Dealing with too many projects

Back in June, I blogged about the impact of long-lived projects.

If you’re following a PARA structure, projects should be short-lived. Think along the lines of 1-2 weeks in duration. This ensures that you’re always focused on only the most immediate and actionable things, you develop a feeling of consistent project as you regularly complete projects, and you build a sense of trust in your system for helping you to live the life you desire to live.

It’s also a problem if you have too many projects going-on at the same time. Too many simultaneous projects is likely an indicator that you’re multi-tasking and thus context-switching.

In the popular productivity space, many articles (indeed, there is no shortage) describe how context-switching harms productivity. Switching contexts is akin to asking your computer to reboot in a new operating system–it takes time to do the rebooting, which takes away from the time you could be working on your tasks.

A side effect of context-switching and juggling too many projects is that projects that could be completed in 1-2 weeks now take longer.

So how should you address the issue of having too many projects?

Set some of them aside for now. There are many ways to do this. I will quickly discuss 4 of those ways here.

Create a Someday/Maybe list or folder. This is borrowing a structure from the Getting Things Done methodology. A Someday/Maybe list is intended to keep track of things that we may want to do in the future. By writing them down instead of storing them in our heads, we free up our minds to do other things. Projects that we’re putting off for now could be good candidates for this list until we’re ready to start them.

Create a project buffer/queue. This is a list/folder of projects that we want to start in the future. It could be a general pool, or prioritized in some way. You could use this space to hold projects until they’re ready to be started.

Move them to the archives. The Archive is already part of the PARA structure. You could also use this space to hold projects until they’re ready to be started.

Delete them. You may also choose to delete projects from your PARA system for now. This adds the risk of your forgetting about a project. But it removes the risk of zombie projects. These are projects that gather somewhere but never die (ie. get completed).

Reminder that if you have resources in a project folder, make sure you distribute them appropriately to your PARA structure before moving/deleting that project folder 🙂

Deciding where to store something in PARA

Back in Building a Second Brain Cohort 12, I created a flowchart for determining where information should be stored in a PARA structure. I thought it would be useful to apply this flowchart to a practical example.

Let’s suppose you took notes from a seminar on things that you may be aware of during meditation. Where in PARA should you store this note?

Before we jump to the flowchart, I want to observe that one topic may be engaging to one person but not another. Similarly, the nature of any engagement may differ from one person to the next. This means that where a single note gets stored in PARA will depend on the individual doing the storing.

So let’s look at a few of the different ways this note may flow through the flowchart.

Suppose you’re following a meditation program that guides how much you should aim to meditate each day over the course of 21 days.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • Yes, this note may be useful for your meditations as part of the program you’re following.
  • Does the work have a finish line with a deadline?
    • Yes, the program wraps up after 21 meditations over 21 days.

In this case, the note would belong in your Projects. Personally, I would create a folder/note for the project titled “2021 Complete meditation program by December 5”.

Next, suppose you’re trying to build the habit of meditating for 1 minute each day.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • Yes, this note may be useful for the habit you’re trying to build.
  • Does the work have a finish line with a deadline?
    • No, this habit is meant to be on-going and has no deadline.

In this case, the note would belong in your Areas. Personally, I would create a folder/note for the area titled “Meditation”.

Next, suppose meditation is something you’ve researched and tried in the past. It’s still something you’re interested in, but you’ve got too many other things going on right now to prioritize it.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • No, you’re not currently practicing or actively learning about meditation.
  • Is the note related to any active interests?
    • Yes, you’re still interested in meditation.

In this case, the note would belong in your Resources. Personally, I would create a folder/note for the resource titled “Meditation”.

Next, suppose meditation is something you’ve researched and tried in the past. It wasn’t something that you found useful, and have since replaced the practice with other resources.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • No, you’re not currently practicing or actively learning about meditation.
  • Is the note related to any active interests?
    • No, you’re no longer interested in meditation.

