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Overwhelmed by number of projects and N/A's

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  • Overwhelmed by number of projects and N/A's

    I posted this in a previous thread, but at the advice of someone in the thread am also posting here so more people may see it and respond.

    For those of you who have already seen this I apoligize.

    I've been flirting w/ GTD for about a year or so. I was very gungho early on. Spent 2 days gathering everthing. When I was finished, I had over 300 N/As. Looking back not all of them were truly next actions. I couldn't avoid stopping my mind from thinking ahead 3 or 4 actions and listing them for fear of forgetting them. I would work off the list, but often the list was so large, and I had so many things that seemingly screamed to be done now, that I didn't do any of them. I've read the book, but have had a difficult time visulizing exactly how to organize my n/a vs. projects vs areas of responsibility.

    Don't hold this against me, but I'm an attorney (sounds like the beginning of an AA meeting). I've got about 60 files or cases. Each one, depending on complexity, may have 10 to 15 projects with seveal n/a's for each project. Early in a case, I'll brainstorm about everything that needs to be done, the result of which can create numerous projects. Often there are no hard deadlines, save a trial date with corresponding discovery/deposition cut-off, etc. Between the time suit is filed and trial may be 9 months to a year, so its easy to put off the projects.

    The overwhelming number of n/a's that don't have a deadline, but all of which seem to need to be done at the same time often leads to procrastination and my doing simply whatever fire pops up in front of me.

    How to organize an immense number of n/a's?

    Aside, from upcoming hard deadlines, how to decide what n/a's or projects to handle?

    What to do and where to keep projects v. n/a's, especially where I have seveal that are equally important on a particular case?

    How to get past being frozen by the shear volume of projects and n/a's.

    Thanks in advance for your time in responding.

  • #2
    You need to stop.

    Take a given project, think of the very next action, write it down, then STOP. Move on to the next project.

    This is hard. It takes a lot of time and practice. That's okay.

    Tip: If you find yourself slipping back into writing out multipe NAs per project, take a step back and look at your entire work load. Remind yourself that you can't afford to write out multiple NAs per project.

    Does that help, or have I misunderstood?


    • #3
      Why stop? Why derail a good brainstorming train when it's going well? I love being in the 'flow' where I can see several things that need to be done; it saves me from having to get into the brainstorming mode later on, when I've run out of ideas.

      When I'm starting a project and things are popping, I write them all down in a list - this list belongs in my project support materials. It stays with the project file, and is not considered my actual NA list. Then, when I'm done brainstorming, I choose the next one (or few) next actions that need to be done. These go on my NA list.

      I think the issue here might be not that msherring has too many items, but that they might not be in the right place right now. The only thing on your next action list is those actions that can actually get done right now, i.e., they aren't waiting for something else to happen first. Because you don't have a lot of deadlines, you could also cull these actions to one or two per project that you think you'll get done in the next couple of weeks. When they're done, you can go back to your project support materials for more NAs.

      I say rethink where you're putting these actions. But definitely don't stifle your brainstorming


      • #4
        Originally posted by msherring
        How to organize an immense number of n/a's?

        Aside, from upcoming hard deadlines, how to decide what n/a's or projects to handle?

        What to do and where to keep projects v. n/a's, especially where I have several that are equally important on a particular case?

        How to get past being frozen by the shear volume of projects and n/a's.

        Thanks in advance for your time in responding.
        One thing to keep in mind is that these projects and NA's exist whether they are captured in a system or not...

        And, I think that the first step in becoming "un-stuck" is implementing the GTD system fully.

        What I would do is define what the successful outcome is for each of your projects, and only note the VERY NEXT ACTIONS in your system.

        All of the actions that you think of in your brainstorming system would be housed in the related project file and reviewed weekly.

        If you have several NA's for a given project that are independent, you should list each of those separately in your lists.

        Hope this helps,



        • #5
          Originally posted by msherring
          How to organize an immense number of n/a's?
          The answer to this depends on what sort of system you are using or want to use, paper or electonic, tied to a certain computing platform, etc.
          Originally posted by msherring
          Aside, from upcoming hard deadlines, how to decide what n/a's or projects to handle?
          You probably have some ideas about this already. If you were making a list on a blank page without all your support material at hand, what would write? There's nothing wrong with trying different methods and seeing what works best for you. You could try forcing yourself to do things as much as possible by due date, which would alert you if you have a tendency to resist or put off certain types of tasks. Or you could batch tasks by type of action, e.g. all cases in the next few months that require a certain type of research or paperwork. In any case, you might want to block out time to deal with email and calls.
          Originally posted by msherring
          How to get past being frozen by the shear volume of projects and n/a's.
          This would be the biggest issue for me. I think the weekly review is your best friend here. As others have suggested, only put things on your next action lists that you plan to do in the next week. Keep your projects list and any associated planning that you've done separate. You just determined that these projects do not require action in the next week, and you know you won't forget them because you'll see them at your next weekly review. If you finish these NAs early, you can easily add NAs or even do a weekly review ahead of schedule. When you do your next weekly review, you can reevaluate the priority of the remaining projects and add NAs as appropriate. If something comes up related to a case not on your weekly horizon, you have the project support materials and can alter your priorities as necessary.

