Large number of projects - how to start?




I do have many clients and about 400+ active cases for those clients. I get each year about 250 to 300 new cases. Each case is a physical file. All files are stored in the same location, sorted by filename. The files come to my desk when a scheduled meeting is due, mail came in, the file is due for review (kind of waiting for review). My desk is currently as unclean as could be. I have plenty of overdue and very time consuming things to get done and don't know where to start first.

Every file is a project. Do I really have to enter all these files each and every day into my trusted system (in this case the outlook addin) and make them all projects? Do I have to define the next steps for all these files into my systems? I piled all things scattered around my room onto my desk. So my desk is a big inbox now. I did not collect the files which are currently stored away because they will arrive automatically some time on my desk. Just entering only those files/projects which are currently on my desk and then identifying and entering the next actions for each file would result in some hundred entries and cost me at least one full working day without having done any of those overdue and really urgent files.

I am very reluctant to start this work right now. Is there any other possibility/workaround to get things done without entering all this data? Working with pen/and paper list seems to be no alternative at all. At least not for me.

Any ideas?




I'll take a stab at this!

It seems to me that you are aware of your 'open loops', that is, you know and are unencumbered by your inbox, because you know what will arive and when (although next actions for each may be an unknown, I don't know enough about your occupation to comment.)

I myself took several weeks to both process my inbox and assemble in two large file cabinets all of my reference material.

I would say, process enough of your piles of stuff so that you feel comfortable that you have ALL of your open loops marked (David's 'stake in the ground' metaphor).

Each file might not be a project in and of itself: You could look at the physical object FILE and the only thing necessary to get your stake in the ground for that file is @call, or @waiting for, or any other single next action. If the FILE requires multiple next actions before it can be considered 'dealt with', then yes it's a project.

Am I making sense, or being helpful? :roll:


Take the Day and Do It

I disagree with the above. I too had a situation similar to your and I think you should take the day to get all of these into your system. The reason is that you need to trust your GTD system to have all of your commitments in one place. the day spent now will pay off in the future. As new files come into your inbox, it will be easy to add these each day and the burden will be much lighter.

By getting these all into your system, there are several benefits as I see it:

1) You can file these folders in a "current project" file drawer and get them off your desk so that you can use your desk for focusing on the next action for one of these.

2) You will be able to easily scan all of your "open loops" each week during your review.

3) Last, and most importantly, it will force you to identify the very next action on each project so they all can keep moving forward. I suspect that currently you don't have a full appreciation of the next action for each project.

That is my opinion for what it's worth.


I'm not sure that the clients/ files themselves are projects (for you): it appears that there is another trusted process which delivers the necessary actions when they are needed. Do you have a measure of control over this process? If not, you can't have next actions until something hits your desk.

Any actions which have hit your desk clearly do need to be in your GTD system.

Good luck!




Large Number of Projects

I have a similar situation - I'm an accountant with about 700 accounts.

I had an office that was covered with piles and files of things that needed to be done. I took an afternoon to get all of these "Projects" and their next actions into my system. Then the files went back to the File Room. I use my Project List as the trigger now for what I need to work on (it used to be the physical piles/files.) I'm religious about getting all new items into my in-box, and added to the Project list each day. This (and the Weekly Review) keep me confident that the list is a true reflection of what's currently on my plate.

All of the accounts are stored on a separate database, and we have regular routines for the various things that need to be done on the accounts each year. When those routines come up, I put one entry on my Project List and set up a recurring "To Do" to tackle a certain # of accounts each day for however many days it should take. The only time I enter accounts in my system separately is when it has something out of the ordinary that I need to handle, or am waiting for. It helped a great deal when I realized that GTD's Projects/Next actions is basically the same thing I was doing when I used to write neon sticky notes and plop them on top of a file/pile - so that next time I picked it up I knew what I needed to do. (i.e. I wouldn't have had Sticky Notes for all 700 accounts -but I would have had them for all the pending files/piles in my office!) Through GTD, though, your "Sticky Notes" are in a system so you can get a clearer view of what you need to do (and when) than by looking at an office full of files.

Hang in there - it can be done!



I agree with much of what has been said here. I work in a law office, and not every client/matter is an active project. 300 corporate files are brought forward once a year for annual returns and resolutions to be done, but they do not all need to be on my projects list. When annual returns arrive, the appropriate file gets pulled, and all annual maintenance due in that month is done together. Some files are active projects. Some of them are mega-projects with a bunch of sub-projects that must be tracked.

