How do you (if at all) limit your active projects and actions

Discussion in 'PUBLIC: Discuss the GTD Methodology' started by CamJPete, Jan 11, 2017.

  1. CamJPete

    CamJPete Registered

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    I could write a really long post about this, but I'll strive to keep it concise. It's something I've really struggled with the past while.

    Over the past couple of years I have implemented GTD more and more in my life because it seems to be the best system I can find to capture, process, organize, and review everything. I have struggled with the "do" stage however. At some point along the journey of GTD, I assume most wrestle with understanding the two-headed beast of procrastination and motivation while trying to master the do stage.

    I have observed the past year that my motivation is inversely proportional to the number of projects/actions on my lists. The larger they grow, the less is my desire to work the lists. The shorter they are, the greater is my desire to crank through it. My struggle is this: HOW to limit my lists.

    I have tried the following:
    (A) Allow an unlimited number of projects (i.e. as many as are on my mind to any degree)
    (B) Impose a soft limit to my projects (i.e. only that which is truly essential for me to work on this week before my next Sunday weekly review)
    (C) Impose a hard limit to projects (i.e. absolutely no more than X number of projects at any time; must relegate or promote between projects and someday/maybe lists as necessary to maintain hard limits).

    (A) is too overwhelming. I'll probably never go back to that. I gravitate toward B or C. The struggles I have with soft limits: it invariably ends up growing relatively "large", around 20 projects. This means 20 actions, of which only 10 may get done in a given week. It starts feeling like (A) quite soon because I don't feel like I'm making much progress on any of them. The result is that my motivation drops somewhat. The struggles I have with hard limits to projects list: I'm not quite sure whether to impose hard or soft limits to my actions list as well. If the actions list has a soft limit, then I start allowing anything on there, and it starts becoming overwhelming again. If I impose a hard limit, then I find I need to review my someday/maybe list daily (or even hourly) for the small single actions. It's hard to explain all of this but it's a real struggle for me. It may sound like I'm overthinking it, but it is truly a sticking point for me.

    What do you all do to limit your projects and actions lists? You might say I'm just trying to understand how to somehow integrate the Kanban principle of "limit work in progress" (LWIP) with the GTD projects and actions lists. LWIP just feels right to me. But how to do you place limits on projects and actions lists, when the GTD principle (and often my psyche) says "your work-in-progress should grow as big as you need to get it off your mind".

    Dang it. That was not concise. Oh well. It's helped to get this down in words.
     
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  2. Oogiem

    Oogiem Registered

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    I basically don't.

    If it's a valid project that I could work on this season (3 months for me) and it's something I want to do I tend to keep it active in my GTD lists because you never know when you can push a project one step forward. I see no reason to limit as a normal thing. I have on occasion limited projects during particularly busy crunch times.

    Right now I have 421 projects. That is a bit high for me, I just picked up the COO position for a local small company and my projects list ballooned by about 150 projects over the last week, but I still normally run with about 250+ active projects. My someday/maybe lists are also huge, last time I counted it was about 1500 projects sitting there. I don't need to check them very often though, many of those lists are ones where it's easy to skip during a weekly review because until a current project is finished in that area there is no way I can do another one so I don't need to even read that list. I also do more in depth review every quarter on the solstices and equinoxes where I read all my someday/maybe lists fully.
     
  3. treelike

    treelike Registered

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    Interesting because I have found the opposite for me- the more projects and next actions I've got the more motivated I am. In fact I used to graph the number of next actions to see if I could correlate it to my mood. I couldn't work out if the number of actions caused my mood, or it was simply an indicator of how motivated I was in the first place but it doesn't matter because that isn't really the point.

    In order to be appropriately engaged with your project list, you have to be aware of how the things on the list relate to your higher level lists. The higher level lists are there to remind you what is really important in your life and a reality check on what you can achieve in the limited time you have on the planet.

    Therefore I suggest that some kind of 20k or higher review might help.
     
