Patterns of GTD #3 - Define First, Do Later

We've all felt the guilt of having a project stall, fail, or never take off the ground. You doubt your capabilities, others are disappointed, or in the worst case, you lose a job. Projects can fail for many reasons, but in my experience, lack of a clear desired outcome is one of the most common factors.

When attempting any project, before laying out plans or doing anything. Make sure to define clearly and completely what will be different in the world for you having completed the project. In other words, how would you know that you are done?

The sentence "gift for mom" is way too vague and doesn't tell you where to go next. That's not an outcome, it's just a noun. The outcome "Mom has a present for her birthday that she likes from me" is much clearer and sets some guiding principles for planning. That sentence may sound a little silly. However by writing the outcome clearly, your brain is allowed to start coming up with actions needed to achieve said outcome.

I find this pattern very useful when writing. Why are you writing? Who are you writing for? Writing for yourself is very different from writing for others.

In practice, when you start a new writing project, take 5 minutes and note at the top of the page why you're writing and who will read it. What are you hoping to achieve by sharing these ideas? Is it to teach people something? or, is it to express emotions as a cathartic process?

Each reason will affect how you write. If you want to get stuff out of your head, you don't need much structure, additional materials, or even worry about quality. If you want to teach however you best be clear, concise, and comprehensive. Additional materials like images and further reading materials are a great idea.

Having clear goals helps you make correct choices along the way, saving time on useless work that doesn't align with the ultimate reason for you doing something.

There is also a more subtle reason for defining goals earlier. Knowing the why of a project helps you decide if the project is a worthy endevour at all. Am I writing this article to help people? Is that something I want to do? Where else can I accomplish "teaching other people"? Does venting online help me achieve my higher level goal of being positive and mindful of the world? Probably not.

OK, Now what?

I want you to pick a project, writing or otherwise, that you want to start or get going again. Preferably one which has vague or no outcomes. Note this technique has the most visible impact on projects where you create something which wasn't there before. Writing, programming, implementing some new process are great examples. For instance, setting up a knowledge-base and code repository for your team at work.

Clear about 10 minutes of time, sit down with your quick capture tool, I use nvALT, and write down the outcome of the project. Be as clear and comprehensive as possible. Don't keep implicit choices in your head. Once you're done ponder over what you would need to do to accomplish this outcome. Anything new coming up? Perhaps something you need to learn about or get before you can start? Maybe you note a few things you've done that don't really help you accomplish your goal?

Let me know how you get on in the comments below. Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope you've enjoyed it. In part 4 we'll look at being honest when deciding what to commit to and what to let go.