In this case, the note would belong in your Archives. Personally, I would create a folder/note in the archives titled “Meditation”.

I hope this helps to illustrate how, depending on your personal context, you can determine how to store your notes in a PARA structure.

GTD ✅ – Reflect

The next step of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system is Reflect. This step is focused around ensuring your system is working effectively.

There are two main components to the Reflect step. One of these is what Allen refers to as Horizons, which are used for gaining greater perspective; this is done less frequently so we will talk about this later on. However, the core component is the Weekly Review. We will focus on this component in this post.

The purpose of the Weekly Review is to keep track and on top of everything you’re working on. This has the benefit of removing this responsibility from your mind, which hopefully encourages you to relax.

Allen suggests setting a regular time each week to do the Weekly Review. More specifically, he suggests doing them on Friday afternoons. It may take a couple of hours to do your first Weekly Review, but in my experience, they get much faster as you get used to the process. This may feel like a long time, but it is worth the benefits it provides.

Here are the steps for completing a Weekly Review. It may be useful to create a checklist based on this that you can use each week as you complete your review.

  • Tidy your environment and mind
    • Add any loose papers, sticky notes, business cards, etc. to your Inbox.
    • Add anything you’re thinking about to your Inbox. These may include things to do (eg. talk to Bob about the new designs) or information you’ve gathered throughout the week (eg. an online article that may be useful for one of your projects).
  • Review your Calendar
    • Review your past week for any action items, follow-ups, or useful information that you haven’t yet collected. Add these to your Inbox.
      • For example, suppose you had a meeting with a coworker to collaborate on a presentation for the Developer All Hands. Looking back at your calendar, you recall that you wanted to schedule another meeting with them to have a practice run before the actual presentation, and also add some finishing touches to your slides. Add these items to your Inbox.
    • Review the upcoming two weeks for any action items that you haven’t yet collected. Add these to your Inbox.
      • For example, suppose the Developer All Hands that you’re presenting at is coming up. You see this two weeks out on your calendar and remember that you wanted to reach out to the organizers to clarify some logistics. Add this to your Inbox.
  • Review your Waiting For List
    • Add anything that requires follow-up to your Inbox.
  • Review your Someday/Maybe List
    • For any items that you want to start actioning on in the immediate future, move them to your Inbox.
    • For any items that you’re no longer interested in doing, remove them from this list.
  • Process your Inbox
  • Review your Active Projects List
    • Any active projects that you want to defer working on until later should be removed from this list and added onto your Someday/Maybe List.
    • Any projects that you have started or will be starting this week should be added to this list.
    • Every active project should have a next action in your GTD system.
  • Review your To-Do Lists
    • Reflect on any items that have been sitting in your list for an extended period of time. Some possible reasons for this may include:
      • Being assigned to the wrong Context. If “Write report draft” has been sitting on your Phone to-do list but you resist picking it up because you’d feel more efficient writing it with a computer, perhaps you should move it to your Computer to-do list.
      • Actually being a Project. Perhaps this next action actually requires multiple steps and should be broken down accordingly.

That is it for the Weekly Review. Depending on how your GTD system evolves, you may wish to add, remove, or change the components of your own review.

And we are now ready to move onto the final step of GTD: Engage.

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GTD ✅ – Clarify and Organize

The next steps of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system are Clarify and Organize. This section will be a little bit longer because these two steps are closely related, and I felt it made the most sense to discuss them together.

These steps are to take the things in your inboxes and process them to be useful. This is because if you just let things sit in your inbox, you won’t trust your system to let you know about work when it’s necessary. Also, every time you look through your inbox for things to be done, you’re going to have to think about what’s left to be done and decide what actions are currently available. This doesn’t sound like it would be stress-free productivity.

Allen uses this workflow diagram to illustrate the Clarify and Organize steps.

I define a project as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step.
–David Allen

To process your inbox, process each item one at a time.