  4. Gardener

    Gardener Registered

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    Does that principle really demand that those things be work in progress, or just in your system? I see Someday/Maybe as being in the system. Though in my case, I try to keep as much as possible of my Someday/Maybe out of my main lists--I have lists of backlog items, and I periodically move an item or two from those lists to my current active lists.

    I severely limit my active projects in my personal life, and that's working very well for me. In my work life it's extremely difficult to limit simultaneous projects, and that's annoying me to the point of considering how long my job is going to work for me.
     
  5. CassRussell

    CassRussell Registered

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    I also find my motivation is less if I have too many things to choose from.

    I don't limit my projects but I do limit the number of actions that have 'contexts' assigned. This was a tip I got from Julie Ireland a few years back when I had so many things with the appropriate context assigned and when I went to work by context there were just too many to choose from. Now I rely on my weekly review to make sure I don't have next actions assigned to a context unless I want to have them available to work on in the next month or so. Any task (that is not a someday maybe) just has no context assigned (I use Omnifocus) so it's all there when I do my weekly review but when I go to 'calls' or 'agendas' or '@computer - online' or whatever, I have a much more reasonable list of actions. Hope that makes sense - I don't feel like I'm articulating it well.

    Last week I did a 4 hour very deep weekly review and actually marked 27 projects complete - because I'm no longer interested in doing them and didn't want to look at them every week. It felt very good :)
     
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  6. Longstreet

    Longstreet Registered

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    I have found that it is critical for me to limit my projects. I try to have no more than 8 major projects active at a time. There is significant research that has shown that if one has too many choices, on encounters analysis paralysis. To me it is all about focus.
     
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  7. Longstreet

    Longstreet Registered

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    Remember the old saying....if you chase two rabbits, what happens? You do not catch either one. Sure, one can move hundreds of projects forward by an action here and an action there, but what is the rate of completion? Small incremental steps on hundreds of projects in my work would be the end of my career. It is all about outcomes. One must focus on what is truly significant. What outcomes will have the most impact on your field, your life?
     
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  8. Oogiem

    Oogiem Registered

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    And in my world small incremental steps are the most important things to do. Much of my world is so tied to Nature's pace that if I only tried to focus on the 8 or even 20 or 100 "most important" projects I'd be spending days not doing anything because the time isn't right to do those tasks. My granularity in projects is very tiny. What to many people would be 1 single project with 8-10 streams or sub-projects in my system is 10 or 20 discrete projects. I thrive on choice and feel stifled when forced to accept arbitrary limits.
     
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  9. Longstreet

    Longstreet Registered

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    I can definitely see that! We have such different worlds, to say the least. Cheers!
     
  10. Longstreet

    Longstreet Registered

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    Just one more comment -- I have many projects too that are in Someday/Maybe. I learned from the great duo Meg and Kelly to make better use of Someday/Maybe to help with focus. It sounds like @Oogiem and others do the same thing. Someday/Maybe in my opinion is greatly underutilized by many.
     
  11. KNielsen

    KNielsen Registered

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    Great question CamjPete!

    A rude answer :)
    In short as..
    That's would be my "rude" answer, that might have modifications. I though have David in my ear telling me "most people have between 30-100 active projects" .. where a project, as I remember is broadly defined as something scoped as two physical next actions and within a year.

    I would say the approach it is neither of the three approaches you mention, but a rule of thumb.

    I'll second treelike and Longstreet:
    and
    Through the weekly review of the projects list and the not-so-often-review of the 20K+ horizons, you get a feeling of what makes sense for you and get you to the mind-like-water-state.

    My take on project activity
    Personally I have maybe around 50 active, so your 20 projects doesn't sound alarming, judging from the number alone. For me, some of them don't need actions every week if things get tight for a while - but I have the next action defined though.

    Furthermore you mention:
    That just wanted my to share, that I have maybe 100 next actions (currently though I have a lot of post-cleaning actions like: archive xyz document .. archive this report etc.). A lot don't have a project! so you also don't need to define a project for every action.

