Tidy Up Your Project List

Tidy Up

My wife in I are in the middle of a move to a smaller town house not far from where we’ve lived for the past 18 years. Our sons are off to college and we are away for much of the year, so a smaller place that we can easily walk away from for long periods of time will be nice to have.

A library book I’ve had on hold for some time became available about the very time I began packing things up in the temporary apartment where we’ve been living for a few months. The book? The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (aka KonMari). Moving into a smaller space not only requires that we organize ourselves better, but also that we need less stuff to organize. If you are looking for pragmatic advice about simplifying and organizing your personal space I highly recommend this book. You might also enjoy Spark Joy, the sequel that delves into more specifics on how to implement the underlying system.

I don’t usually write about home organization or simplifying our lives – so why bring this up? Because I couldn’t help but make connections between KonMari’s advice about how we engage with our personal items and how I think people should engage with their projects and commitments.

KonMari breaks down the tidying process as follows:

Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.

The analogy for discarding items in the productivity world is to consciously take projects off your work-in-process list.

I will to answer two specific questions in this article:

  1. Why would you want to “discard” projects off your list?
  2. What criteria should you use to choose which projects to discard?

Why Discard Some of Your Projects?

When I say discard, my preference is to truly discard them and not move them to a “Someday / Maybe” list. Reducing the number of projects you are working on will likely increase the amount of work you get done and the number of projects you complete. Think about this intuitively: if there are fewer projects for you to plan, to review, and to decide to work on day-to-day, you have less overhead to manage and fewer decisions to make.

Teams that apply lean-agile concepts to their project management workflow understand how limiting the work-in-process (WIP) for the team can increase their overall throughput. The same is true in your personal productivity zone.

I conduct a weekly review every Monday morning, and morning reviews every weekday (and sometimes on the weekend). Part of the weekly review process is to go through my inventory of projects and ensure that I have next actions assigned for each project. Part of the daily review process is to select the projects I will work on that day based on my deadlines, available time, and energy.

Do you see how the review process and “what to work on” process get easier with a smaller inventory of projects? Even better, you will be more focused on completing the smaller number of projects that you intentionally decide to work on.

Before you go and start trashing the projects you are most fearful of tackling, let’s talk about how you choose what to keep and what to throw away.

How Do You Choose Which Projects to Discard?

Let’s see what KonMari says about the discarding process:

We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.

and

Take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.

First let’s talk about personal, discretionary projects where the commitment is to yourself. If you are like me, you probably have a big inventory of home projects you’d like to start, skills you’d like to learn, volunteer efforts you want to engage with.

Have any of these lingered for too long? Do they bring guilt, shame, or regret to mind when you look at them on your list or see remnants of them lying around the house? Pretend that you are picking up each of these projects and holding them in your hands and ask yourself “Will this spark joy if I complete it?” Then, even more importantly, ask yourself “Is this a project I can realistically complete or make significant progress on in the next 3 months?”

If the answer to either of these questions is “No”, then discard it. Take it off your inventory of projects to review, and consider removing any lingering remnants of the project around your home and workspace.

You might even decide to intentionally limit your WIP in your discretionary areas of focus. For example, I don’t like to have more than 1 or 2 personal improvement projects active at a time. I’d rather double-down and focus on a single improvement project and reap the rewards of that effort sooner than scatter my energy trying to develop several skills at once.

Finally, what about commitments you’ve made to others that may need some tidying (and possibly discarding)? These are the most difficult projects to dispose of because you can’t make the choice unilaterally. That said, you should go through the same process you went through above with your discretionary projects and arrive at a candidate list for discarding.

With this list, you can then identify the following:

  • To whom is the commitment owed, and how strategic is this relationship? For example, a project you are working on for your boss that has a deadline is probably not a great candidate for discarding.
  • Is it possible to delegate the work on this project? This doesn’t actually take the project out of your inventory, but might give you some breathing room to focus elsewhere and narrow your focus on tracking progress on the delegation.
  • Is it possible to renegotiate either the existence or deadline for this project? Perhaps you’ve over-committed to a volunteer organization where you don’t find the same joy you’ve had in the past when you work with them. Or maybe you have a backlog of projects for your spouse and you know that some will likely need to be delayed. Create a list of next actions for your newly created “Renegotiate Projects” project to go talk to those individuals where you want to either discard or adjust the timing.

There will likely be an interesting side effect from doing this work: you will start to become more attuned to your personal project capacity (how much WIP can you take on). This can help you fine tune your “when to say no to a new project” spider sense.