Friday, July 29, 2011

Sorting through Project Commitment and Priority Using Getting Things Done

David Allen describes an excellent system for personal productivity in his book Getting Things Done. I make a point of trying to review different sections of his book every few months. I usually review parts of the book that describe methods that feel unnatural or awkward to me.  An unnatural or awkward activity is usually a good indicator of where an improvement is needed.

One area of Getting Things Done that I review frequently involves projects and the prioritization of the next actions for those projects. These activities always cause me to second guess myself. I often feel that my choices for projects and the priorities of their next actions are suspect. What I want is a way to validate the decisions I make when managing my projects. In seeking to validate my decisions I found surprisingly little guidance in Getting Things Done and ultimately settled on a solution using Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix (as described in his book First Things First).

In what follows, I describe how the stuff in my inbox ends up on my project list instead of my someday/maybe list and why I feel that’s ok in spite of the problems it creates. I also describe my solution and why it is effective.


I create a lot of projects. This is an outcome of the idea that a project is anything that contains two or more actions. Having a lot of projects creates a tension between them because they compete for your time when you evaluate the next actions needed to move them forward. This is a desired result of using Getting Things Done. If you have captured everything and you know what it all means then you can determine what to do next with a high level of confidence.

David provides a model for choosing next actions “in the moment”. This model includes four criteria to apply: context, time, energy and priority. It is a very effective model for selecting the next action of a project but it assumes that you are committed to completing the project and that you choose the priority correctly. Context, time and energy are self-evident.

With priority the only choice to make in managing my project list I became convinced that I had everything under control. However, over time I became aware that my project list got longer and my confidence in its usefulness decreased. I struggled to complete the actions for my projects and some projects languished. I didn’t feel like what I was doing was effective.

In reviewing how I managed my projects, I discovered that priority wasn’t the only issue. I remain convinced that context, time and energy were self-evident. The issue was the interplay between commitment to completing the project and the priority of the project’s next actions. In effect, I was making poor choices when assessing and reassessing my projects. You might be thinking that I am creating projects that really belong on my “someday/maybe” list. I might be.

The problem isn’t that I lack a someday/maybe list. It is that during the course of planning my work things arise that are actionable and look like projects. Sometimes they turn out to be less important when evaluated in the entire context of what I want to achieve, or things may have changed, or I may have simply made poor choices when I chose to turn them into a project. Whatever the cause, the end result is that projects sometimes came to my project list to die a slow and painful death.

Getting Things Done provides little guidance on reassessing projects. It says you should regularly reassess your current projects and get rid of any that are no longer current. What I wanted help with was a way to gauge the quality of the reassessment and to ultimately determine whether I was truly committed to completing the project and, if so, what the priority for that project’s actions was.

I found that Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix described in First Things First was effective in determining whether to commit or stay committed to a project. To use this matrix you determine a task’s importance and urgency. Stephen directs you to spend time on tasks that are important and urgent or important and not urgent. I combine Stephen’s Time Management Matrix with David’s idea of the project list, along with a rationale for my decision on importance and urgency. This provides a convenient way to assess and reassess why a project exists.

Having a single place to review my projects along with their importance and urgency proves valuable. It is an extremely effective and explicit method for evaluating both my need to commit to complete the project and for reassessing your current projects.

This provides the added benefit of ensuring that projects which are not important and urgent or not important and not urgent are easily identified and eliminated. A side effect of this approach is that it prevents errors in creating projects from taking up too much time—if a project makes it on the project list and it doesn’t have the correct importance and urgency it becomes clear that it shouldn’t be there.

If you link the rationale for each project’s importance and urgency to your goals and objectives or vision then you get the added benefit of ensuring alignment with your overall purpose.

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