How to handle ongoing projects in GTD

I’ve been using David Allen’s GTD system for a few years now and I’ve been very happy, less stressed, and extremely productive. (I use Evernote to manage my projects, project support files, and for incubation, and keep my Next Actions list on my mobile)

But one area I’ve struggled with has been how I handle the ongoing projects that I have to do.

By GTD’s definition, a project needs to have a specific, achievable outcome. If there’s no outcome, it goes against the philosophy of GTD and it will feel like you never accomplish something because the project is never crossed off your list. I like this philosophy and embrace it, and most of my project have a specific, achievable outcome… and it feels GREAT to cross them off of my project list when I complete them!

But I also have ongoing projects that need to be done and don’t have a specific, achievable outcome. Specifically, I try to blog daily in my business and I have a dozen or more client content commitments to write each week (like articles or blogs, etc.). These are multi-step activities that often require some research, brainstorming, a first draft, editing, and publishing… and sometimes a bit of time to think about them.

I have been happy with GTD overall but have struggled with handling these ongoing projects because they never feel like they get crossed off my list.

I researched for an answer online about how to handle ongoing projects in GTD. I found 4 solutions that haven’t worked for me…

WHY ONGOING PROJECTS IN GTD AREN’T EASILY DEALT WITH

Solution 1: Schedule them in your calendar: Many of the uber-GTD superstars have said that there is no such thing as an ongoing project — it’s an action that needs to be scheduled in your calendar. Some were quite adamant in their assertion that any ongoing activity needs to be scheduled.

Yes, for any ongoing activities that require me to show up and do something, scheduling them into my calendar makes the most sense. That’s how I handle activities like working out, doing my weekly GTD review, and invoicing clients. The note pops up on my calendar and I do it. And it will pop up again in a couple of days or at the end of the month or whenever I’ve scheduled it. Easy; and I don’t have to think about it. But these activities are generally one-step activities that are done on a specific date and don’t require preparation.

But it doesn’t work for all ongoing activities because not all of my ongoing activities are one-step actions that can be performed on a specific date. The content I write each week requires some preparation, several next actions, and it needs to be done plus-or-minus a few days; I can’t always do it on a specific day.

Solution 2: Make it an Area of Focus: Another solution suggested by the uber-GTD supestars is to make my blog and each of my clients an Area of Focus and then make each piece of content its own project.

This doesn’t work either.

Of course my blog and my clients are each Areas of Focus. But it goes against the philosophy of GTD to create as many as 20 or more projects each week on individual pieces of content. I’ll spend more time creating projects than I want to and GTD will cease to be useful to me. I don’t want to fill my project list with “AaronHoos.com blog post – Monday“, “AaronHoos.com blog post – Tuesday“, “AaronHoos.com blog post – Wednesday“, etc.

And I would be screwed if I ever wanted to work ahead or if I’m pre-writing a bunch of content prior to taking a vacation. The number of projects I would need to create for that would not be practical.

(Clarification: I actually do like this idea of creating projects for individual pieces of content, and if I wrote less ongoing content each week then I would definitely do this. And I do use this method for my one-time projects. But the sheer volume of content I do each week makes this impractical because it fills my project list with more detail than I find useful).

Solution 3: Leave them on one list as ongoing projects: This was my default method for a long time but I ended up only ever cycling through 75% of my project list. The other 25% never felt “completed”. Since I love to cross stuff off, and I get really motivated to put new projects onto my project list, this kept me from enjoying a sense of productivity.

Solution 4: Create 2 project lists: Another solution (often suggested by the GTD upstarts who hack their own methods into GTD) is to have a list of achieveable projects that can be crossed off when completed, and a list of ongoing projects that are never crossed off. I tried that for a while but wasn’t as happy with handling two project lists. I prefer one list with everything on it… and again, I love to cross things off, so the ongoing project list isn’t as appealing to me.

HANDLING ONGOING PROJECTS IN GTD

The solution I desired needed to accomplish a few things:

  • Be handled as projects instead of scheduled activities because of the complexity of the task
  • Be handled in a way that didn’t overwhelm my project list with individual content pieces
  • Help me to work ahead without overwhelming my project list
  • Kept everything to one list
  • Be achievable — I want to be able to empty my project list!

The solution that has worked really well for me is to create a content-related project in which the desired outcome is a number of pieces of content tied to a specific time frame. The time might be weekly, monthly or quarterly. Here are some examples…

  • 7 AaronHoos.com blog posts for the week of December 9th-15th
  • 4 articles for ABC client for January
  • 6 articles for ABC client (2/month for January, February, and March)

The desired outcome is a quantity of content for a specific time period. It’s really a group of small-ish projects. Basically, you’re creating a project from an Area of Focus and even though you might do a similar project in the future, you are placing a measurable limit on your project to make it achievable.

Of course, you might have a different type of ongoing project that isn’t related to writing but I think this solution could work for other professions as well.

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