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Project management

[This was originally part of the mind-mapping post, but got too long. Then it was pre-empted by novel writing and talking about novel writing. One must have priorities.]

One of the core principles of David Allen’s highly popular task management system Getting Things Done (fondly known as GTD to its devotees) is writing everything down and referring to it later. If you know that your list is complete and comprehensive and used, then you don’t have to worry about remembering to wax the cat or whatever because it’s there. For me at least it helps enormously with the spinny-brain-of-doom.

There’s more to it, of course: organizing by context (phone call; online; errand), breaking big projects into next task (a discrete finishable item rather than a vague amorphous goal). If you’re interested in more on GTD, David Allen’s website is here, but I really prefer the write-ups at 43 Folders.

The latter site is by and for creative professionals, and is very clear that productivity is about managing both time and attention. Also, and key, productivity is about tricking the lazy-ass resentful procrastinatory part of the brain into doing something. I’ve learned a lot of useful tricks from 43 Folders, including the wonderful 10+2 brain-hack.

If you’re like me, you find yourself reluctant to work on certain projects. Too big, too overwhelming, too complicated, too hard. Whatever. So you check your email for the zillionth time, read your favorite blogs, play solitaire for a while. The mind-space devoted to the project you’re avoiding grows and grows. Eventually the deadline hits and you panic and do it. The stress and anguish could all be avoided if you just worked on it when you were supposed to, but you can’t.

So here’s the brilliant part. You can do anything for ten minutes, right? That’s a tiny chunk of time. No matter how daunting the project is, ten minutes is trivial.

So work on it for ten minutes. No more. Set a timer and stop. Then take a two-minute break. See? Not so bad. Repeat four more times.

There. You’ve spent a hour on the horrid awful project, whatever it is. And you’ve made progress. And maybe the project looks less intimidating now. If so, keep going. If not, then do another hour of 10+2.

Maybe ten minutes at a time isn’t the most efficient way to work. But it’s better than playing solitaire, isn’t it?


  1. Natalie L. says:

    I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by things I need to get done and the way I cope is to make a list and then break everything on that list into smaller pieces. Eventually, everything gets done.

    I don’t work in a creative environment–I am an analyst in a business engineering group–so I often find a lot of the online time/project management guidance not quite suited for the ebb and flow of my work, so I’ve come up with a system that more or less works for me. I should do some more reading to see if there are ways I could tweak my system to work a little bit better.

    (I decided a comment here would be more useful than continuing to back-and-forth on Twitter.)

  2. Tom says:

    OK, so now I have to find a timer. On the computer or off? Maybe both. Damn, now I have two more things that won’t get done. And I can’t do the first horrible awful task until I get a timer…

    So you’ve successfully provided me with new excuses not to do what I should be doing. Thanks! 🙂

  3. Sarah says:

    Natalie, thanks for leaving a comment.

    It’s all about what works for you. I think what you say about breaking a project into manageable bites is fairly universal though. It’s certainly a key component of what I do, and of what the people I cited recommend.

    In case you couldn’t tell, I really like David Allen’s GTD book, and learned a lot from reading it even though the method isn’t entirely applicable to what I do. If you decide to read it, I’d be interested to hear what you think for your own workflow.

  4. Sarah says:

    Tom, you know I’m always happy to help.