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You’re great at ubiquitous capture, you process your inbox every day, but somewhere between a captured idea and the execution things get gummed up. It’s time to overhaul your project list and how you interact with it.

Whether you’re an adherent of David Allen’s Getting Things Doneor any other system that encourages you to capture all the ideas floating around in your head and commit them to paper (or a digital medium), it’s likely you’ve gotten pretty good at the capture side of things. It’s on the other end of the conveyor belt, where the ideas get sorted, categorized, and made useful, that things tend to get murky. In my productivity workflow, the capture side of things has always been the most enjoyable and easiest—all it really takes is a stack of index cards, a pen, and a wandering mind! Even though ubiquitous capture is an awesome habit to have, it has an often overlooked downside. The more ideas or to-dos you increase, the more things you have floating around in your potential workflow. If you don’t effectively deal with those things, you end up with a stagnant pool of ideas and the feeling that you’ll never do anything with all these ideas/tasks/to-dos you’ve captured.

Today we’re going to look at some methods for keeping the back-end of your productivity machine tidy and ensure that you never end up with a stagnant pool of projects weighing you down.

The Origins of Huge Lists: On Superheroes and Other Metaphors

When we first start practicing ubiquitous capture and list keeping we feel empowered. We capture everything we think of: birthdays we would usually forget, errands we’d remember after we’d already sat down at home, great ideas that would have been forgotten by the end of lunch, and hundreds of little actions and ideas that previously just floated through our minds and then away. Getting good at ubiquitous capture is like finding out you have a second memory you never knew about, one impervious to forgetfulness and hardened against calamity. Compared to your past—forgetful!—self you feel like a superhero. Photo by pixelstar.

You capture all these ideas and actions, you do the one-offs—pick up dry cleaning, drop off spare key at neighbor’s before leaving on vacation—and you catalog all the multi-step tasks into projects. This is where things can go terribly wrong for a lot of people, myself included. You keep capturing, you keep adding projects, and pretty soon you’ve got a lake-sized pool of projects in front of you and regrettably “Buy boat for Lake Project trip” is one of the tasks you hadn’t got to yet. We’re going to help you navigate and pare down that monolithic mix of projects, wishes, and good intentions and get your productivity workflow back on track.

Your Project List Is for the Present

Wishful thinking about the abundance of your time and abilities is a side effect of the superhero-like-buzz you get from capturing everything in your environment and feeling on top of the inputs in your life. This leads to the rapid conversion of captured items into new projects. Noticing the deck needs to be repaired leads to you making a note about the deck, which gets processed and turns out to be more than a single step, which in turn leads to a creation of a project surrounding the rehabilitation of your down-and-out deck, which in turn swells your Project List by one more and adds to your general feeling that your Project List might crush you. It’s not that repairing your deck is a bad project to have, but unless you’re coming up on a holiday weekend during which you intend to repair that deck, it’s a project that will linger on your Project List for a long time, whittling away at the confidence you have in your Project List as a guide for what’s really important.

My suggestion: Your Project List is for the present. The only thing that should be on your Project List are things that have an immediate importance to your life and that have current and actionable tasks you can complete. “Graduate School” is a present and immediate project if attending graduate school is part of your career path and you’re currently researching and/or enrolling in graduate schools. It’s not a present or immediate concern if you’ve only thought about it in passing and are considering doing it in the future.

I know what you’re thinking. “Psssh. What obvious advice. Who would put a project they aren’t actively engaged in on their Project List?” You would. Everyone does. Our needs and desires change over time and what was—or at least seemed like it was—an important project a week ago, a month ago, three months ago, is often no longer a matter of importance. If you created a project to repair the deck but you didn’t get around to it before the first snow, that project is effectively grounded for a good half-year. Alternately, you may realize that the repairs the deck needed were entirely cosmetic and financial constraints have made you comfortable sticking with your functional but weathered deck. Photo by Duchesssa.

Get your Project List out right now. It’s time to do some heavy pruning, and these questions will help guide you. Several of the entries below refer to the Someday/Maybe List. We’ll deal with that list separately in the next section.

Is it important? It’s OK to admit that a project was important once but no longer is. Situations and contexts change. Don’t keep a project because you feel like it should be important to you. Keep a project only if it is important to who you actually are and the goals you want to achieve. If you can’t justify a project, just cut it from your Project List with no regrets.

Is it timely? Like with the deck example above, the window of opportunity may have passed. If it will come again next year—gardening, annual charity concert, anything on a rotating schedule—make a note on the calendar at the appropriate time in the future and shelve the project in your Someday/Maybe List. You’ll be reminded of the project again when it matters.

Does the project have at least one, preferably multiple, next actions? If it doesn’t you have two options. If the project passes the important and timely test of the previous two questions then you can either put the project into your Someday/Maybe List for future review and research or you can take a moment to assign the next action required for the project. Be honest with yourself, however; if a project has been sitting in your Project List with no next action assigned to it, there is a high probability you don’t really care about the project and should prune it from your list. Photo by cema.

Be ruthless in your application of these rules.You’ve read this far in the guide because you’ve got a Project List that’s out of control and it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t namby-pamby around with your list. Beat the crap out of it. You started keeping a Project List because you wanted to be organized and you wanted to get things done more efficiently so you could have more free time. You didn’t start keeping a Project List so you could feel like there was never enough time to get it all done. Rip your Project List down to the things that really matter to you.

Using the four rules above you’ll easily hack a bloated Project List down to a streamlined list that showcases the things that matter to you.