By Leo Babauta
How many projects do you have on your projects list? How many balls can you keep in the air?
I submit that the more projects you have, the less likely you are to complete each one. And the reverse is also true: the fewer projects you have, the more likely you are to complete them.
If you recall my Haiku Productivity post (subtitle: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential), I recommended that you set limits for everything you do … forcing yourself to choose only the most essential, and nothing more. Three Most Important Tasks a day, and One Goal, were a couple of the keys to Haiku Productivity.
Today, I recommend that you limit yourself to three projects. Only three.
This application of Haiku Productivity may be one of the most useful and powerful (along with the two I mentioned above), transforming your ability to get projects done from one of juggling to one of focused completion.
Why Haiku Productivity Projects are powerful
Aside from our goals, our projects are one of the most fundamental and important units of our work (and personal) lives. Our ability to complete projects makes a big difference in our lives.
Sure, it’s good to knock a bunch of tasks off our lists … and I’ll acknowledge that (as David Allen says) we cannot “do projects” but only do actions. But doing an action only gets us a step further toward completing something major. We can complete a whole host of random actions without actually completing something major.
Projects are much bigger steps toward something major — and in fact are often the major things themselves. If you get a project done, you’ve done something worthwhile, something notable, something that will gain you recognition and satisfaction and long-term benefits. A task can’t do that.
And so, our ability to complete projects is something that can have a major effect on our lives. If we can get projects done, we can change the world.
It starts with completing tasks, of course, but completing projects means that you’re completing tasks with a focus on what you really want to get done, not just doing random acts of activity. So let’s figure out how to get projects done.
Why too many projects is a problem
Take out your project list, and count the number of projects on the list. If you don’t have a project list, take a few minutes to make a quick one: all the projects in your life, from getting your car fixed to finishing that report to planning that party to training for that marathon. Anything that takes multiple actions.
If you have a long list, there are several likely scenarios (or variations on these):
- You’re getting a few of the projects done but some have been on the list for a little while and a few have been on there for a long while. The ones that have been on there longer are nagging on your psyche, and stressing you out a bit.
- You’re doing them GTD-style, with a next-action for each one written on one of your context to-do lists, so that you’re always moving each project forward. Each day, you try to do as many of the next-actions on your context lists as possible, but of course you can only do 3-7 of them a day (unless they’re really small) and so your entire list of projects is moving along glacially, with new projects being added daily. The project list grows longer, and very few projects are getting done.
- You’re juggling a whole bunch of projects, and having a hard time managing all of them, and not completing many. More projects keep being added. It’s really stressing you out.
- You’ve got timelines and actions for each project, but because of the large number of projects, you are constantly pushing the timelines back, which stresses you out.
There may be other scenarios. And then, you may be able to have a long project list and complete all of them without problem, and not get stressed out. If so, you probably don’t need this article. :)
In any case, you can see how a long project list can lead to stress and a lack of completion of any of them.
How Haiku Producitivity Projects Works
So the rule of Haiku Productivity Projects is to choose the three projects you most want to get done soon. Perhaps the most important projects, or perhaps the ones you’re almost finished with, or some combination. But choose three, and only three.
But why not just one project? If you read the second paragraph of this article carefully, you saw that I said ” the fewer projects you have, the more likely you are to complete them.” The logical conclusion, of course, is that one project at a time is the best — you’re sure to complete it!
And this is true. But imagine that to finish this project, you’re waiting on information or an action from someone else. And you know this happens all the time. So in this case, if you only had one project, you’d be stalled with nothing to do but read Zen Habits (what a shame that would be!).
So pick three projects: if one gets stalled, you can work on another. Although I’m not a fan of multi-tasking at the task level, I recommend multi-tasking at the project level (but then “multi-tasking” would be a misnomer … let’s coin a word: “multi-projecting”). But only on a limited basis: too much multi-projecting leads to incompletion and stress.
So three projects. Start with a new index card (or blank text file, or whatever you use to make lists), and write “Three Projects” at the top. Then list your three projects, with the desired outcome next to each (“submit to editor”, “email finished code to team leader”, “make my Porsche look like new”, “beat Fred323 at WoW Level 70”).
Below that, I have an “On Deck” lineup of the next projects that will go on my Three Projects list. This list can grow long, but I don’t work on any of them or worry about any of them until I’ve crossed out all three projects on my Three Projects list.
Then: you focus only on those Three Projects until they’re completed. Work in bursts to make sure you get them done. Really focus on them. Worry about nothing else. Even put off your routine daily tasks until later in the day, after you’ve worked hard on at least one of your three projects. See if you can get all three done this week. Clear off an entire day to complete one project. Make sure that most of your Three Most Important Tasks (MITs) each day are tasks that move one or more of these projects forward.
Do what it takes to complete all three.
Then go to your On Deck list, and choose the next three.
Why Haiku Productivity Projects works
It works because it allows you to focus, and thus to complete. It works because it forces you to choose the most important projects, and to put the rest on hold until those three are completed.
It works because you’re not letting all the new, incoming stuff put the more important stuff on hold.
It works because it simplifies project management greatly, and focuses on the essential.
But what if you don’t control your projects?
There are some of you who have your projects set by your boss, and can’t just decide to do only three and put the rest on hold.
If so, you might not be able to apply Haiku Productivity to your projects. But before you decide that’s the case, consider whether you can do one of these strategies:
- Accept as many projects as your boss gives you (or alternatively, as few as you can), but focus only on finishing three of them over the next few days (or over the next week). Surely your boss can’t expect you to complete your entire project list in a few days.
- Talk to your boss and tell him you are really trying to work on completing your projects, rather than just incrementally moving them along. Tell him you want to focus on just a few at a time, get them done, and then focus on the next few. He’ll probably like this idea, if you really execute it. Allow him to choose the three he’d like you to focus on first.
- Alternatively, if your boss piles more stuff on you, when your list is already full, show him your project list and ask him to choose which you should work on, and which you should put on hold, realizing that you only have a finite amount of time to work on them. Or at least ask him which three are the most important right now. If he won’t let you choose, then choose yourself.
- If none of the above strategies work, still just focus on three, but when your boss asks for progress on the others, renegotiate to get more time on those while you complete the first three. He’ll be happy when you get the three done, so there shouldn’t be a problem.