Starting and Finishing

I had coffee with a friend Saturday night. She said, “Our family has a tradition of starting many projects to see what we can stick with. If you don't start a project, you can't finish it.”

She's right. You certainly can't finish something you don't start. But the real question for all of is: Should we start this project at all?

My current todo list is way too long. That's because we took a couple of days off to visit with Mark's family, and with the Jewish holidays mid-week both last week and this week, I'm “losing” time to family and personal obligations. (No, I don't really think of it as losing time, just about the actions I choose when.)

In order to get my list of projects down to a manageable number, I'm choosing which projects I need to finish this week, which ones I need to make progress on, and which ones can be postponed starting until next week. Notice that I listed the projects I can finish first in that list.

I hate having partially finished projects, which is why I'm trying to finish a bunch of things this week, even though it's a short week. I literally get stuck with all the projects on my list if I have too many projects.

Here's my general mode of working:

  1. Make a list of everything I have to do. Get it out of my head and onto paper. Yes, this is directly from Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.
  2. Look at the list and see when I have to complete what. Make sure I know my interim deliverables.
  3. Lay out the deliverables week by week for a few weeks (not more than 4 weeks total, generally only 2).
  4. For the deliverables owed this week, I do 2 things:
    • Ask, “Should I do this project at all?” It's worth making sure this work is still valuable.
    • If yes, finish the deliverable this week. Now, my deliverables may not be done-done-done. I might have to draft an article or something and let it sit for a few days, but it's a deliverable to me.
  5. Of the deliverables this week, see if there is something I have to finish earlier rather than later. Do those.
  6. Make sure I ask “Should I do this project at all?” for each project left.
  7. Of the rest, do the ones that take the least time (which tends to be the most valuable for me), and get them off my plate. Since I don't estimate that well, I never know exactly how long things take, but I'm pretty good at relative sizing.
  8. Loop forever.

This is the essence of project portfolio management. I happen to be using it for myself, but it works. If you know that the work is valuable, then it's a matter of slotting it into your week or weeks. And, if you use inch-pebbles the way I do, it's easy (well, easier) to keep up with the work.

When my friend says she starts lots of projects and then decides if it's worth finishing, she's asking the “Should I do this project at all” question repeatedly. I tend to ask that question before starting, but the key is to keep asking. If you don't, you are throwing good money after bad, wasting time.

If your projects are hobbies, it may be worth starting a bunch of projects to see what you're interested in. But if you are making decisions on behalf of the organization, timebox each project. Make sure you know what the deliverables are and see if the team can finish those deliverables in a timebox. Now, your starting and finishing makes sense.

2 Replies to “Starting and Finishing”

  1. Johanna – the one thing I like here above all else keeping the difference clear between hobbies and profession. Some techniques work great for hobbies, but are NOT suitable for professions where jobs are on the line.

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