Have fun with this week's inspirational nugget and technical article.
Inspirational Nugget of the Week
Give Your Projects a Heartbeat
We all have several ongoing projects at the same time. The more we progress through our careers (and our lives in general), the more projects we accumulate and the higher our potential for stress.
In any given week, I probably have 5 different projects going on at work (ranging from 2-hour tasks to year-long projects), a couple of side projects (this newsletter among them), and several things to take care of in my personal life. I never get all the things done that I planned for the week. A big contributor to that problem is switching context between projects.
A thing that helps to stay on top of multiple projects, I found, is a heartbeat. If a project has a good heartbeat, it's healthy. If the heartbeat slows down too much or stops altogether, the project is sick and not making progress. If the heartbeat is too fast, I'm probably spending too much time on that particular project and I'm not as productive as I think I am.
Here are a few thoughts about project heartbeats:
Check in regularly: that's what a heartbeat is all about. Have a weekly (biweekly, monthly, ...) check-in for each project. It doesn't matter if it's a project you're working on with other people or just by yourself. Structure each check-in similarly, so it becomes a habit that's easy to go through. Just having a regular check-in with each project will help you stay on top of them. This heartbeat is also a way to ease your mind: if your brain knows that you have a regular check-in for a particular project, it doesn't have to keep it in the working memory all the time, freeing your focus for other things while you're not actively working on the project.
Know the next most important task for each project: one agenda item in the regular check-in should be to identify the next most important step to do to move this project forward. This way, when it's time to work on that project, you don't have to spend precious willpower to make decisions about what to do next.
Keep notes for each project: ideally, you have notes for each project (including a note about the next step for each project). I'm using Obsidian, a Markdown-based tool. My notes are structured very differently for each project (I haven't found a structure yet that works for all projects), but for each project, I can easily find the task that I should be working on next. Sometimes (not often enough), I take notes about what I've done in a project. The next time I'm working on it I can read through these notes to load the project into my brain's working memory and reduce my context switching time.
Define project days: we talked about having a heartbeat-like "planning" check-in for each project. But a heartbeat-like rhythm to actually work on the project is at least as valuable. For each project define a "focus day". Ideally the same day every week to make it stick as a habit. Monday is my newsletter day, for instance. Every Monday morning before work, I sit down to write this newsletter. This habit has become the most productive time in my week. Each time, I already have a note for the newsletter edition in my note-taking tool, so that I don't have to think about the topic. I "just" have to fill it with text. I'm struggling to create "project days" for my other projects, though.
Book calendar time: if it's not in my calendar, it's not going to happen. I've grown a bit compulsive about having things in my calendar, but it helps me stay on top of things. In each project check-in and at the end of each day, I sprinkle some tasks over the next few days in my calendar. This way, I don't have to decide what to work on the next day.
Clean up: similar to the project check-ins, it is helpful to have a regular "meta check-in" in which you think about your process and all the projects that you're working on. Are there any projects on the list that are not relevant anymore? Ditching projects that don't provide the value you thought is a great way of generating time for other things. I hope you're better at this than I am, though :).