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At what level does a Project start?

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  • At what level does a Project start?

    This is going to sound really dumb I know, but at what level does a Project start?

    Say for example you are interested in Writing, and you decide that you wish to write a Novel. You could view Writing as a Project, with a sub project of Write a Novel. Or you could view Writing as a Focus Area, then Write a Novel as the Project.

    Typically I would view Writing as an Area of Focus, with various projects contained within, but then I thought is it? Or is it actually a Top Level Project? Should I view it as a Project? If I was to view it as a Project that could change the Next Actions, because of other Sub Projects. I would have to decide what the Next Action was with regards to Writing as a Project, as a whole. Then I thought that could be advantageous in one way, but then in another way problematic.

    I am just not sure how far up the tree to define the Project. I know it sounds daft, but it just keep spinning around in my head. So I wondered if anybody had any guidance on this?

    All the best

    Steve (dazed and confused from too much thinking!!)

  • #2
    re: at what level does a project start

    Hi Steve,

    I remember asking myself the same question as I read GTD. I think you need to go back to the mantra of what a project is: "any task that will take more than one action to complete"

    I think DA's a bit vague about the project / subproject issue is in the book myself, but I feel like the spirit of GTD is to keep it simple. And in this case, all you really need to do is manage the project of Writing a Novel. If later on you want to get all fancy and group it into an area of focus or make it a sub-project of something else, then great. Personally, for now, I'd be treating it as a top-layer project, same as all the rest, and calling it 'Writing - Write a Novel'. That way it sits next to all my other Writing projects in an alphabetical list, and I can get right on with working out what the next action is on the novel...

    I think the key is to keep is simple: Less pondering, more action! By getting on and doing you will gradually figure out how to tune your system to make it a bit better, but if you let yourself get paralysed by trying to create the perfect system you'll never actually get going on anything! (I'm as guilty of this myself as anyone could be, so believe me I know!)

    just my tuppence, hope it helps...
    Last edited by mattwynne; 08-14-2006, 05:25 PM.


    • #3
      If the activity leads to an outcome you can check off, it's a project. Otherwise it's a focus area -- unless it's a network of outcomes (30,000 and 40,000 lifestyle visions), or your life purpose. A wedding is a project. Marriage is a focus area. A novel is a project within the focus area of writing.

      "Project" is just a technical term for an outcome involving preliminary steps, however many or few. Traditionally, a to-do list item like "Write novel" implies that there's nothing else involved to achieve the outcome. The outcome-and-action structure of GTD disciplines us to explicate the preliminary steps: "Write summary," "Write query," "Interview so-and-so." Granted, it's obvious when we actually think about writing a novel that there's more involved than typing at a computer, but it's easy to glaze over the outcome and avoid becoming motivated to action if there's no further operational detail set down.

      Even something a simple as "Read novel" can be a "project" if you don't have immediate access to the novel. The errand to pick up the novel must come first.

      Of course, if you know you want to write a novel, then all you really need to know are the next actions to get it written. Where and how you schematize actions, projects and areas of focus are secondary considerations. Or as Matt said: "Less pondering, more action!"


      • #4
        That way lies madness!

        For me, the first rule of defining a project is that it has a definite outcome and a clearly defined endpoint. "Writing" has neither, and so is not a project. It's a focus area.

        The second rule of defining a project is that it's narrow enough for a specific project plan to be visible. That is "earn lots of money from writing by 2008" isn't a project, it's a goal. "Sell Great American Novel for $60K advance by December 2008" is a project. (Though perhaps not a terribly realistic one.)

        The second rule is sort of vague, so I augment it with a third one: minimize subprojects. If a project is so big that it needs lots of subprojects, it may be a goal or a focus area instead. "Promote" the subprojects to full project status, move the goals out of your GTD system, and get to work.

        Good luck!



        • #5
          Project Definition

          In project management, a project is something with a start, an end, and a defined outcome. The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge definition is: "A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result." (published by the Project Management Institute, ANSI/PMI 99-001-2004, Glossary p380)

          David's definition is more broad "any desired result that requires more than one action step." (GTD p 37)

          Both definitions focus on a result. As already well stated, writing would be an area of focus. "Write a novel" would be a project with a result. "Write a novel about xyz and submit it to a publisher by 6/30/2008" would be a project with a more measurable result.

          Would "Sell Great American Novel for $60K advance by December 2008" be a project or a goal? I think it's a goal. The tasks "Publisher accepts novel" and "Publisher offers $60K advance" are out of the control of your project. You can't delegate them, do them or defer them much as you may wish to.


          • #6
            Skills and Chunking

            There is another thing that comes into play here. Depending upon the individual, their skills, and the level at which the individual generally plays these may reside at different levels. Let's take Katherine's project example:

            "Sell Great American Novel for $60 K advance by December 2008"

            For a typical mid-list writer this is probably a Meaningful objective (20,000 ft). They've written novels before, have an agent, have sold books before and have enough of a following that a $60 K advance is probably within reach. Projects would include Complete Synopsis, Deliver Final Draft to Agent, Negotiate Contract, etc.

            For a long time writer who is as yet unpublished this might be a good short term (1-2 year) goal (30,000 feet). Projects under this goal might be: Complete re-write; Polish sample chapters; Select Agent; Write Marketing Plan, etc.

            For a begining writer this is probably a long term goal (40,000 feet). Projects under this goal might be: Complete Outline; Take Writing Class; Select Writing Critique Group etc.

            For an A-list writer it is probably a project (10,000 ft). With Next Actions of Call Agent, Waiting for contract, etc.

            For Stephen King it may be a next action. Call Agent - Sell "Great American Novel" for 6 M"

            Your personal situation determines what is a next action vs. a project vs. higher altitutdes.

            All of that being said, its usually best to make sure when starting out that you have the lower levels managed first. One of the reasons you are likely having difficulty with this discussion is that you have not yet mastered GTD at the Runway/10,000 ft level.

            Top down is very hard to do without a system for managing the runway. But once you have Runway/10,000 ft under control you can move up the higher altitudes much easier. At least that's been my experience.


            • #7
              Like Katherine, I tend to minimize sub-projects where possible, while at the same time trying to keep projects from becoming unmanageably big. This is, of course, a fine balancing act, and we each have our own individual comfort level.

              For me, I find that projects like "Write the great American novel" encompass too much territory for me to keep a handle on what the goal is. I tend to treat each draft of a novel as a separate project, or each large set of tasks related to a goal ("Find a publisher for the novel" or "XYZ Inc. Customer Tracking Software redesign", for example). Grouping these into bigger metaprojects ("ABC Novel > First Draft", "ABC Novel > Second Draft", etc.) doesn't seem to help me much because once the first draft (for example) is done I don't need to care about it any more. When I archive my "First draft of ABC novel" project, I spend a few moments thinking about what the next project is at that point. So the hierarchy doesn't help me much.

              I think my overall guideline is to "make projects as small as they need to be in order to stay manageable, but no smaller." If the scope of a project is so big that when you look at it on your list you feel hopeless despair and overwhelmedness, it's time to refactor it to something smaller.



              • #8
                Thanks for the response

                Thanks to everybody for the response. It has cleared up in my mind the meaning of a Project.

                Many thanks