It sounds like you already have a file recall system. Make sure that is working smoothly and can be trusted. Our files all have a recall form at the front to handwrite a date and action to be followed. Then they can be brought forward to the appropriate lawyer at the appropriate time whether that lawyer maintains a project list and next action list or not.

Files that are less "linear" tend to be the projects in our office. If a file needs one action to be taken in one month to get it moving, we just enter a file recall. If there are half a dozen actions that need to take place over the next two weeks and the file is on your desk twenty-four hours a day, chances are it is a project.



Thanks to all so far,

I guess I'll have to explain my situation a little bit deeper.

All physical files are projects in GtD lingo. They have at least 2 steps (two physical actions) ongoing Most likely it it more. Two steps in between or at the very end are nearly always sending the bill + waiting for the payment. :) They range from a few pieces of paper to big files with several hundred pages.

We do have a paper calendar. This book is under control of my secretary. I take a glance at it sometimes but not to check any lists. Only to see if she is entering data corrrectly.

It contains all meetings. Meetings which have to attended in most cases. Missing such a meeting could end in severe damage for my clients. Of course there are meetings too which could be postponed if necessary.

It contains all deadlines. These are really ugly deadlines. No way to avoid or sidestep them.

These metings and deadlines are what DA would call the hard landscape of the calendar, IIRC. This book will not be abandoned. We are currently entering the data into outlook too. The data should be identical in both systems but as you may imagine the world is far from perfect.

There is a third group of entries in this calendar. It contains for each and every day a list of files/projects. Number varies from 10 to 30 a day.Many of them are kind of weaiting for. They have been schedulded some weeks or months into the future (context driven) after the last review/action in this file and wait for a reaction of someone else. They will arrive on my desk because something has to be done. Their next action is not yet defined, but there should be a next action when they come to my desk. This can be a short order to my secretary or several hours of work for me creating long texts. I do not know how much amount of work and what awaits me, when this files arrive in my room. And these beasts pile up quickly. Other files seems to contain those amorphous blobs and thats why they have been rescheduled. No time to attack the blob.

New snail mail comes to my inbox with the associated project already whenever a piece of mail can be identified to belong to a certain project.

Apart of this there are plenty of committments and request mostly belonging to those projects but not attached or linked to them. And phone calls of clients and whoever else.

I havbe one other employee handling files/projects. She is basically doing the same work as I do. The numbers are similar although slightly lower than mine and more smaller projects. Do I have to supervise each of her project and decide the next action steps she has to do? This would be a 300 to 500 entries list for her @agenda? This will not really work, or will it?

So our current system is kind of DA like (hard landscape, list) and it is not. I get the files served by the system and my secretary. No way to pick from this list or that list. I do not know which and how much work awaits me. The lists and piles are not action orientated or sorted.

So all my files/projects and all the rest may result in next actions of (rough guess) 400 to 800 next actions (only for me). If I'd do some project mindstorming, planning some more steps, this may easily be multiplied several times. How do I keep the overview in my lists? A list with 100+ entries bears great danger that I will procastinate like hell with many of these files. These lists would be to full to be lived and managed? Breaking it down into lists of 10 to 20 entries means splitting the next actions into tiny little fractions. 20 to 40 different lists? Will this be manageable? Review all 400 projects each week and decide for every single project if it should be moved from list a to b and which should be the next action? This makes the head free?

Lets assume I manage to setup all those lists in some way. So all projects (apart from those with incoming mail, deadlines or meetings) stay in their closet and won't be touched until I pull one of them out of my lists and now my secretary has to bring 10 to 20 files one by one during the whole day? Everytime I ask for a new project I interrupt her work. She has to leave her place got the file cabinet search the file pick it up bring it to me, restart her work. Shall I go picking the files instead?

And the biggest question of all, how do I avoid that some projects just keep resting on the list without ever being attacked. This will make clients unsatisfied and is bad for the business.

If I really attack GtD this will be with Outlook, the Outlook AddIn and my PocketPC.

The more I write about thist the more frustrated and dismotivated I get. Any ideas to pull me out of the hole and some fine tricks how to get this running?


