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I have several open projects in my GTD system. They are all important ("top priority") and they are all driving towards a similar due date, however, they are not interdependent projects. What is the best way to work towards the completion of all the projects in a non-linear (project 1, complete, project 2, complete ...) fashion?

Or, is a linear approach the most efficient?

I guess the Question Behind the Question is, management would like to see progress on all projects (weekly, monthly, etc.), how do you show progress on all projects while working the most efficiently?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The first step is obviously to ensure you've identified the next actions for each project you're working on and put these next actions in to the correct context lists. After that, I think any attempt to establish--a priori--a method for selecting in which order you'll perform these actions is not only futile but likely counterproductive as well.

Because a properly maintained system is so effective at ensuring you have everything you can do quickly accessible, GTD advocates deferring decisions about what to do until it's time to start a task (i.e. tasks shouldn't be scheduled ahead of time or put on a calendar unless, like an appointment or meeting, they are associated with a real due date). By definition, anything identified as a next actions is ready to be performed, and is only waiting on your desire and ability to perform it.

This deferral enables the GTD practioner to be flexible to changing constraints and deadlines. At any given moment you should be able to quickly scan the appropriate context list and determine--right then--what you have the time and energy to accomplish.

If multiple items meet those criteria then I suspect you'll have a gut feeling for which projects are furthest behind, or highest priority, or which need to show some progress to get your TPS-report-needing boss out of your cube so you can get back to work. In other words, simply spend the effort required to maintain your GTD system and then use your context lists and your in-the-moment priorities and proximate constraints (time and energy) to decide what to do.

As for your meta-problem of how to balance a high demand on your time and a list of "high priority" projects with similar due dates: you've just described the fundamental task of knowledge work, which I think is perhaps most eloquently and entertainingly articulated by Merlin Mann on his 43folders website (specifically his Time and Attention articles and talk).

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Thanks! This is incredibly helpful and also provides insight personally that I need to re-read GTD and refine my system. I think I still lag in defining tasks to the point of them being the actual next action. –  Canuk Jun 29 '11 at 23:26

Break down each project into what needs to be done. Once you have the lists of next actions for each project, grab one from each (they should be small enough to knock out in a single work session) and knock them out. If the progress management wants to see is weekly or such just keep your notes and put together info on how each has progressed. If you run into roadblocks on one go on to one that doesn't have any.

If I'm reading the question right, and seeing the word "multitasking" I would warn against trying to multitask. Multitasking is a lie. All that we can do is switch contexts quickly, but it is counter-productive because it causes you to lose context every time you do so.

Dedicate blocks of time to knock out next actions on each project (one per session) and work through them. Because you have several you should always be able to get something moving forward. Basically, go ahead and do the task switching, but don't do it minute-to-minute, do it time block to block (maybe two to four hours, like half a day, in bursts of fifty minute activity with some break time to stretch and look around in between hours).

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Thanks for your answer. I agree that "multitasking" is really a lie when dealing with knowledge work. I like your idea of block-to-block task switching. I think that helps identify another issue I've been having - spinning my wheels due to too short a time between task switching. –  Canuk Jun 29 '11 at 23:28

I can't resist comparing this with the Cantor Pairing Function, which shows how a cleverly ordered sequence of dots can eventually cover a plane that is both horizontally and vertically infinite:

Cantor Pairing Function graph

Think of each horizontal row as a project consisting of various action steps. Since some projects may have very many action steps, you can't expect to complete one project before starting the next: the risk is that the second project may never get started. But if you define the action steps of each project, and cleverly order your sequence of actual actions on various projects, you can ensure that all the projects continue to show progress over time.

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This is really cool. I'm trying to come up with a formulaic way to apply it to current projects. Are there any software tools that already exist that could take tasks from say, 4 concurrent projects and then assemble the tasks in such a way to use the the Cantor Pairing Function above? –  Canuk Jul 19 '11 at 0:28

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