Reschooling Tool #13: Break Down Projects into Next Actions

I’ve been blogging less frequently than usual lately, both because of the holidays, and because of the craziness that is my last two weeks in the Bay Area. I just about started hyperventilating today when I realized that next weekend is my last in town before leaving for the south. T-minus nine days. How is that possible?

I keep coming up with new metaphors to describe the chaotic state of affairs right now. I keep saying that I have a lot of “irons in the fire,” or “balls in the air,” or “crazy in my brain.” On Friday morning, as the euphoria from the lazy holidays wore off and the reality of holycrapihavesomuchtodo set in, I broke down in tears. Darren, with his characteristic calm and can-do attitude, offered to help. He suggested that I use the Getting Things Done approach, created by consultant David Allen, that both of us think is brilliant. Allen says that in order to have a peaceful “mind like water” that is ready to perceive any opportunity or challenge, you need to get everything off of your mind and into a specifically organized system. Getting Things Done is one of the most important books I’ve ever read and warrants its own post, so for now I’ll refer you to a summary of it on 43 Folders, a popular productivity blog.

Darren suggested that I start organizing by breaking all my big projects into small, actionable tasks. He suggested that I open a new text document. He said, “OK, what’s on your mind?”, and I told him. As I talked, I typed a list of the projects, and under each one, I put specific action items relevant to each. Here are the projects with an example of an action item:

DOCUMENTARY: Doing lots of on-the-ground legwork to prepare for next week’s shoot.
Email school bell schedules to director.

RESCHOOL YOURSELF: Writing regularly and moving the project forward in a bunch of different ways.
Write blog post about moving to Mississippi.

CLEANUP: Cleaning up “my shame,” as I call it, organizing my possessions and getting rid of clutter.
Deal with clothes on the floor: do laundry, put clean clothes away.

MOVING PREP: Deciding what to bring to Jackson and how to get it there.
Make master list of what I’m taking and leaving.

GILL’S BACHELORETTE: Planning my sister’s bachelorette party in New Orleans, woot woot!
Email guests final details and phone numbers.

WIKI & WEBSITE: Writing an online training manual, using a wiki, and website content for the auto repair shop my dad owns.
– Send Dad a list of sections to fill out on the wiki.

These actions would be even more specific with deadlines, which I’ll write about in a forthcoming post.

Once I had the list out of my mind, I immediately felt much calmer than when I had a mass of nebulous “stuff,” as David Allen calls it, occupying space in my brain. Even though these are major projects and I don’t have a lot of time to complete them, I felt that they were much more manageable when broken down into next actions to move them forward. And today, I was able to cross a bunch of items off the list. My sister, in a recent blog post, just reminded me of how satisfying the strikethrough function is for crossing off computerized To-Dos. It is infinitely better than deleting the item, because you can make a crossed-out Accomplished list above your To-Do list.

I’m still juggling six big projects and am still anxious about all I have to accomplish before Monday, January 12. But now, thanks to breaking these projects into next actions, I know how many balls are in the air, and how I can make sure to catch them.


Your Two Cents: Leave a comment!

What organizational systems and strategies have increased your sanity?

Comments (5)

  1. Gilliebean

    This is a great idea! I am very overwhelmed by my terrifying to-do list (well, lists, I have too many that aren’t consolidated), and it makes a lot of sense to break things down into smaller, manageable actions. You’ll get it all done– and let me know if I can help with anything. I can’t wait to see you next week! The bachelorette party is bound to be freaking awesome, so I hope it’s not creating too much stress. If we just took over Ms. Mae’s for the night, I would be happy as a clam.

  2. Melia

    I think a new action item under each of the projects will be “Breathe.” I’ve chipped away at the list all weekend and feel calmer about it. Can’t wait to see you, too! Don’t worry, the bachelorette isn’t stressing me out because it’ll be so much fun, and we’ll obviously have a good time out in New Orleans. I hope the city is prepared for the invasion.

  3. Margaret

    Invasion of the ___(fill in the blank, creatively)___ ! I am wishing you girls the best of fun. As far as manageable “action items” go, I used to think this was just a bunch of lingo to sling to be able to sound like a corporate type, but I realize now that it helps with the calming down part. Or the confused, befuddled, “nebulous” stage of the ‘getting s*&& done’ process. Get ‘er done, Melia! 🙂

  4. Alicia C.

    At work I recently enlisted the aid of a lined desk calendar to write deadlines and completed projects on. I’m very visual and it’s right in front of my face constantly reminding me of what I have yet to do AND what I’ve accomplished. While I’m also normally able to recall the most inane facts and memories, I found that much of my work is doing the same thing for different clients and I was getting confused as to which project my boss was asking about. If I have a timeline to reference I’m much more apt to quickly recall what he’s talking about.

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