Getting Things Done

Getting Projects Under Control

After years of working with thousands of professionals down in the trenches, I can safely say that virtually all of us could be doing more planning, more informally and more often, of our projects and our lives. And if we did, it would relieve a lot of pressure on our psyches and produce an enormous amount of creative output with minimal effort.

The real need is to capture and utilize more of the creative, proactive thinking we do—or could do.  If you feel out of control with your current actionable commitments, you’ll resist focused planning; an unconscious pushback occurs. As you begin to apply these methods, however, you may find that they free up room for enormous creative and constructive thinking. If you have systems and habits ready to leverage your ideas, your productivity can expand exponentially.

There are two types of projects, however, that deserve at least some sort of planning activity:

(1) those that still have your attention even after you’ve determined their next actions, and

(2) those about which potentially useful ideas and supportive detail just show up ad hoc.

The first type—the projects that you know have other things about them that must be decided on and organized—will need a more detailed approach than just identifying a next action. For these you’ll need a more specific application of one or more of the other four phases of the natural planning model: purpose and principles, vision/outcome, brainstorming, and/or organizing.

The second type—the projects for which ideas just show up, ad hoc, when you’re on a beach or in a car or in a meeting—need to have an appropriate place into which these associated ideas can be captured. Then they can reside there for later use as needed.

Typical Planning Steps 

The most common types of planning-oriented actions will be your own brainstorming and organizing, setting up meetings, and gathering information.

Organizing:   You may have some projects for which you have already collected notes and miscellaneous support materials, and you just need to sort through them and get them into a more structured form. In this case, your next action would likely be “Organize Project X notes.”

Often a project begins to emerge when it’s triggered by relevant data, notes, and miscellaneous materials, and for this reason, you’ll want to create a folder for a topic as soon as you have something to put in it. If your filing system is too formal (or nonexistent), you’ll probably miss many opportunities to generate a project focus sufficiently early.

How Do I Apply All This in My World?

At the very least, right now or as soon as possible, take those few of your projects that you have the most attention on or interest in right now and do some thinking, collecting, and organizing on them, using whatever tools seem most appropriate.

Focus on each, one at a time, top to bottom. As you do, ask yourself, “What about this do I want to know, capture, or remember?”

You may just want to mind-map some thoughts on a piece of paper, make a file, and toss the paper into it. You may come up with some simple bullet-point headings to attach as a note in your digital/mobile organizer. Or you could create a word processing document and start an outline on it.

How Do You Prevent Broken Agreements with Yourself? 

If the negative feelings come from broken agreements, you have three options for dealing with them and eliminating the negative consequences:

  • Don’t make the agreement.
  • Complete the agreement.
  • Renegotiate the agreement.

One of the best things about this whole method is that when you really take on the responsibility to capture and track what’s on your mind, you’ll think twice about making commitments internally that you don’t really need or want to make.

Renegotiate the Agreement : A renegotiated agreement is not a broken one.

Do you understand yet why getting all your stuff out of your head and in front of you makes you feel better? Because you automatically renegotiate your agreements with yourself when you look at them, think about them, and either act on them that very moment or say, “No, not now.” Here’s the problem: it’s impossible to renegotiate agreements with yourself that you can’t remember you made!

The fact that you can’t remember an agreement you made with yourself doesn’t mean that you’re not holding yourself liable for it.   When will you know how much you have left in your head to capture? Only when there’s nothing left.

I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.

Intelligent Dumbing Down:  shifting your focus to something that your mind perceives as a doable task will create a real increase in positive energy, direction, and motivation. If you have truly captured all the things that have your attention during the mind sweep, go through the list again now and decide on the single very next action to take on every one of them. Notice what happens to your energy.

Clarity:   Too many discussions end with only a vague sense that people know what they have decided and are going to do. But without a clear conclusion that there is a next action, much less what it is and who’s got it, more often than not a lot of stuff gets left up in the air.

Accountability:  The dark side of collaborative cultures is the allergy they foster to holding anyone responsible for having the ball.

Empowerment:   Perhaps the greatest benefit of adopting the next-action approach is that it dramatically increases your ability to make things happen, with a concomitant rise in your self-esteem and constructive outlook.

Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

—Saint Francis of Assisi

Is there too much complaining in your culture? The next time someone moans about something, try asking, “So what’s the next action?”

The action question forces the issue. If it can be changed, there’s some action that will change it. If it can’t, it must be considered part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy and tactics.

The bottom line is it makes you more conscious, more focused, and more capable of implementing the changes and results you want, whatever they are.