Avoiding Project Overwhelm

Getting Things Done by David Allen is a great book. I would even go as far as to say that, in the world of time management and productivity, it is one of the best. Yet, as with all great things it is not perfect. One problem I see from many of my clients, and people who embark on the GTD road, is sooner or later they will come up against the feeling of overwhelm. This in turn leads to stress, or what I call “project stress”. Project stress is where you have captured all your thoughts commitments and stuff and created a list that has become a monster. You no longer want to open it because just seeing the list disappear off your display causes you anxiety and fear. This is not how GTD is supposed to work. The byline for the GTD book is “The art of stress free living” yet for those who suffer from ‘project stress, stress free living is far from what they experience.

So what causes this project stress?

One of the core tenets of the GTD process is to capture everything into a trusted place. Invariably, that trusted place is a list manager such as Remember the Milk, Omnifocus or Todoist. These applications make collecting your stuff, commitments and ideas simple. Often it’s just the press of a few keys or even a few words spoken into your watch. This ease of capture, while staying true to the GTD principles, also creates a lot of tasks that first need processing and then adding to a list that becomes bigger and bigger every day. The time it takes to process the tasks becomes a barrier at times, but more worrying is the fear, anxiety and stress many feel when opening a project that eventually they avoid looking at that project all together. Not exactly what GTD is all about at all.

How do you avoid project stress and overwhelm?

[I recently did a video on setting this up. You can view that below:]

To overcome this problem, you need to break down your projects. A simple example would be to create a project and divide that project into three parts. One would be “The Beginning” another “The Middle” and one “The End”. You can then allocate the tasks into the sub-project it belongs to. Research tasks more than likely go into the “The Beginning” sub-project. Actual tasks that move the project forward go in to “The Middle” sub-project and anything related to follow-up or closing a project would go in “The End” project. This example is a very simple example, but I am sure you understand where I am going.

Be careful with Single Action Projects

Another list that can rapidly cause project stress is the single actions project. The project where you dump tasks not related to a specific project, but all the same need completing sometime and are going to take more than two minutes to complete. My own experience has taught me that these projects can rapidly fill up with a lot of tasks. One way to deal with these is to create an area of responsibility project (or folder) and create sub-projects for each area of responsibility. You can see from the example below how I have this organised in Todoist. This folder contains all the areas I have a responsibility for and so instead of having thirty tasks in one single actions project, these task are divided up into their individual areas. The only task that go into these are genuine single action tasks that are not projects in themselves. This avoids any list becoming too long and when I decide to focus on one of the areas I can just open that specific list and work directly from the list.

Make good use of the two minute rule

The two minute rule is a life saver for me. It is one of the best things about the whole GTD process. For those of you who don’t know, or have forgotten about it, the two minute rule is: do any task that will take two minutes or less to complete. It works. By strictly applying this rule I find all my lists remain manageable and never become too long. It is also surprising how completing a string of tasks very quickly can really give you a boost. I know sometimes it is very easy to say to yourself “oh, I can’t be bothered with that now. I’ll do it later”, too many of these though quickly mount up and before long you have projects that are monsters.

Use the weekly review to cut projects down

During the week when I am at the pit head of my daily activities, I do not want to be worrying about projects becoming too large. That is why in my weekly review I will go through individual projects and cut them down to size if they have become too large. The whole weekly review is a time out process that allows you to take stock of where you are and where you want to be going. Use the opportunity to make sure all your projects and lists are manageable. It is never time wasted I can assure you.

Project stress and overwhelm is certainly a condition created by our fast paced lives. But it can be avoided with a little effort and some forward planning. But one thing I have to say — don’t let it stop you from achieving incredible things.

Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century