  • Start by asking the question: Is this actionable?
    • If it’s not actionable, decide whether that item will be useful information. If it will be useful on a specific date or time (eg. someone’s birthday), put it on your calendar. If the information isn’t time specific, file it away in your knowledge management system (eg. hard drive, Google Drive, Dropbox).
    • If it is actionable, the next question to ask is: Is it part of a project?
      • If it’s part of a project, add it to your project list. Your project list is just a note that has a bullet-point list of all the active projects you have on the go.
      • (If it’s not part of a project, don’t add it to your project list.)
  • Finally, the last question to ask is: What’s the next action?
    • If the next action is doable in less than 2 minutes, take the time to simply do it right now.
    • If it’s possible to delegate this next action, delegate it to someone. Add this task to your waiting for list. Your waiting for list is just a note that has a bullet-point list of all the tasks you have delegated, and who you’ve delegated it to.
      • When adding this task to your waiting for list, you may want to include a date as a reminder for when you want to follow-up with this person on the status of the task. However, this list will ideally be reviewed weekly during the Reflect step. Because these reminders will be regularly reviewed, you may not find it necessary to add a date to these reminders.
    • If this next action is time or day specific, schedule this task onto your calendar. Only do this if that task has to be done at this specific date or time. Filling your calendar with events that get missed, moved, and ignored will lead you to not trust your calendar, even for the things that really matter.
    • Otherwise, defer this task until later. Add it to a context-specific to-do list. These lists are used to gather the tasks that are available to you in any given context. Examples of these may include a list for the Office, a list for the Computer, a list for the Phone, and a list for running Errands. Because you can’t “Buy milk” when you’re at the office, it doesn’t make sense to include it on that list.

For an example, let’s suppose I pull an item from my inbox: “Developer All Hands Presentation”.

Is this actionable? Yes. I want to put together a presentation on something for the next Developer All Hands at work.

Is it part of a project? Yes–I will need to brainstorm content for my presentation, sign-up for a time slot, prep my slides, practice, etc. So I add “Present at the next Developer All Hands” to my list of active projects.

What’s the next action? Before I can sign-up, prep my slides, or practice, I need to decide on a topic, so my next action will be to brainstorm a list of potential presentation topics. This will probably take more than 2 minutes, isn’t something I want to delegate, and doesn’t need to take place at a specific date or time. So I’ll add an item to my to-do list for my Computer context to “Brainstorm a list of potential topics for my Developer All Hands presentation.”

And processing that item from my inbox is now complete.

Now we’re ready to move onto the Reflect stage of GTD.

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GTD ✅ – Capture

The first step of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system is Capture. This step is all about getting stuff out of your head and into your productivity system.

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
–David Allen

The first step in setting up the Capture part of your system is establishing inboxes to capture your thoughts. Inboxes can take many forms, both analog and digital.

Some of the inboxes I use include:

  • My e-mail inbox
  • My OmniFocus inbox
  • A physical inbox at home (where I put physical letters, things I want to read, loose paper I’ve written on, etc.)

One word of caution here: try to minimize the number of inboxes you use. Having too many inboxes may become unmanageable. Capturing your thoughts should be simple–you don’t want to have to stop to decide which inbox to put something in.

If this is your first time working with the GTD system (or if you want to do this on a semi-regular basis to ensure you aren’t letting things slip-through uncaptured), Allen recommends doing a mind dump. I will talk about that now, and then afterwards I will discuss what it looks like to maintain this Capture step on an ongoing basis.

Mind Dump

A mind dump is where you spend 60-90 minutes reading through an incompletion trigger list and then adding to your inbox any thoughts you have related to each item on that incompletion trigger list. These may include things to do, or information/ideas. You don’t need to include details–just enough information so that when you process your inbox, you’ll know what you were thinking of. You also don’t need to separate them–everything can go into a single inbox. We’ll process it in a future step.

Nothing is too big or two small to capture. It’s important to capture everything on your mind.