Please excuse any mistakes, you may already have realized that english is not my mother tongue.

I habe not yet thoguht about GtD at home with wive and 3 small kids and plenty of open loops :)


The good news is that you don't have to fit in with someone else's system: it's all yours!!

And it does already have a lot of GTD features.

The question is, can you adapt it to a single GTD system for the whole office?

You are right that you can't expect to informally reprioritise lists with hundreds of items on them on the fly. But you are already effectively delegating the routine tracking of projects and clients.

Do you already have a "weekly review" with your team to go through priorities/ upcoming stuff/ whatever checklists you use (eg have you been in touch with key clients; professional development; finances; fun; facilities; local community affairs...)/... ?

Has your business now grown to the size where you need to spend a significant part of your time running the business rather than working for clients? Do you need to take on more staff/fewer clients? In any case, the situation you describe certainly deserves a couple of days of your time.

More questions than answers, I'm afraid!



Let's walk through the workflow diagram.
- you consider the question of "is it actionable" when an item first comes to your desk. Some pieces of paper will just be filed until you bring forward that project again. Some go into your tickler or calendar. Some go in the trash.
- if a piece of paper is actionable, you are then allowed to do it, delegate it, or defer it. You do it if it is a two-minute item. I won't get into delegation, not my strong point. All of the rest of your next actions, you defer. That's okay. You can either put it on your next action list (if it is to do "as soon as I can" or you keep everything in the file, and put the file on recall for a later date. You are already doing this. You just need to differentiate between items on your next action list and items on your calendar. The files that you put on your calendar for recall do not need to also have an action on your context list. In our system, the next action is written on the front of the file, to be dealt with when the file is brought forward. (They are not necessarily GTD next actions. The next action may be "figure out what to do next" or something like that, it is not always specific.)

- our file recalls on on my calendar, as you have described. Our files may be larger or more complex than yours, we generally have 3-7 per lawyer per day. In the morning, I review this list and pull all the files that are required and put them in a pile. When the lawyer looks at his pile of files, each has an action on the front. A number of things can happen:

1. He needs to spend a good deal of time on it and takes it into his office.
2. He is waiting for something on the file. It has not come in. He either rediarizes it for recall at another future date (writes the new date on the front of the file), takes it with him to follow up on himself, or writes and instruction on the front of the file for me to follow up, sets a new file recall date.
3. He decides he has enough on his plate today and rediarizes it.
4. He is waiting for something. It has come in. He is ready to take the next action, or to bill and close the file, or whatever.

In two minutes, he has reviewed his recalls for the day, taken action on the ones that need short actions, rediarized what cannot be done today, and gathered together all of the materials he knows he needs to work on today. Nothing goes back to the cabinet for filing without a recall date, if something comes to me for filing without a date, I e-mail the lawyer for the new date.

- you say that you do not know how much of this work is going to land on your desk each day. I would therefore include it in your weekly review. Look at the file recall calendar, and redistribute some of them ahead of time. Ask your assistant to let you know if you have more than ten recalls assigned to one day. Whatever it takes to make it work for the both of you.

- since I assume you have an accounting system, I wouldn't track things like invoicing and waiting for payment on a per project basis. It would be much more efficient to bill once a month and review your accounts receivable list once a month (ie. this is grouping all like actions by context - to be billed, to be collected)

You are doing well! Your system sounds like it just needs a bit more refinement.




thanks for your kind words. I do not believe I am doing well at the moment, because things are piling up really fast. I'll do an early bird shift tomorrow morning and rush it all out of my room following the mantra do it delegate it or defer it. :)

I have decided that our current system will not go into outlook especially not into a projects list. After having entered the first twenty projects it is clear that this will not make any sense. Reviewing a 400 projects list every week will not make my mind free but completely distracted. And selecting from a 400+ project list using the outlook addin will not be very funny too.

But we will change the current system. I have been brainstorming today and I realized that it is an illusion of being in control, that all these piles are in my room. There is no difference between a file laying around in my room or hanging in the file cabinet. Both of them do not get processed. But those in my room whisper to me all day and night "Hi, I am a time bomb!"

