It’s one thing to write about how to get things done, but what happens when those things are projects? GTD practitioners often get stuck when it comes to projects simply because projects in and of themselves are not actionable, so when projects get lumped together with next actions, it’s like throwing a wrench in the gears of your productivity. In this post, I’ll explain how to make projects work within your GTD system.
Defining Next Actions versus Projects
It’s essential to distinguish between a next action and a project. A next action is a physical, visible next action step. These belong on your contextual next action lists. A project is any desired outcome that requires more than one next action to complete. These are tracked on your projects list.
Step #1: Get Your Projects Out of Your Head
Just like next actions, you can’t actively work on your projects if you haven’t written them down. That’s why it’s essential to get all your projects out of your head and into your trusted system (i.e. notebook, whiteboard, computer, etc.). Remember that the goal of capturing is pure quantity, not quality. You need not worry about evaluating or judging the content that you’re capturing. You’re simply trying to capture as much as possible. As such, you’re going to have next actions mixed in with projects in your inbox, but that’s perfectly acceptable. The organizing of those items comes when you process your inbox.
Step #2: Separate Projects From Next Actions
As you begin processing your inbox, you’ll need to identify and separate next actions from projects because they go on separate lists. Remember that next actions are just that – They’re actionable. Projects, on the other hand, involve multiple steps and are not actionable in and of themselves. In addition to your next action list, you’ll need to create a project list where you’ll nest all your active and pending projects. As you’re processing your inbox, you might also come across project support material. You’ll need to place s materials into folders that are dedicated to a particular project.
Step #3: Project Planning
Now that you have all your projects on your projects list, you can take the projects that you want to work with and begin planning them. David Allen lists a five-step approach to project design that works for most projects. No matter what size your project is, I think that these five steps pretty much apply across the board when you’re planning a new project.
- Define the purpose:Why are you doing this project? What purpose does it serve? How does it help you? Why should you invest time and resources into it?
- Visualize the outcome:What does the successful completion of this project look like? If the outcome is uncertain, then you’ll undoubtedly run into problems navigating your way there.
- Brainstorm next actions:David Allen recommends using mind-mapping as a brainstorming technique to capture all the next actions associated with a project. Your objective here is to brainstorm all the components of your project.
- Organize:Now that you have all your thoughts on paper, begin to move them into a logical grouping of priorities. I personally like to use a work breakdown structure (WBS) commonly used in project management to organize the project into its core components, down to individual work packages.
- Identify next actions:With your project mapped out, coming up with the next actions should be fairly easy to do.
Step #4: Assigning Project Next Actions
After planning your project, you need a place to nest your project next actions. A hot debate within GTD is where exactly you nest those next actions, but David Allen recommends that you place your project next actions on your contextual next actions list, rather than have them nested under each project. The reason for this is that you don't have to go through each project looking for next actions, rather you can work directly off your context lists, knowing that you’ll be getting the next actions for your project done. Personally, I find that this works okay if the projects are fairly simple and small in size, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a larger, more complex project because there’s a definite need to keep everything in one “container.” Also, larger projects usually have dependencies and it also helps if the project team members can see the work that needs to be done.
GTD is Meant for Smaller Projects
It’s essential to remember that GTD is a personal productivity system, not a full-scale project management system. GTD can handle small to medium size projects, but when it comes to large projects with multiple delegations, stakeholders, budgets and deadlines; it’s better that you upgrade your handling of that project to a more formal project management methodology that has the horsepower that you need to handle the big stuff.