    Something to think about
    You sound like a GTD-well-founded person and I think a conversation with you could be quite interesting.
    Some questions that might come up would be:
    • What is your balance on the Doing-phase (defining work, doing work as it shows up and doing defined work)?
      • If you do a lot of defining (especially defining projects / having a high frequency of project), is it because you tend to define your projects to almost near 2-3 step projects or do you allow yourself to have also aggregate some projects and elaborating on the project notes?
      • Do you give yourself enough time to do defined work? Maybe having a month where you do a sprint, start work at 6 AM from home, setting off a weekend to get a lot done at home/out and about etc.
    • Is there something else you can do to put something on hold? (renegotiate with someone, have another placeholder etc.?)
      • When I sense I feel overwhelmed and need to limit projects or next actions, I first of all get a complete overview of all Next actions and projects and then I either renegotiate with someone, have a second opinion on my inventory, negotiate with my self and my larger goals and the current context
      • ... and then having at least four someday/maybe lists: two for work and two for personal - where one is for visionary somedays (things I haven't committed to and which are far-fetched) and the second one for almost-sure-one-day "somedays" (things strongly want to or have postponed as a result of a renegotiation), a lot of the which I want to activate within half a year to three months maybe.
     
  12. mcogilvie

    mcogilvie Registered

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    I think the fact that this discussion is taking place at all is interesting. Some of the projects I have are important to me, some not. In some cases, I am waiting for something and those projects have no actions pending. Some have due dates, most don't. Big. Small. Challenging. Easy. I don't see a simple matrix against which I can view either my projects or my next actions that would help me manage everything. For projects, there are really three categories: active, someday/maybe and never. Sometimes I will look at an area of focus and decide "These projects now, these someday/maybe." On the other hand, the bathroom plumbing project is not going to be dropped because of some work project. I think you have the projects you have, because you are committed to them.
     
  13. kelstarrising

    kelstarrising I know some stuff about GTD

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    This is really a question about priorities, so I would climb up the Horizons of Focus to at least Areas of Focus to make this decision--not try to make it at the Ground or Projects level.
     
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  14. Longstreet

    Longstreet Registered

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    As always - great insight, Kelly! Best wishes.
     
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  15. bcmyers2112

    bcmyers2112 Registered

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    I can't speak for anyone else, but I've found no exact formula for determining how long my actions lists should be other than what level of commitment I feel toward the items on them. If they feel overly long, it's usually because there's some stuff that needs to be culled out that I'm not really committed to. On the other hand, I've found that shunting lots of stuff into Someday/Maybe just to trim my actions lists doesn't make me feel any better either if those things are really internal/external commitments that need to be acted on as soon as possible. My brain knows that deep down, I'm committed to these things and therefore keeping them in someday/maybe ensures they'll keep nagging at my psyche.

    One thing that's helped me is to recognize that the function of GTD isn't to turn me into an inhuman productivity machine, but to help me feel good about what I'm not doing. Rather than beating myself up for only being able to do one thing at a time, I've learned to accept that that is a fact of life. Even if my lists feel a little unwieldy at times, they help me feel comfortable that the one thing I've chosen to do at a particular moment is the right one -- because I truly know what's on my plate, and can therefore make a conscious choice about where best to direct my energies at a given moment.
     
  16. treelike

    treelike Registered

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    Well, as David Allen says, it's not really about getting things done- it's about being appropriately engaged with your life. Clearly in your case this means a high rate of completion but I can theoretically see how a person could never complete anything big but still fulfill their purpose (except the cat still needs fed, electricity bill needs paid, etc).
     
  17. bcmyers2112

    bcmyers2112 Registered

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    I don't think we're going to come to any consensus about how many next actions is ideal, nor should we. @Longstreet says juggling more than eight projects would end his career. Limiting my list to so few projects would end my career and grind my personal life to a halt. But if I tried to manage as many things as @Oogiem I'd blow a mental gasket.