          But in the meantime, you should have manageable sized lists of NAs to work from for the current week.


          • #6

            Maybe create a master checklist for certain kinds of cases or one big comrpehensive one. When you start a new case check off what you think you will need to do for it and enter the first one on your n/a list with a note to see check list when it is done, and also enter any that are truly indepedent (non-sequential). I think you are using the n/a lists as I have been and am trying not to do, as a way to cature things I don't want to forget but really am not certain I will do in the next 1-3 weeks, and as a way of creating a list that will cue me as to what direction I need to go in, such as if I see 4 actions that involve writing, I am be more likely to get worried about the writing and then do it.


            • #7
              Originally posted by GTD Wannabe
              Why stop? Why derail a good brainstorming train when it's going well?
              Because of the time required to do that brainstorming.

              If one has too much to do, time spent on brainstorming is time that can't be spent on other work, no matter how good the brainstorming might be.


              • #8
                Note: I think brainstorming is great, and I would encourage most people to spend time brainstorming. I often set aside time explicitly for brainstorming.

                But as I recall, this particular thread is in the context of having many, many projects and spending a significant amount of time brainstorming many potential next actions for each project. In that context, I suggest that one needs to put on the brakes.


                • #9
                  Break things down differently.

                  Why so many projects per case? I think part of the challenge is that you are looking at projects at the wrong level of abstraction.

                  You say you have 60 cases with 10-15 projects each. That's 600 to 900 projects! If you have only one Next Action for each project then you have between 600-900 next actions that you are managing. If each next action takes only 5 minutes to do (and I bet some of them would take an hour or more) then you'd spend 50 hours to complete all of them. There is no way that you can handle that many Next Actions.

                  Now look at it differently. You have 60 cases. Each project is a case. Brainstorm all the activity you will need to complete this project. Put the brainstorming list (project plan) in the project support materials. Do Not put these actions on your Next Actions list Yet.

                  Look over the complete project list. Is there anything on the list you can delegate? If so, delegate it, or arrange to delegate it, as soon as you possibly can.

                  Next pick One next item from the list. Ensure that it is a Next Action. Put it on your next action list and move on to the next case. Once you complete it, you can add a new next action.

                  Once you are in control at this level you can add one or maybe two next actions for each project that are truly next actions (not dependant upon other actions). Project plans tend to be very volitile and putting more than three next actions per project risks working on activity that may not be relevant at a later date.

                  60 cases, 60 projects, 60 next actions. Much more manageable. You still have all the information from your brainstorming list. At this point it is all undoable. It is also stored in the proper place, your project support materials.

                  Hope that helps.


                  • #10

                    I have each case be a project. A case may have separate different catagories of things that need to be done. Brainstorming a case and thinking about it in its entirety and all its subparts is an important part of what we do but the list of actions that go beyond the next action or next actions stay in the case support file where we can see it during the next weekly review or while concentrated blocks of time are being spent on that file.
                    What goes on the next action list is the next action or next actions that do not require a previous action.
                    My lawyering involves a lot of drafting. A lot of it is complicated and involves needing at least an hour or two stretch so I can wrestle with the issues and the wording.That may involve several serial actions. I was taught in a law office management course to scedule that file as an appointment. Every week I decided what next weeks "hot files" are. I limit them to 3-5 and those are the ones that get the specific appointments where I can do as much as I can on that file in a time period.
                    I asked David Allen about this at a seminar. He said that one of his mentors said that when something was going to take more than an hour or so of concentrated time he scheduled it. DA said he didn't teach what he himself didn't do but it was a perfectly reasonable way to handle if it worked for me.
                    When I do do that I find at the end of the week I feel that I have acomplished a lot more. There is still plenty of time for pure next actions by context in between all the other stuff.

                    I'll look forward to reading what others do.


                    • #11
                      I'm on the downhill side of the equation, where I have an attorney delegating things to me, the legal assistant. I receive tons of email from him with tasks, and I coordinate several workers in the field -- inspectors, and so on.

                      I print and group the emails into tasks, and those are put on a list and into numbered folders. Right now I have 134 folders. And there are a lot of things that don't make it into folders -- paying his bills, for example.

                      Since I'm not "management" per se, I find that this is one area that is not addressed in GTD. David tells everyone to delegate as much as possible, but doesn't tell us delegatees how to handle all the downflow when we are not in control of how much we get, when it's due, and how to possibly get it all done without losing our minds -- or our jobs.


                      • #12
                        Delegation is a possibility, not a requirement. Sometimes, you can't delegate, in which case the other options explained in the book would be more useful.


                        • #13
                          I never miss the opportunity capture NNAs (next next actions) when I am cranking. In my view, its part of getting everything on paper and out of my head. I use the due date function in my tasks outline to seperate them so I am only looking at the recent one (reducing clutter). Ultimately, if there are 300 NAs out there, they're out there no matter what. You might as well figure out how to deal with them.