Examples of things that you might want to add to your inbox include:

  • Ideas for marketing email content
  • Ingredients for spaghetti
  • Taking a dance class
  • Vacation to South Korea
  • The URL for a website you know will be useful in the future

Ongoing Capture

The final part of your capture habit is ensuring you’re prepared to capture outstanding tasks as you encounter them throughout your day. Don’t trust your memory to hold onto things until you’re ready to record or action on them. Write them down as soon as possible.

Some of the things I use to facilitate this include:

  • The OmniFocus app on my cell phone
  • Sticky note pads and pens that sit on my desk
  • A notepad and pen I store in my wallet

With these practices in place, you’re now set-up to Capture everything you need.

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GTD ✅ – GTD Overview

In Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen introduces a 5 step system for stress-free productivity. The various aspects of his system address the various psychological factors I wrote about in the previous two posts.

This system includes the following steps:

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Reflect
  5. Engage

Although this system was originally designed for analog tools, there are many digital tools available to implement this system. Here’s an incomplete list:

In the following posts, we will take a deeper dive into each of these 5 steps.

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GTD ✅ – Other Psychological Factors

There are three more psychological factors I wanted to introduce briefly. These factors also help to explain how our minds work, why we sometimes default to unproductive patterns in our lives, and what the Getting Things Done (GTD) system tries to address. Understanding them can help us to make sense of how we work and the benefits we can get from practicing different principles from GTD.

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that we remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. Open loops (eg. woulds, coulds, shoulds) pull on our attention. This can prevent us from focusing on the task at hand, and lead us to stress about things that are still left unaddressed.

Decision fatigue refers to the observation that decision quality deteriorates after long periods of decision making. Between home and work, many of us spend our days making non-stop decisions of various scale. Even when it comes to thinking about things that make us unhappy, we spend a lot of time ruminating about how we want things to be different.

Working memory refers to our short-term memory. It’s unreliable (eg. you may remember your grocery list when you leave the house, but that doesn’t mean you’ll remember it when you get to the store) and has a limited capacity (although some people can pull off impressive feats such as memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards, this often takes a lot of practice and methods that tap into other memory systems).

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GTD ✅ – Stress and Relaxation

There are two contrasting modes of operation that are commonly cited when talking about the brain.

Colloquially, these are sometimes called the reptilian and mammalian brains. Jonathan Haidt calls these the elephant and the rider in The Happiness Hypothesis. Daniel Kahneman calls these System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. In How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb provides two perspectives on these modes: one set she calls the automatic and deliberate systems, and the other she calls the defend and discover axes. And in Fierce Intimacy, Terry Real describes these as the adaptive child and the functional adult.

In the context of Getting Things Done (GTD), we can think of these as stressed and relaxed.

When we are operating in a stressed mode:

  • Our focus is on addressing threats.
  • We make quick choices automatically based on intuition and impulses.
  • Our emotions dictate our behaviours.

When we are operating in a relaxed mode:

  • We are open to experiencing and learning new things.
  • We make conscious, deliberate choices.
  • Our emotions inform our behaviours.

Our stressed mode is more influential than our relaxed mode. This means that when the stressed mode is activated, it takes the controls from the relaxed mode.

One may attempt to explain this using evolutionary theory. Suppose you’re calming crossing the street, when all of a sudden you realize that there’s a speeding car coming right at you. Are you more likely to survive if you stay in relaxed mode where you make a slow, conscious, deliberate choice about what to do? Or are you more likely to survive if your stressed mode suddenly takes over and makes a quick, automatic choice using your intuition and impulses to jump out of the way?

We face relatively fewer threats to our survival today than we did in the distant past. But evolution is a slow process. For most of our history, we have benefitted from using our stressed mode to respond to threats. As a result, we still default to stressed mode when we experience a threat today, even if that threat is simply having unfinished work at the end of the day.