    But I don't think any of us are "wrong" or "right" here. We're all different. We have different jobs, different lifestyles, different thinking styles. Your lists should reflect who you are.

    I've found through experimentation that the only way to know if my lists are "right" is to keep them complete, up-to-date and clarified at all levels. Then I can trust my intuition about what I can and can't handle.

    If your lists attract you and you can work on a single task without feeling like you're missing something, I think you're good. If the volume of your lists is causing you stress I think you have some work to do. You may need to review your higher-level horizons to make sure your lists are in alignment with your priorities, or review things at ground-level to eliminate things that aren't truly clarified or are no longer important to you, or something else. It's hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer. It's going to be different for each person.

    I tend to think like @treelike does: I'm not concerned about completion rates but about engagement with my work and life. If your GTD system allows you to focus fully on one task at a time when you need that kind of focus, I think you've nailed it whether your lists are super-short or a mile long or something in-between.
     
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2017
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  18. TesTeq

    TesTeq Registered

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    I think many @Oogiem Active Projects would be my SomedayMaybe or Tickler Projects. I know nothing about sheep but for example changing tyres in my car (summer->winter, winter->summer, summer->winter, winter->summer) is not one multiyear Project in my system. These are separate Tickler Projects not active during summer and during winter.
     
  19. TesTeq

    TesTeq Registered

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    Yes! We've got ten fingers and a decimal number system not by accident. ;-)
     
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  20. Gardener

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    I agree that there's no single right answer. I do think, however, that in a world that pushes an ultra-multitasking style, it's worth having a long look at the rebellious alternative of focus and singletasking.

    I'm still struggling to find a way to do this at work--maybe it's just a matter of working up enough courage to tell all but one of those people that they're not going to see any movement for a very long time--and tell my admittedly pretty supportive manager the same thing. If I just go with the flow, I could probably stay employed until retirement but be gnawed to death, internally, by the fact that my splintered self is accomplishing perhaps five percent of what I could accomplish if focus were allowed. (Well, Gerald Weinberg's rule of thumb says that I'll get five percent done per project if I have five projects, and the rest of my time will be wasted. But I have far, far more than five, so I'm figuring five percent productivity total, at best, and actual negative productivity from tripping over my own feet at worst.)

    But in my private hobbies, as I've posted before, I've had a strong reaction to all that work multitasking and gone to a very strong single-hobby, single-project focus. And the amount I'm getting done, compared to my past dabbling, AND the amount of enjoyment I'm drawing from it, is a very dramatic difference. I devoted the summer (and fall) entirely to the vegetable garden, focused completed project after focused completed project, and the garden has been transformed after five, six, seven, how many years was it? of halfhearted mostly-failure. Now that the garden is asleep for the winter, I'm shifting my focus until roughly March to sewing, and I've already had more sewing success in the past couple of months than in the previous decade. The idea that I just dabble in sewing, that I'm simply not suited for hand work like that, is already being challenged.

    And now I'm looking, in the distance, at that book. The novel that I've dabbled and dithered and stopped and started for, again, more than a decade. And that makes me see what's scarey about focus: What if you fail? When the garden wakes up, I'll return and build on last year's success, and I don't have to make a decision about next winter's focus until roughly October. I could go back to sewing. Or I could pick up that book actually go after writing it seriously, spend hours and hours forcing myself to go through the dead spots and the decisions rather than letting them stop me, using the focus muscles that I've developed untangling problems in the garden and with the sewing. And I. Could. Fail. I could be a really lousy writer.

    And while the idea of focusing on the novel is scarey, putting off the novel for almost a year is also scary. I'm middle-aged--what if the odds hit me wrong and I'm dead by then? The pull is strong to go back to frantically trying to make progress on everything, as if the frantic effort will cause something to get done.

    Focus is scarey. But I'm recommending giving it a try.
     
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2017

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