The Elusive Inventory of Your Projects

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By David Allen

One of the most bizarre phenomena I have encountered in 30 years of working closely with some of the brightest and busiest people in the world is how difficult it is for most to grasp the idea of what a "project" is and to consistently manage their total inventory of same. But without the objective awareness and appropriately compiled account of those commitments, it's impossible to address what lies at the root of most of their universal complaints about overwhelm, email, meetings, and priorities.

If you don't have a clear sense of the totality of your obligations, you will always over-commit. And commitments occur on multiple levels, from "why I'm on the planet" to "need butter."  But the elevation most amorphous for most is the plane just above your physical activities -- your "projects." I have a radical definition of a project: anything you're committed to finish within a year that requires more than one action to complete it. Given that broad designation, most people have between 30 and 100. Where's your list? How complete and current is it?

People complain about "too much to do," and yet most couldn't give you, in the moment, a complete and accurately defined inventory of what they've committed "to do" if their life depended on it. Sure, they may have a strategic plan somewhere; they've got a calendar with appointments they need to keep; there may be a crude, incomplete, and still unclear to-do list. But additionally they have myriads of additional things they feel like they should handle, about which they know they need to think and decide and do something about.

Mom's birthday. Brian's college choices. Overdue checkup. Key employee's potential defection. 401-K investments. Pilates class? Maria: learning disability? Too many subscriptions. What are we doing this summer? Dad's elder care. New iPad? Next career options. Board politics. 

By the way, there are no problems -- only projects. A problem is only a desired outcome undefined or lack of commitment to its resolution.

Not only is that morass of commitments both voluminous and undefined, it's changing shape as you read this. Have you had any input in the last few days about which you know you need to get closure and resolution, but haven't yet clarified exactly what the project is, or what you need to do about it?

Make a "projects" list. Include them all. Keep it current, reviewed every week, and renegotiated. Notice how differently you might experience your world when you do that. There's a good chance you'll feel a lot better about what you're not doing.

David Allen is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and other books, and Founder/CEO of the David Allen Company.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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