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GTD ✅ – Intro and TOC

This series is adapted from a series I wrote for my co-workers as an introduction to the Getting Things Done approach to productivity. I owe many thanks to:

  • Dana for proofreading and helping me with improving the structure of this series,
  • Omar and Patrick for encouraging me to share this series more broadly,
  • Nick Milo (and Linking Your Thinking) for the inspiration of breaking this series into atomic pieces with navigation and a table of contents,
  • and David Allen for developing and sharing the Getting Things Done methodology with the world.

We work in a world driven by goals and OKRs. However, having a productivity system that is simply goals-driven isn’t enough to be effective.

We work in an interruption-heavy environment. Between Slack/Teams messages, meetings, and e-mails, there’s a lot of things pulling on our attention. With all these things fighting for our attention, it can be difficult to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Ineffective productivity systems create distraction and stress. If you don’t completely trust your system, you’ll subconsciously resist using it for managing things that are important. You’ll always be anxious about whether your system will be sufficient to help you manage your work. You’ll feel the need to always remember your upcoming tasks because you won’t trust that your system will serve you when the time is right.

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.
–David Allen

Goals can be demotivating. If we focus too strongly on something that’s too far out of reach, it can be demotivating. It can feel like we’re not making progress, or that achievement is simply unrealistic.

When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.
–Creighton Abrams

I’ve put together this series to share a productivity system that I think addresses these concerns: David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). I will review each step of Allen’s system and provide tips on how to implement it. In the next section, I will explain some of the psychology behind why this system is effective.

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Table of Contents

  1. GTD ✅ – Intro and TOC
  2. GTD ✅ – Stress and Relaxation
  3. GTD ✅ – Other Psychological Factors
  4. GTD ✅ – GTD Overview
  5. GTD ✅ – Capture
  6. GTD ✅ – Clarify and Organize
  7. GTD ✅ – Reflect
  8. GTD ✅ – Engage
  9. GTD ✅ – Psychological Benefits of GTD

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GTD ✅ – Psychological Benefits of GTD

To conclude this series, I wanted to discuss how David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system addresses some of the psychological factors we talked about earlier.

The Capture step is where we unload things from our brains and into our GTD system. This helps to reduce Working Memory as we can rely on our system to keep track of things instead of relying on our short-term memory. It also helps with the Zeigarnik Effect as it closes loops on the unfinished tasks and unsorted information that we were previously storing in our heads. This also helps to move us from a Stressed to a Relaxed state as we can stop worrying about things we may forget or things we have already forgotten, and we can better focus on the work at hand instead of getting distracted by all the things we still have to do later.

The Clarify and Organize steps are where we process the information and tasks we have collected and integrate them into our GTD system. This helps with Decision Fatigue–so long as the items have been clarified and organized. Ideally, when we pick something from our to-do list, we’re looking for something that is ready to be engaged with. However, if we haven’t clarified and organized that item in our to-do list, then we’re back to having to decide what the next action is before we can engage with it. By batching all this work into the Clarify and Organize steps, we reduce the number of decisions we need to make when we are getting things done. These steps also help with the Zeigarnik Effect and Working Memory when it comes to projects. Because we entrust our system to keep track of on-going projects, we don’t need to worry about what the next action is when we make progress towards a project.

The Reflect step is where we ensure our system is working effectively, and also continues to work effectively so that you build trust in your system. It encompasses attributes from all of the CaptureClarify, and Organize steps. As a result, it also helps with Working Memory, the Zeigarnik EffectDecision Fatigue, and transitioning from a Stressed to a Relaxed state.

The Engage step is where we actually get things done. This step helps with Decision Fatigue. Instead of having to rack your brain for what to do, you now have a list of things that are immediately available for you to do. You may choose to be selective during this process, but even if you do, this has greatly narrowed the set of possible options and thus the impact of decision fatigue. Additionally, this step helps to move you from a Stressed to a Relaxed state as you complete things and feel like you’re getting things done and making progress on your goals.

In summary, there are many psychological factors that can impact our productivity. Allen’s GTD system is a way to help improve our productivity by addressing some of these psychological factors.

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.
–David Allen

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