Blog Productivity

Everything is a project

There is so much to do every day. So many tasks, big and small, waiting to be done. How do you keep track?
I have found that normal to-do lists are not enough for me. Often one to-do on the list leads to another, they depend on each other, or I need additional information for reference. So how do I group to-do items in a meaningful way?

What works well for me is the concept of a project as described by David Allen in his wonderful book “Getting Things Done“.
A project is a collection of tasks around a topic that you combine with a description and a purpose, according to David Allen’s concept.
At any given time, I have a lot of different projects that I would like to pursue. But keeping them all in my head and deciding which one to do next and what exactly to do next for them is too much for me. If I try to keep track in my head, my brain starts to think that all projects are equally important. Then it wants to do them all at once, realizes it can’t, and that leads to mental stress.

My solution, inspired by the GTD approach, is to write down the projects. I like to use Joplin, but any other note-taking application or even a paper notebook would do.
This has three big advantages for me.
First, I do not have to keep the projects in my head. I can relax in knowing that all my projects are on my list and will not be forgotten.
Second, whenever I have a new idea for a project or find some useful information, I know exactly where to put it – in the note for that project. I no longer have to keep scattered bits of information in a notebook, in my browser bookmarks, or on my bookshelf.
And third, having all my projects in one place allows me to prioritize them. As Brian Tracy said: “Always work from a list”. I can see all my projects at a glance and decide which ones are important at that moment.

Only sometimes are the projects in my personal life and in my job the result of careful planning, with a description of the purpose and a list of To-Dos as described in the GTD book. Usually, new projects turn up ad-hoc as ideas in my Personal Pensieve. I have the feeling that something needs to be done and write it down in my pensieve. Usually I do not have time to work out a proper project in the moment, so the idea just sits in my Pensieve.
A little later, usually the next morning, I revisit my Pensieve. When I find an idea that could become a project I like to pursue, I start working on that note. This is usually a brainstorming process. I like to start by writing down a few thoughts, like what this project might be about or what I already know. At this stage, I might also do some (very quick) research on the internet. If I find something that looks relevant, I paste a link in my notebook. I could also collect some screenshots or PDFs. In parallel I usually jot down a few first todos that come into my mind.
The most important part is to keep this whole process as simple and low-key as possible. Nobody except me is ever going to read my projects, so I do not have to care about style or formatting. I can rework the note as often as I want, so it does not have to be perfect from the start. So I keep reworking, rewording and restyling my project description as long as I have time and inspiration for this topic.

When I am done with this initial step, the project usually goes into my project storage, as it has to compete for attention with all my other ongoing projects. I may revisit it later if I stumble upon a related link on the Internet or an article in a magazine. Or I might have a new idea for that project that my subconscious mind produced while I was doing something completely unrelated. This is usually a good reason to revisit the project. By this time, the purpose of the project has often become clearer to me. Or I realize that the project is now obsolete – then it was good that I postponed working on it.

When I start to work on a project, I go over my initial thoughts, the ones I had stored in the note for that project. Then I like to get a little more formal and rewrite the purpose of the project. This helps me think more clearly about the goals of the project and my next steps. I revise the to-do list until I am clear on what the next step is. There may be several things that can be done, but in my experience there is usually one big next step that presents itself. I then plan to do that next step, either immediately or if it takes a little longer, I create a to-do in my to-do app. This means that the to-do app is still the one place where I decide what to do at any given moment. Having the list of my ongoing projects helps me decide which to-do’s to add to my to-do list, and I know that all of my thoughts for all of my ongoing projects are captured in one safe place.

As the project progresses, I work through the todos and add to or revise the list of todos in that project.
The note is also a good place to store additional information about the project, such as meeting minutes, links to issues, code snippets, etc.

Eventually, the project will be completed. When it is finished, I archive my projects. In Joplin, I keep a special folder for archiving where I put the finished projects. Archiving is very important. Every once in a while, I might need some information from a finished project, like an article I read during the course of the project, or the name of a participant in a meeting. Or if it was a project at home, like a home renovation project, I might want to look up what kind of screw I bought for that renovation because I might need it again for my next project. Even projects that are not finished because they become obsolete find a place in my archive – you never know if some information might come in handy later, or if the project might come back to life altogether.

The list of projects is like an ecosystem. It grows as new projects come to life, it shrinks as projects are completed. Sometimes I have sparks of creativity or a high influx of tasks, then I generate a lot of new projects. In these situations it is especially useful to have my project list and to do the prioritization. Then there are droughts when I do not have many creative ideas and there is little work coming in from outside. Then I can draw from my pool of project ideas and start working on topics that have not gotten my attention before.

This concept of keeping all my activities in the form of projects has greatly improved my productivity in my work and personal life. Keeping a list of all my projects helps me to relax because I do not have to keep all my ideas in my head. And that in turn frees up my mind for more creative ideas that lead to even more interesting projects.

I hope you found this article interesting and that it might have sparked some useful thoughts in your head.
In one of my next articles, I will show you how I do this process in Joplin.

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