The majority of productivity advice is about the day-to-day. What tasks should you work on? When should you get up in the morning? How often should you take breaks?
This granular perspective is valuable. For most, it’s daily life that makes the difference. Big goals and plans matter little if they don’t translate into action.
When I view my own life, however, the biggest differences have come from projects, not tasks. These are large, complicated efforts that span anywhere from a month to a couple of years. It’s by choosing these wisely (and actually finishing them) that I’ve seen the most significant leaps.
What is a Project?
I contrast projects with goals.
A goal is your desired outcome:
- Lose 15 lbs.
- Become a millionaire.
- Learn French.
A project is a plan of action:
- Stick to my daily workout for thirty days.
- Save and invest 25% of my salary for the next five years.
- Get a tutor, buy a textbook and practice speaking weekly.
The line between goals and projects can be blurry. The difference is that goals emphasize outputs while projects emphasize inputs. A well-designed goal may be easy or impossible depending on circumstances outside of your control. A well-planned project, however, can nearly always be achieved because it depends mostly on your own commitment and effort.
When I wrote my book, Ultralearning, I didn’t focus on sales, external success, or other outcome goals. Whether it was a hit or a flop wasn’t up to me.
I focused on what I could control. I had a year to write. I still needed to run my business, spend time with friends and family, exercise and run my life. The project was to write the best book I could within those constraints.
Life as a Series of Projects
Projects are how I organize my life. This includes big ambitious ones, like writing a book or doing one of my learning challenges, and it also includes small ones, like trying to sketch every day while on holiday.
Ten and twenty-year plans have always felt too restricting to me. Daily habits, while important, often lack the scope for more ambitious interests.
I find the discrete, finite nature of projects to be satisfying. Think about a project for a while, work on it to the best of your ability, and at a certain point, it’s finished.
The Life Cycle of a Project
My projects go through three phases: incubation, action, and completion.
Incubation is essential. The longer and more ambitious the effort, the more it pays to choose wisely. You want to avoid picking poorly thought out projects you won’t actually finish. Spending more time thinking about projects tends to filter out fleeting or bad ideas. When you do act, you’re working on something that has kept your interest for months.
This incubation phase tends to work best when it occurs during another project or immediately following one. Those are periods when you generally don’t want to work on anything else, so daydreaming is relatively costless. When I’m itching for a project but don’t have a good one ready, I tend to settle for short ones—a month at most.
Action is obvious. Nothing gets done without work. But I want to stress the experience of being in the middle of a project.
Good projects should make you a little obsessed. Obviously, you can go overboard, but a good project should make you think about it a bit more than you’d like to. If you can’t get yourself to think about it, even when you’re working on it, reaching the finish line is unlikely.
That isn’t to say effort is automatic. Nearly every project I tackle has its low moments: frustration, self-doubt, the feeling that maybe this will end in disaster. You’ll feel the tug of other, seemingly easier, more tractable projects. You’ll want to quit, take a vacation and not worry about it so much. Maybe you’ll feel like it was a big mistake.
In good projects, these moments are fleeting. Soon enough, you’ll get another breakthrough, some positive feedback or maybe take a weekend off, and the interest will return.
Finally, completion. Not all goals can be achieved in a single project, but all projects must end eventually.
I prefer to define project completion by setting a timeframe rather than an arbitrary milestone. Working on something for six months or a year, and trying to do the best I can within those constraints, works better for me than working until I achieve a particular goal. Sometimes this framing isn’t possible, but I find time-constrained projects easier to stick to.
Finishing a project is a funny feeling. There’s satisfaction, obviously, for a job well done. But after this immediate glow, there’s not much feeling at all. You rest for awhile, and then comes the itch to begin again.
Projects Give Life Depth
Is this the best way to live? I’m not sure—it’s simply how I’ve settled into organizing my life. Some of that may reflect disposition rather than choice. My grandfather exhibited the same pattern of serial projects in his life, so perhaps it’s hereditary.
One advantage of organizing your life into a series of projects is that it can alter the perceived flow of time. We judge the passage of time by our memories. Distinct memories serve as landmarks of time’s passing. If you want your life to pass in a flash before you, then the surest way is to do the exact same things every day. Projects serve as landmarks in the hazy stream of our daily existence and draw out our perception of time.
I suspect projects aid in achievement as well. A project tends to be large enough to allow you to accomplish things that wouldn’t happen automatically on their own.
Perhaps the biggest reason is simply that a project is a reminder that life is finite. Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks breaks down a human life into weekly increments. But four thousand is still a hard-to-visualize number. Taking year-long projects as the modal value, claiming that life is around 50 projects puts things into a sharper perspective. What will be yours?