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HOWTO generate a kGTD Project list for your weekly review

While OmniFocus is under development (and yes, friends, I have seen it: it is actual software that does things), we Kinkless users will have to make do as we can for now. And while I still find my own kGTD setup oddly stable given its byzantine under-the-hood workings (think: innards of Cylon Raider meets Brazil's pneumatic tubes), there are definitely times when I crave just a bit more canonical GTD functionality.

One of the most vexing shortcomings in kGTD (God bless it) is the lack of a formal Project list -- one easy location to glance just all of the obligations and desirable outcomes that are on your horizon, without reference to the tasks that comprise them. David Allen has repeatedly said that the project list is critical (as I recall, his quote in our interviews was "...the Project list is king."), and, honestly, lacking an all-in-one Project list for your weekly review is kind of like sitting down to the SATs without your two sharpened #2 pencils.

My solution for this has two components -- one mostly behavioral and one mildly technical. Both are squirrely and lofi and your mileage may vary. As ever.

1. Brutal pruning

First, as part of my weekly review, I relentlessly weed from kGTD any Project that I know doesn't belong there. This could include:

  • projects that died or have gotten cancelled or rescheduled
  • projects that have gone hopelessly and irretrievably fallow (functionally dead)
  • projects I have no real intention of working on (for at least the next month or two)
  • projects I've kept around because of sentimentality, affection, laziness, or just too much ambition

Bottom line: if the Project doesn't have a legitimate next action that I intend to complete in the next couple weeks? Gone. Deleted or moved to "Someday/Maybe." Next, please.

This, as David is fond of saying, clears the decks by removing any distractions or baseless claims on your attention. And while it's not so novel a concept (everyone's weekly review should include this step in some way), it's critical for part 2 of my kGTD Project list hackination. (Plus, yeah, it just feels really good to do)

For our purposes, it also ensures that you've completed all the obvious pruning before creating your new Project list and delving further.

2. Copy and Paste

<background> As you add projects, actions, and contexts in kGTD, the AppleScripts that keep its lights on are populating the different parts of your document with multiple synced versions of your information. The ability to view, for example, just actions associated with a Project versus just actions associated with a context are arguably the coolest and most useful features of kGTD since it mirrors GTD's ninja shifting between horizontal and vertical focus. </background>

But what it took me a fricking year to figure out is that I already have a project list -- it's just that it's hiding in a dropdown menu.

Getting your Project List liberated

  1. Backup your kGTD document, then do a Sync and Save
    • Backup is good. Repeat, repeat.
  2. From any Project or Context view, select the "Projects" column head
    • Should be the third column after "Action" and "Context"
    • After you do this you should see the column get highlighted (mine's blue) with one of those pretty OmniGroup-y, rounded corner highlights
  3. Reveal the "Column Type" Inspector window
    • Either by hitting "COMMAND-3" or by selecting "Column Type" from the "Inspectors" window
    • You should see two drop-down menus ("Type" and "Summary") and then a big-ass bulleted list of all your Projects
  4. Select the first bulleted item in the Projects list
  5. Scroll all the way to the last item in the list, then hold down "Shift" and select that last item
    • This should highlight all of the projects
    • Again, you should see lots of those pretty rounded selection highlight thingees
  6. Hit "Copy" or "Command-C" to snatch the Projects to your clipboard
  7. Open a new, blank text document in the text editor of your choice, and hit "Paste" (or Command-V)
    • (I like TextMate but TextEdit will do fine)

And that's it.

"WOW, thank you: you've taught me to 'copy and paste.' So, now what, Admiral Obvious?"

The first thing you might want to do -- depending on your personal brand of anal-retentiveness -- is to tidy up your new Project list document a bit. Personally I Search & Replace all "..."s into TABs, which provides a prettier outline. At a minimum, get the document to where it's visually sensible for you. Then print 'er out.

Cosmetics aside, you do what you need to do with a project list. You let it jog your memory. You use it to find time sinks and attention holes. You scout for dead wood. You comb through it for missed actions, meetings you forgot to schedule, and reminders of things you said you'd do a week ago. This is your outcome-centric viewport into all the projects and actions that need to be added to or removed from your kGTD list. Be courageous.

"No, seriously. Why bother?"

I'll just speak for myself here, but I think that once you're out of the ad hoc procrastination mind set of the task list, you permit a more strategic part of your brain to take over for a while. Your mental CEO gets to take a crack at all the projects, deciding who gets the deep-six versus who's not getting the attention or resources they deserve, and then you can return to your task list with a rejuvenated sense of do-ability, focus, and mission. I call it "Manager Mode," and it's something I really need.

Also, from a tactical perspective, I like to use the Project list as a way to identify my "focus projects" for the week. If you have more than a few dozen projects (and share my own dearth of non-computer contexts), you probably crave some way to narrow your focus. A weekly review of the list can give you the confidence to call out the stuff that must see motion this week. You can even use to pull up what Gina calls your "MIT" (or, most important task of the day).

Regardless of your approach and preferences, if you're attempting some flavor of GTD, it's well worth your time to generate a task-less Project list and review the crap out of it as often as you need to. Because, if you aren't occasionally alternating between the tasks "on the runway" and the larger outcomes of higher altitudes, you're not only not doing GTD; you're probably wasting a lot of time and missing out on some cool opportunities.

Addition, 2006-12-20 10:08:27

Based on comments, I should clarify why a plaintext list of your current projects (without tasks?!?) has value in a GTD review (although David covers the concept nicely in the book, if memory serves). Thus, I will embrace vanity and quote myself at length:

The Project list -- in David's canonical description -- represents the "10,000 foot" view. It should exist as a list unattached to child tasks someplace and then be reviewed and updated as a thing-in-itself on a regular basis. It's not about the tasks per se; it's very much about evaluating how your Projects map to what you want to be doing at 20k [feet] and higher.

My gut sense is that a lot of the folks using kGTD use it as a fancy to-do list. Which is in a sense, what it is. But you mustn't just stop there. It's critical to not spend your whole life shoveling tasks and vaguely hoping that they map to some kind of outcome. That's the Bad Old Days simply relived with updated software.

IMHO, GTD works best (and only) when you periodically take a formal step up and off of the runway to ensure the projects themselves are worth doing (and have a place in your bigger plan).

I love that the weekly Project review also generates new tasks at the runway level; but that's mostly happening specifically because you set aside the time to not focus just on the stuff that's already in front of your nose.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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