I very much like the idea of the daily morning review as you described it. Especially the idea to defer a file (action) to today. So this is what we will do once all files have left our rooms. We get the deadline files and the meeting files in the morning. Those are our hard landscape. Then we will get the scheduled files (our list). This list (actually the files) will be processed using the 2 minute rule. But there are more than three alternatives: We will split the Defer into three parts: Do it, Delegate it, Defer to today, Defer to deadline, Defer to another days list. Once the mail has arrived there comes another pile of files which will pe processed appropriately. The deadline files come first, than the rest. At the end of the day no file stays in the room all have been processed and the room is as clean as it has been at the beginning of the day. Imagining this picture gives me a strong urge to do so.

If a file really does not get processed it will be rescheduled as usual. Files that have been rescheduled too often will be deadlined to make a real commitment to them. The difference to the "system" of piling the files in the room is, that they are kept within the trusted system and that I am sure there are no "time bombs" hidden anywhere. Every morning there will be between 10 and 20 files which are under review. A complete cycle of all files may take between 20 to 40 workdays. In regard of the fact that the deadlines will flag the urgent files this seems acceptable for me.

The second idea I will take from you is the nexstep sheet. I designed a small sheet of paper (1/2 legal size) which will be put in the very front of each file. This sheet keeps the next action in each project. So reviewing the files in the morning reveals the next action giving me a rough guess how much time I'd need for it. Once the next step has been finished a new next step will be entered before the file leaves my room.

I currently see no need to do a weekly review within this system. Why would I need a weekly review to this part of my work? All files have their next action tags, the deadline are in the calendar, all files are scheduled to a specific date, so no file would be forgotten.

For everything else outside of this system I will use the outlook Add-In. Especially for incoming emails, calls etc.. A printout will go ASAP into the appropriate project file. The someday/maybe list seems to be a cool place for all those ideas I have.

Pam thanks a lot, I am quite optimistic now that this will work for me, and that this may become my way of getting things done (at least in the office).

Vauha 27


I hope that it works as well for you as it has for us. There are many benefits. Files do not sit on the shelf without being reviewed. Files do not get buried on people's desks and forgotten. Closed files do not sit on the shelf until we have no more space to deal with them. And another big benefit - since all files come back to the cabinet pretty much daily, I can always keep my filing up to date. No more two-inch thick piles of unfiled documents waiting to be filed because a lawyer has (or lost) a file. And of course keeping filing up to date helps the lawyers keep clean desks and makes it easier for them to deal with a file when it comes to their desk.

You are absolutely right about there being no difference between the files piled around your office and the ones in your file cabinet. The ones in your office are demanding all of your attention because you have not determined the next action and next date that you will work on the file. You don't go home feeling like you have cleared the decks because you are worried about forgetting about a file.

Keep visualizing what it will be like when your office is nice and clean, all filing is up to date, and all files have been assigned a date and next action. Imagine getting a call from a client who wants to know where you are on his file. You know where the file is, because it is on the shelf, not buried in your office. And when you pull it off of the shelf, you look at the front of it and you tell the client that you are waiting for xyz and that you will be following up on it on such and such a date. Depending on why he called you, you may need to move it up to today or tomorrow, but more than likely he will be happy to know that he is on your list and everything is under control.

Our file recall sheet has four columns: Date handled, Last action, Next Recall Date, Action on Recall. Pretty self-explanatory. Not only do you have a really quick way to see what you have scheduled for the future, but you also have a brief history on what has been happening on the file and the speed at which it is progressing. If the lawyer wants me to follow up on a file (report status to a client, for example - we are still waiting for xyz), he writes what he wants me to do in the "last action" file, highlights it in yellow, adds a new recall and next action, and leaves it for me to deal with. I can e-mail the client with the status of the file, rediarize the file, and put it back away.

Regarding bringing forward any file that you have received correspondence on - it may be beneficial to take a quick look through it before pulling all of the files. A lot of the correspondence will just be filed directly in the file, and reviewed in detail when the file is brought forward next. Quickly scribbling/stamping "file" or "recall" on each piece will save your assistant some time and reduce the number of files required to come to your desk.

It will take some discipline to keep this working for you and your assistant (and anyone else in the office who is involved). But you can do it! And I think you will find once it becomes routine that it will not take as long as you think to review the files that are brought forward each day. You are used to making a judgement every time you look around your office - that can wait, this is important, I have to do that today, that will have to wait until next week. Taking a second to write it down and put it into the system saves you having to re-think it every time you look around the room.

Good luck! You can do it! :p