby-pamby around with your list. Beat the crap out of it. You started keeping a Project List because you wanted to be organised and you wanted to get things done more efficiently so you could have more free time. You didn't start keeping a Project List so you could feel like there was never enough time to get it all done. Rip your Project List down to the things that really matter to you.
Using the four rules above you'll easily hack a bloated Project List down to a streamlined list that showcases the things that matter to you.
Embrace the Someday/Maybe List and Park Your Good Ideas for a Better Tomorrow
You might be feeling a little blue after the beat down you gave your Project List. Does the immediacy of a well-tended Project List feel like it leaves no room for your dreams of learning to craft French pastries and play Bass guitar? It should. Project lists aren't for French pastries unless "Rent apartment in Paris for my semester at Gaston Lenôtre's centre for People Who Don't Pastry Good But Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too" is on there. Photo by rachelq.
You're allowed to have ideas that just don't fit into the present scheme of things: visions for projects at work, ideas for landscaping your yard, learning a foreign language, being the first person to ever Samba dance while free falling off a weather balloon — whatever makes you happy. Those things simply don't belong on your list of active projects unless you are actually in the process of preparing to do them in the immediate future. Your Someday/Maybe List is a place to store your crazy ideas and the seeds of future great projects. What's that you say? What's stopping your Someday/Maybe List from becoming the ineffective cesspool that your Project List had become? Don't think we'd discuss keeping your Project List in check by using the Someday/Maybe List as an overflow valve without making sure you had the tools to keep your Someday/Maybe List tidy!
Because the Someday/Maybe List functions as a holding area for ideas, daydreams and other things you aren't acting immediately on, the rules for dealing with the Someday/Maybe List are a little more flexible than the Project List. Nonetheless, you still need some sort of guidelines when dealing with your Someday/Maybe List. You don't need to review (and prune) your Someday/Maybe list as frequently and intensely as you do your Project List, but you still need to give it proper attention and prune when necessary.
Your Someday/Maybe List isn't for procrastination. Never put a project on your Someday/Maybe List just because you don't want to do it in the present. You're weakening the whole structure of your productivity system when you "cheat" yourself. If you're thinking about scooting a project onto the Someday/Maybe List just to avoid it you should just delete it. Go through your list now and delete all the items that are actually Someday/Never because you don't actually want to do them.
Your Someday/Maybe List isn't a holiday wishlist. It's for ideas and potential future actions, not the Battlestar Galactica Talking-Cylon-Head Bluray box set you've had your eye on. Put books you want to read, albums you want to purchase and other goods onto appropriate lists in your reference files.
Research your Someday/Maybe items. Take a few items from your Someday/Maybe List and research them at least once a week. It will give you more information about the stuff on your list, give you extra fodder for day dreaming about that hot tub gazebo you want to build, and help clarify when a good time to give the project a green light would be. Photo by lusi.
Move at least one item from your Someday/Maybe List to your Project List per review. If you don't get in the habit of moving the good ideas and dreams you have sequestered away in the Someday/Maybe List to your Project List you're going to burn out. Working, working, and working some more while deferring your Someday/Maybe ideas until you're an octogenarian is a sure recipe for a life not well lived.
Give your Someday/Maybe List the psychoanalysis treatment. Years ago at a seminar I participated in an interesting experiment. Everyone at the seminar paired up with another person. One person's job was to simply say what they wanted and the other person's job was to say "If you had that, then what?" in response to every response the first speaker gave. Everyone paired up and if you eavesdropped the original statements were all over the map "I want a house", "I want a new truck", "I want to get into graduate school", "I want to get married" and so on. As their partners patiently asked "If you had that, then what?" over and over, the answered started to become more in sync throughout the crowd. The wishes for trucks, houses, husbands and other things gave way to people saying "Then I would be safe", "Then I would be loved", "Then I would be respected" and other basic human needs.
Everything on your Someday/Maybe List represents some need you have, even if something like learning to be a French pastry chef or building a home theatre seem remotely connected, at best, to your basic needs as a human being. Acknowledging that the wishes and desires on our Someday/Maybe Lists are actually needs, no matter how outlandishly manifested, allows us to find more immediate ways to fulfil those needs. Only you can dig into your Someday/Maybe List and find the motivation behind all your parked ideas and wishes, but it's a worthwhile endeavour.
Take the previous example of "build a home theatre". Building a home theatre is a huge project and it costs a lot of money. What's the motivation behind building a home theatre? Maybe the person who put it on their list wants to entertain more. Maybe they had a long tradition of going to the small theatre in their home town with their father and grandfather and they want to capture some of that cinema magic for their own children. By reflecting on what put a project on the Someday/Maybe List and why it's important, you can often take a really big — and often really expensive! — idea from your Someday/Maybe List and convert into a project you can do in the present that will make you just as happy. Photo by dnabil.
When you're done with your Someday/Maybe List pruning, you'll have not just a tidier list, but you'll also have fresh ideas and new projects to transfer back into your Project List—projects that have personal value to you and help energize you.
It might seem like a lot of work to manage your Project List and Someday/Maybe List so aggressively, but within ample management your lists will become one more system in your life that you don't have complete faith in. There is little point in keeping a system that you can't trust. With proper tending your Project and Someday/Maybe Lists can be powerful tools in helping you not just get stuff done in the present but plan for what you're going to do with your free time in the future.
If you're looking for more ways to clean house in your productivity system, make sure to check out how to clean out your to-do list for guilt-free productivity and how to start using procedure checklists for flawless task execution. Have a list-tending tip or trick to share? Let's hear about it in the comments.