                          • #14

                            134 folders is a lot! I'm assuming those lists in there are things he would like done, say within the week? One thing GTD does for the delegatees, is to make them conscious of just how much is coming IN. If it's too much, then it's time to figure out how to say no. Maybe you should take those 134 folders and put them in front of your boss and say, help me prioritize these the way you want. Make him conscious of your work load, so that you get reasonable deadlines for those lists.


                            • #15
                              My solution

                              I am an attorney myself, and had similar troubles implementing GTD as the original poster. I am about 2 weeks in to a system that I think is going to work REALLY well for me, and does a great job of handling the unique problems of attorneys (huge lists of projects, na's, and waiting-fors, lots of delegation, trouble identifying what is going on in a case and determining NA's without pulling a file, etc...).

                              I have ONE next action list. It resides in basecamp ( and, as has been suggested by others, has only those things on it that I expect to be able to accomplish in about a week.

                              I ditched my project list, my waiting-for list, my someday/maybe list, and my next actions list for more than 1 week ahead and combined them all into a single paper-based case planning notebook. Here's how it works:

                              1. Tabbed dividers, alpha by client. My 2-3 largest clients with 5-15 matters each have their own special tabs in the front.

                              2. Each matter/case gets a page. A "matter/case" is equivalent to a file in my client file cabinet and a billing file number in my accounting system. So a client with several matters may have multiple pages in my notebook. For clients with multiple matters, the matters are alpha by matter name.

                              3. A matter page in my notebook is a form I created. It has these components:
                              a. At the top left, room for a short goal statement to help jog my memory and provide big picture guidance as to where I should be going to be able to satisfy the client and close the file. Sometimes it's the last action I will take before closing the file, such as "Delver settlement proceeds to client" or "Record deed". Other times its more of a project type statement, such as "Close estate" or "Form new LLC". The goal is to briefly remind me where I'm headed.
                              b. Top right, blanks for client name, matter name, and file number
                              c. The body of the page is simply a list of to-do items. I use the word "to-do" deliberately and in the general, non-GTD, sense, because I might list projects, waiting-fors, next actions, or future next-actions that are not actionable yet here. There is a blank for date entered, date due (only for things with real deadlines), item type (more on this in a sec), and date completed.
                              d. In the bottom margin, I have a couple of blank lines for useful, random info, such as the client's phone number, or the name of the opposing counsel. Other than these two lines at the bottom, I don't put ANY support materials or matter details in the notebook. It is for planning only.

                              4. It works like this. The notebook is a zippered binder. It sits open on my desk all day, every day, and goes with me wherever I go that I might be doing work, including to court, off-site client meetings, and home on some nights and weekends. I use the matter pages to plan, using the item type blank to make it GTD-compliant. For example, if a matter contains several projects (like a large estate might, or a complex real estate transaction), I list the projects and put a "P" in the item type blank. For actions, I will list the action with an "A". For complex matters with multiple projects, I list which project the action goes with with a designation like "AP1" or "AP2". I will even list future actions that are not actionable yet, so that when I complete the current action, I don't have to pull the file to decide what to do next. If an item is actionable now, but not on my current 1-week NA list, sometimes I circle the "A" to call it to my attention during the weekly review. For waiting-fors and things that I delegate, I use "WF" and put the initials of the person it was delegated to somewhere. The goal is, at any given moment, to be able to turn the the matter page and know exactly what is going on in that matter, i.e. what I am working on, what my assistant is working on, and what needs to be done next.

                              5. The weekly review. This is, as we all know, the crux of the system, and because all my next actions are not on my next action list, it is CRUCIAL to do the weekly review and get all of next week's actions on it for next week. The weekly review turns out to be pretty simple. I get all my inputs processed on Friday, so all my actions and projects are in the notebook, and I take the notebook home. On Sunday morning, while the baby and the wife are napping, I pull up basecamp on the computer, and flip through the notebook one page at a time. For each matter, I update the notebook by checking off things that are done, reviewing the current planning steps to make sure I know what the next action is, and transfer actions that I want to do that week into basecamp.

                              There are some inefficiencies, chiefly the fact that I have to physically enter actions twice (once in the notebook, once in basecamp) and check them off as done in two places, but the luxury of being able to do the weekly review without pulling files out more than makes up for that.

                              On a day-to-day basis, I consult my basecamp 1-week NA list to see what to do next. It's sorted roughly by priority to help me decide. Things that pop-up on a day-to-day basis will get put there and may never make the notebook if it's something simple that I will get to that week. The notebook is consulted regularly, too, but less religiously because I know that a failure to update the notebook will get corrected when I do the weekly review. Whenever I do some "real" work on a case, such as drafting a document, research, a client meeting, or a hearing, I will open the notebook to the case, check off what I just did (same in basecamp), and make sure the next step or three is listed there, to close the loops before I put the file away.

                              So far, I love it, and it is working great! All the computer-based and PDA planning tools I tried, attorney-specific and more general, just never really worked for me, and I'm a really high-tech kinda guy. This system feels great, and really gives me what GTD is designed for: piece of mind knowing there are no open loops.

                              I hope this is helpful to someone.