Have You Defined Your Project’s Purpose?

Why you should think big before you start anything.

I am currently reading Getting Things Done by David Allen, and I thought I would share some of the insights I have on Allen’s Natural Planning Model. His model is based on the power of intention and purpose to reach successful outcomes, which I think is a really common thing that many of us struggle with. You can find Allen’s website here. Below is my interpretation of how important defining your purpose is to creating success.

Have you defined your project’s purpose?

The key to success at any level is having a clearly defined purpose. Think of your purpose as the end goal for anything that you do. You define your purpose by looking at the big picture in front of you instead of the small parts that you know need to fit somewhere. We mainly think of purpose as relating to big life questions, but it actually applies to pretty much everything that we do or need to do. Purpose basically elevates those small parts into one cohesive whole, but it is often difficult for our brains to think big before thinking small. We tend to get carried away with the minute details of a project to the point where we don’t really know why we were working so hard in the first place or even why we were working in the first place. Defining your purpose should be the first thing that you do before starting anything because without it, you’ll be as lost as the people who see the end product will be.

Defining your purpose involves condensing your intent down to its core, but as I’ve already mentioned, this can be really difficult to do correctly. If you have ever tried to do a big project, you probably know that the first things your mind thinks of are all the tiny details that you know you can’t forget to implement. However, that’s the wrong approach. Usually your brain genuinely wants to help you and does a decent job of it, but this is not one of those times. See, the mind likes to put small parts together before seeing the whole. Think of those small parts as bricks that you want to put together to create a house. Rather than seeing the finished product, the house, first, your brain likes to see the individual bricks that will go into making the house. The brain, in other words, cannot see the forest for the trees. Those small parts are just so much more manageable that our default for solving problems and starting projects, which is to build forward with small parts rather than backward by disassembly.

This backward disassembly comes from having a clearly defined purpose in mind before you even begin to act on any of the smaller parts of the problem. After all, if you don’t know what the goal is, how can you complete it? The problem is, our brains like to do the exact opposite, which becomes detrimental to the completion of whatever we’ve set out to do. Because of this, we need to figure out how to re-frame our thinking to accommodate a goal-first thinking process. Before we learn how to do this re-framing, let’s look at a situation that emphasizes the importance of defining your purpose.

This situation happened to me only a few months ago in an Honors class I was taking. The Honors class was called “Legacy of Material Culture: The Story of Our Stuff”, and one of my projects was to do a presentation on a topic that I thought related to the creation of the good life (which is a concept best described by Aristotle here and here). Class topic aside, the entire point of the project was to convince my classmates that my chosen topic was an important part of a balanced life.

I chose to talk about the idea of a “living office”, a term coined and developed by HermanMiller as an ideology that counters the ubiquity of the sea of cubicles in the modern workplace. Or rather not so modern, as the point of the living office is to adapt our workplaces to the needs of modern enterprises. Going into the project, I knew that there were certain topics that I needed to talk about so that my audience knew 1) what the living office is and who created it, 2) the data on why it works, and 3) why the concept of a living office is important. I spent days preparing my presentation. I practiced my timing, the flow of my speech, and committed the basic outline to memory. My practice was rewarded with a nearly flawless presentation that flowed smoothly and got my point across, or so I thought.

It turns out that I had completely neglected to do the one thing that I needed to accomplish with this presentation; convince the class that the living office was an important component of the good life. I got so wrapped up in presenting the living office that I forgot that the topic was secondary to my purpose. In essence, I gave an informative presentation on the living office when I should have given a persuasive presentation on a specific part of the good life.

When I received this feedback from my instructor, I was frankly shocked and dismayed that my carefully crafted presentation had completely missed the point. Given that I have been public speaking since I was 13 and I consider myself a well-spoken person, I was ashamed that I had missed the mark with this project. Not that public speaking has been my profession ever since (though I have had several jobs where being a public speaker has been my main role), but I have more experience than most of my peers and I was shocked to realize that I had made such a simple error, especially one that determined whether my speech was successful or average. In the end, I realized that though my presentation was great for an informative format, I had not defined my end goal. As a result, my presentation lacked depth and I was unable to convince my audience to care about the topic in the framework of the class. Had I taken the time to pick apart the assignment I would have been able to structure my presentation according to its intended purpose.

While my example is associated with success in public speaking, defining your purpose applies to any time you start a project, plan and event, and countless other actions. There are so many benefits to be gained from defining your purpose that it just makes sense to adopt the goal-first approach. For one, defining your purpose goes a long way towards maintaining the clarity of your thinking and flow. As I said before, if you don’t know what your end goal is, you’re going to have a hard time getting there. A clearly defined purpose also ensures that the energy you put into a project is directed at the right point, thus decreasing the amount of time and effort it takes to reach the goal. As you might expect, defining your purpose also makes you organized, which makes it look like you know what you are doing (something I think we all like others to think about us). And as I know all too well, defining your purpose saves you from the inevitable embarrassment of not sounding your best. Months after the presentation, I still feel really embarrassed at the final product of all my preparation for my living office presentation.

So how then do we re-frame our thinking to take advantage of a goal-first approach? Rather than looking at all the small parts of the project at hand, we need to look at the big picture to understand what steps need to be taken to get there. I think that the first thing to do before implementing any productivity method is to understand that the purpose of the project is your sole priority (Greg McKeown talks about why you should only have one priority in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less). To understand this, look at the guidelines for the project and analyze what they mean. This will give you your purpose, which then needs to be backed up by the small details that validate the purpose of the project. Only once you have defined your purpose will you be able to add in the support and details you need. Rather than thinking in a two-step process of small details leading to your purpose, think in a three-step process of purpose leading to the small details which lead back to your purpose.

Do yourself a favor and just put in the initial extra effort to define what you want your purpose to be before you do something. The final product will show off your ability to problem-solve and you will be better able to understand how to reach the goals you set for yourself or need to complete in order to be successful.

Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. 2nd ed., Penguin Books, 2015.

McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Currency, 2014.