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Map Folding: Building a Weekly Plan

I've sometimes struggled to cover the middle ground between high-level project planning (What projects do I have? and When are they due?) and ground-level daily execution (Call Jim; Draft Report; Fix CSS align in right rail nav). I've noticed that I'm often disappointed—not with what I accomplish in a given day—but with how far I've moved a project forward by the end of a working week.

At the same time, I have to confess a small frustration with the Getting Things Done notion of a "next action": if I'm really scrupulous about capturing every next thing I know I need to do, I end up with an unusably long and unstructured list (remember: my work is mostly one big "@online" context). At the same time, I try to be good about not putting too many to-dos in my hard-landscape calendar. So, while I know the raw materials for focused work are all there, I sometimes find it challenging to make meaningful clusters of activity from them without re-thinking everything five times a day (I mean, isn't that the point of planning ahead?).

To soothe my farting brain, I've started playing with an idea for setting weekly goals for myself derived from what David Allen calls the "moving parts" of a project. This is easy enough for me, since I usually start the week with a pretty good idea of what needs to be done by the upcoming Friday. By then breaking out the necessary weekly outcome of each moving part, I can produce and track a focused set of next actions. Here's an example of how the first part might work.

Project Moving Part Weekly Outcome
Spacely Sprockets Redesign Redesign Recommendations Doc Completed 1st draft to Annie & John by Friday
Spacely Sprockets Redesign Phase 3 Budget SWAG Email to Sue by Friday
Slate Construction Short Competitive Analysis Summary Integrate Bonnie's comments & edits, send to Phil by Friday
Slate Construction Site Review Start basic run-through (doc due to Sam & John next month some time)
43 Folders MacWorld Meetup Finalize location of Meetup and post by Friday
43 Folders New Articles 2 new posts by Friday

Like most productivity hacks, this might seem superfluous at first, but I think there's a method in here somewhere.

Remember that nagging voice yammering about all the things you knew or suspected you had to do? And remember how much better you felt the first time you put it all down on paper? Well, I suspect that something along these lines can have a similar effect on your weekly productivity (and stress levels). By setting weekly goals, you ensure that the most important moving parts of your projects get the right attention when they need it. You're still free to capture to-dos and to review your full list of next actions whenever it suits you, but a weekly plan provides a middle-term vision for staying on track.

You're also still okay to field the inevitable interruptions that tommygun your day. Now, though, once the emergency passes, you have a super-focused list to which you'll return with almost zero ramp-up time. A daily review of the moving parts list lets you make changes or renegotiations as warranted. Faster slips mean fewer slips and quicker recoveries.

Also, as I said yesterday—and heretical as it is to the classic GTD mojo—I really like the idea of writing a daily to-do list. It seems like the modest time investment is really worthwhile for days when you know what needs to be done in general, but where you'd like some help keeping track of what's still on your plate before you go home.

I guess I look at all of this like a tourist with a street map. If you visited San Francisco for the first time, you wouldn't walk around holding open a 3′ x 4′ street map. In addition to attracting the wrong kind of attention, you'd have to re-filter lots of unnecessary information each time you just wanted to see which cross street you were approaching. Since you're a smart tourist, you'd fold the map until it exposed just the 1/2 mile chunk of downtown that illustrates your current vicinity. When you got close to leaving that piece of the map, you'd refold and expose the next bit. That's really all you're doing here. The full set of options and obligations is still in place, but you're hacking your attention to stay trained on just the immediate vicinity and the path that takes you where you want to go.

josh's picture

As a long-time GTD acolyte,...

As a long-time GTD acolyte, I gradually evolved to doing exactly the same thing on both fronts. And, after months of testing, it seems to be yielding stellar results.

At first, I similarly felt like I was 'cheating' somehow - especially with the daily subset of actions. But, eventually, I realized it was actually bringing me closer to, not farther from, the 'touch it once' ideal.

The area of GTD that has always seemed to come up a bit short for me is choosing which next action to do next. It took me a while, but I finally realized that my problem stemmed from having a job that, like yours, didn't provide nearly enough 'contexts' to break down my work reasonably. Running a movie company, I have huge @online and @phone lists, and very little else. With only the unbroken lists, each time I finished a task, I'd have to sift through the entirety of both, looking for the next most important thing. In essence, I was 'touching' every single one of my next actions countless times each day, weighing the priority of each every time I moved from one task to the next.

Instead, now, I do the weighing just once each morning, and separate out the next actions that are the highest priority. I feel far less overwhelmed - not because the shorter list gives me the false impression that I have less to accomplish, but because I'm no longer subconsciously terrified that something high-priority is falling through the cracks with successive list scans.

As talmud study is always an attempt to examine and extend the spirit underlying the letter of the law, I can't help but think Rav Allen would be pleased with the modifications.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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