Dealing with projects that don’t have a deadline

by Mark Forster.

If we look at projects from the point of view of deadlines, we can identify three types:

1.Projects that have deadlines. These are the normal projects that we deal with day-by-day. We need to get them finished by a certain time, either because we have been given a deadline, or because the task needs to be completed to fit into a wider picture, or because there are certain expectations associated with the task, e.g. people expect us to reply to emails within 24-hours or so.

2. Projects that go on for ever. These projects don’t need deadlines because we intend to continue carrying them out for a long period of time. I am thinking here of things like learning a language, learning a musical instrument, getting fit. Of course there may be intermediate exams at certain points but basically the effort is continuous.

3. Projects that don’t have any deadline. These are the projects about which we say things like: “I really must get the outside wall repainted sometime” or “I’ve been meaning to update the fire regulations but I haven’t had the time” or “I really need to run a publicity campaign, but I just haven’t been able to get round to it.” They are necessary, indeed possibly crucial, but because they don’t have a definite date by which they have to be done they tend to get pushed aside by more urgent things.

Most people have a problem with dealing with Type 3 Projects – the ones that don’t have a deadline. Sometimes they try to get them done by pretending that they are Type 1 Projects, in other words by giving them an artificial deadline. This can work – but often, because the mind knows that the deadline isn’t a “real” deadline, it gets ignored in favour of the projects which really do have to be done by a certain date.

Most of us have got a huge number of things which we want or need to get around to “sometime.” How can we deal with them?

Here’s my four stage process for getting these projects done:

Stage One: Draw Up a List

The first thing to do is to make a list of all the projects you ought to do, should do, would like to do, have been meaning to do or haven’t been able to get round to doing. Don’t hold back when you make this list. Don’t worry if some of the items are contradictory, or you’re not sure about them. Include everything. If you’ve done the exercise properly, the list should be quite an impressive size.

Stage Two: Edit the List

Ok, you’re really going to get these projects done now. So first you need to edit the list to make sure that you really do want to do them. Remove the ones you’re not sure about (you can always put them back later), the ones that would get in the way of other ones, and the ones which it’s not feasible to do now.

Stage Three: Order the List

Now take the items on the list and decide what order you are going to do them in. No, you’re not going to attempt to do them all at once. You’re going to do them one at a time (see below). So what order should you do them in? This is for you to decide, and there may be all sorts of things which you need to take into account. One important consideration is that projects which would make the other projects easier to complete should be done early on (for example sorting out your office procedures might make it quicker and easier to expand your customer base). Don’t get too hung-up on getting exactly the right order – you’re going to do the lot anyway!

Stage Four: Action the Items One by One

This is the secret to getting this type of project done – do them one at a time. This is far the quickest way of doing them, not just because it’s easier to focus on one at a time but for mathematical reasons as well.

To illustrate this, imagine that we have three projects to complete each of which will take a week and we have three weeks to complete them in. All other things being equal, is it quicker to do them all together, or to do them one at a time?

The answer is that it is quicker to do them one at a time. Why?

If you do them all at the same time, all three projects will be completed at the end of the third week.

If you do them one at a time, the first project will be completed at the end of the first week, the second at the end of the second week, and the third at the end of the third week. You will have gained two weeks on the first project, one week on the second project and the third project will finish at the same time as before. If these projects earn money as soon as they come on-line, you will have gained three project/weeks income by doing them one at a time.

If you want to refine this further, there are another two things you can do with the list before you start actioning it:

Stage 3B. Estimate how long each project will take

It’s a good idea to estimate in working days how long each item on your list will take. Don’t just leave it at that though – when you complete an item, write down how long it actually did take and compare it with your estimate. That way you will continue to get better at estimating – a very useful skill.

Stage 3C. Put an estimated completion date for each project

Since you’ve already worked out an estimate for how long each project will take, it’s easy to put a completion date for each item on the list. If you do that, you will arrive at a completion date for the whole list. That’s right – instead of having loads of projects hanging around with no idea how you are going to fit them in, you now have a date on which you expect to have them all done. That in itself will give you a real psychological lift. Try it


Mark Forster

Mark Forster is the author of three books about time management and personal organisation. The most recent, Do It Tomorrow, was published by Hodder in 2006.

© Copyright Mark Forster 2012. All rights reserved.

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