When you start practicing GTD, you usually end up rather quickly with about 70 projects on your list. That is fairly typical for most people, and it is a genuine reflection of the digital and dynamic environments that most of us find ourselves in.
Here’s the problem: Nobody can manage 70 projects at once. You shouldn’t even try. Just as multitasking in the day-to-day dilutes your effectiveness, so also improper multitasking at the project level (10,000 feet) dilutes your effectiveness.
This is actually a pretty serious problem, because it truly has significant potential to diminish your effectiveness. Listen to Peter Drucker on this:
The answer to the question “What needs to be done?” almost always contains more than one urgent task. But effective executives do not splinter themselves. They concentrate on one task if at all possible. If they are among those people — a sizable minority — who work best with a change of pace in their working day, they pick two tasks. I have never encountered an executive who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time. (The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, page xii).
Wow — Drucker has never seen an executive [= knowledge worker, basically] remain effective while tackling two or more tasks at once. Yet most of us, myself included, have typically been trying to battle against 70. I long ago concluded that this was a battle I could not win. But it has taken me years to figure out the solution because the GTD approach itself can actually end up fighting against you.
To be sure, I think Drucker is primarily talking here about a horizon that is even higher than the 10,000 foot project level — probably the 30,000 foot level of major goals — while also touching on the day-to-day. Yet the principle remains valid at the project level: Trying to do too many projects at once will kill your effectiveness.
So in this post we are going to do three things:
- Look at this problem of 10,000 foot multitasking in more detail
- Outline the solution
- Answer a few questions on how this relates to the broader GTD approach
The Problem: Dilution of Your Efforts
The book Never Check E-Mail In the Morning tells the story of a woman who was very hard working, but never seemed to get anything done. It was to the point where they were going to have to consider letting her go.
Then someone took a look at how she did her work, and they realized that she was working on about 30 projects at once. Over the course of a week, she would do about 1-2 things on each of those 30 projects, instead of working on one to completion, moving on to the next and completing it, and so forth.
As a result, she was indeed accomplishing quite a few tasks. But her efforts were diffused over so many projects that it never seemed like she was ever getting anything done or making clear progress.
This is a form of multitasking run amok. It is overdone multitasking at the 10,000 foot level — instead of doing multiple things at once in the day-to-day, she was trying to keep so many projects moving at once that her ability to move each one forward slowed down to a crawl.
Far better to focus your efforts on a few things, get them done, then move on to the next thing.
It is as though the number of projects you try to keep moving at once is inversely proportional to the speed at which you can move them forward. The less projects you have going on at once, the more quickly you will be able to move them forward. The more projects you have going on at once, the more slowly you will be able to move each forward.
Now, in the example above that person would eventually finish all 30 projects, just as the person who works largely one by one will. But the difference will be this: The person whose efforts are diffused will generally be finishing his or her projects a long ways out and “in bulk,” with little sense of accomplishment and momentum carrying her along. But the person who goes about those same projects largely one by one will have a continual record of progress all along the way — plus growing momentum and the satisfaction of actually getting somewhere.
Here’s the thing: GTD unintentionally can lead you to work like the person whose efforts are diffused over too many things. Because GTD so heavily emphasizes capturing what you should be doing without asking the question of whether you should be doing those things at all, your list of current outcomes (projects) can quickly rise to a level of 50, 70, or more. Such a structure naturally leads you — without even trying — to do some of everything, and thus little with concentrated focus.
Your system, in other words, subtly but significant directs the way you approach your work. Having 70 projects on your list naturally inclines you to diffuse your efforts over far too many things rather than focus on a few, most important things.
The Solution: Create an “Upcoming” Category in Your Project List
What’s the solution? It’s actually pretty simple. Divide your projects list into two categories:
- Current Projects
- Upcoming Projects
Keep your “current projects” category well-pruned and very short. Put the stuff that you need to do, but don’t have to be working on at the present time, in your upcoming category. As you complete items on the current projects list, transfer things up from the upcoming list.
You can let the upcoming list get up to 70 or 100 or more. It doesn’t matter there, because you aren’t giving your efforts to that list. And when you do move items up from it onto the current list, you can see the big picture and make sure you are picking what is truly most important to do next.
If you like, you can even turn your upcoming projects list into a schedule. You can give start dates and due dates in there so that you start the projects at the right times and keep things moving at the pace you need — although if you do that, also make sure to keep some projects “free” and without due dates so that you don’t become overly driven by that schedule.
Now, make note of this: Whenever it is time to activate more upcoming projects, you should re-evaluate your whole list to see if your priorities remain the same. Then activate the 1-2 items on that upcoming list which now most reflect what your priorities are. This is a fundamental for the effective knowledge worker. As Peter Drucker notes:
After completing the original top-priority task, the executive resets priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original list. He asks, ‘What must be done now?’ This generally results in new and different priorities.” (The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, xiii.)
Can You Still Have Multiple Projects Active at Once?
Now, don’t we have to be able to do some projects simultaneously? Yes, we do. I’m not saying that you should only have one project on your current list. You might have 5 or even 10.
In your actual day-to-day execution of tasks, literally do one thing at a time when it comes to things that require focus. At the 10,000 foot level concerning what larger outcomes you are keeping in play, there is room for some legitimate multitasking — that is, keeping more than one project in play at once.
But, what I’m saying is that there is a limit to how many projects you can do simultaneously. Abide by that limit — and, in order to do this, you need to make your project list reflect it. And if you ever have any free time, you can always work ahead on that “upcoming” list.
How Does This Relate to the Someday/Maybe List?
Last of all, someone might say: But isn’t that “upcoming” category really what the someday/maybe list is for? I’ve found that not to be sufficient. I have, I think, about 2,000 things on my someday maybe lists. I actually had to create about 75 different someday maybe lists to keep this from getting unwieldy (books to read, household projects to do, movies to see, things to see and do, blog posts to write, things to grill, etc.).
I know I’ve probably overdone that a bit, but I think the principle is valid that we need something in between “someday maybe” and “current projects.” Hence, “upcoming projects.”
The difference between upcoming projects and someday/maybe is that upcoming projects are things that you really have to do — just not yet. Someday/maybe items are things that you don’t have to do, but might want to do at some point. I don’t want projects that I have to do in the future (just not now) getting lost in the mix of things I might want to do in the future but don’t have to.
Here is a quick example: Our digital camera is on the fritz. We need a new one. But I don’t have time to do that yet. So, I put that on my “upcoming projects” list. I’ll move it up to current when I have the time to deal with that. This is not someday/maybe — I really need to do it. But I don’t need to be doing it now, either.
There are a whole bunch of interesting tricks you can implement with an upcoming list. As I mentioned above, you can even create a schedule of upcoming projects if you so desire — sort of a 10,000 foot tickler file. You also need to become adept at utilizing your higher-level goals and priorities (20,000 foot level and above) to help you decide which projects are most important right now. But I will leave those things for another time.