Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Project List: How to Be Like the Memento Guy

At the heart of my life as a productive person is my list of projects. I
define what goes on the list pretty strictly, after David Allen's Getting
Things Done: a project is any kind of change in the world that I want to
make happen, that takes more than one simple step, and the list are the
projects that I am currently *committed* to making steady progress on. So
I draw a line between those active projects and ones that I might want to
do somewhere down the line - which go in a list called Someday/Maybe.
Those ones I don't have to worry about at all, unless I want to move it
over to the project list. In my conception projects should take between 20
minutes and 3 months to finish, and between 3 steps and like 200.

I store projects as memos in a special category on my palm pilot. I like
this because each memo can then hold my thoughts or info about the project
(project support), like if I do a little web research I can paste it in.
Most importantly is when deciding on what the next action is for a
project, I put that in there (as well as on a todo list) One of the
biggest mistakes people make with a todo list is to put things on there
that are really projects: that require not one physical, easily defined
action, but a complicated chain of actions, or a series of tricky

My friend in psychology has designed a scale to test people on how
persistent they are and how much they resist giving up, and the amazing
thing to me watching my own behaviour is how using a project list has
drastically increased my persistence, such that I would probably score
higher on her scale now. I can avoid a project for a while, but unless I
take it off the list it's going to be there staring me in the face - it's
not going to be swept under the rug. It's like being the guy in Memento -
rather than keeping all the projects in your head at once, which is
stress-inducing, you can count on those words (like the tattoos) to prompt
you about what you could be/should be working on. I have about 40 projects
that are currently active (though only a handful of "A" projects, see the
ABC prioritizing system) - there's no way I could keep those in my head.
Like the Memento guy it makes me feel relentless and driven: I *will* keep
calling until I reach someone who can fix the problem; I *will* keep
thinking about this issue until I make a breakthrough. No more pushing it
to the back of my mind and hoping the issue will go away (which in the
case of positive opportunities, it is certain to do). Well less anyway.

For a project list to stay useful it has to be constantly pruned and
updated so that it continues to match that definition. I make myself do
that at least once a week, during the weekly review. There's a few tools I
use to make sure things on the list still match that definition. For
instance if I notice I havent moved on a project for a long time, that
might be a sign that I should simplify it - making it more immediate and
concrete - or break it into smaller projects. Or maybe I can't make
progress on it now, in which case it goes on the Projects - Suspended
list, and I put something before it that says when it's on ice til ("Til
April", "Til x gets back to me"). Or maybe I realize I just don't want to
commit to it now, in which case it goes to Someday/Maybe. Finished or no
longer relevant projects get taken off the list.

I now think of tons of things as a project, from revising a paper to
furnishing my apartment to teachinig myself a statistic to deciding where
to go for salsa lessons. It's an enormous help for planning my time, seems
to genuinely make me more effective, and also gives me a great feeling of
satisfaction when I can finish one off.

See also 5 things to do when starting a project

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