Getting things done…

Recently I was feeling stressed out by how many projects I was working on at once and realized that I not only was I feeling stressed out, I wasn’t completing projects effectively.  Time for a change!

Like many people, I make lists and the lists are long, overwhelmingly long!

I have new ideas in bursts where I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and have to write down 5 ideas (2-3 of which will be garbage, but that’s the middle of the night for you :-)) [1].  Or sometimes in the shower – BAM! POW! ZIP! ZOOM! Good ideas happening so fast I don’t want to stop taking a shower for fear of stopping the flow of ideas; but if I don’t start writing them down I’ll start forgetting some of them – aeii! [2] Anyway, the point is, I have too many ideas. Makes the lists too long, waaay too long.

After some thought I came up with the following three steps to rein things in:

  1. Divide the list of projects into two lists: a) Hobby projects and, b) entrepreneurial projects.  The former are things that I don’t expect to turn into “products” that will bring in income while the latter are ones that I hope will do just that.  I’m trying to move from a services indie lifestyle (contract software design and development) to a products based indie lifestyle (SAAS as well as Mac & iOS apps).
  2. Sort the entrepreneurial projects by time to completion, with shortest first.
  3. Only work on one project from the entrepreneurial list at a time, period! no excuses!

The idea is that no idea is going to make money if you don’t ship it! (see:  Without execution, an idea is worth max $20 ).  So the goal is to ship products, the sooner the better.

Now, when I did this sort and divide the product that came up first on the entrepreneurial list was one that I didn’t think was very likely to make money.  No problem!  If it’s not likely to make money, then it belongs on the hobby list! Problem solved.

Then the last step is really key for me – by only working on one project at a time I reduce the stress of dividing myself over too many projects and I am more likely to actually ship something! Letting myself work on an item from either list lets me work on things that are pure “fun” when I’m mentally not in the headspace for a “work” project or when I’m stuck on the work project and need to step away from it for a bit to let my background processor neurons work on it.

Now you might ask, what happens if you want to work on a project down the entrepreneurial list more than the one at the top of the list? Well, there are three ways to skip to something down the entrepreneurial list:

  1. Finish the ones before it on the list!
  2. Rein in scope for the one down the list you want to skip to such that it can be completed sooner than the ones currently before it on the list.
  3. Cancel the projects before it on the list and move to hobby list or delete them entirely.

Obviously the first option is the best because it means we shipped something! Number 2 is good because often projects can be scoped down into a phase/version 1 and the rest saved for a version 2.  Pulling in scope gets things shipped sooner, so encouraging this is good.  Now number 3 is hard to do for ideas that I think are “good” and that’s as it should be – if they’re good, then I should just execute and ship! If they aren’t good, well, fine, what are they doing on this list anyway? 🙂

So, does this work?  Well, I haven’t been using this approach for very long (about a month?), but so far I’ve shipped one product (well, it’s in the Mac App Store approval queue), moved one project to the hobby list from the entrepreneurial list because it was fun but unlikely to make any money (I’m still working on it when I have done enough “work” and get some recreational programming time), and I’m tightening the definition of one near the top of the list to pull it to the top of the list.

And I’ve felt a lot less stressed out.  There is no longer the question of “what should I work on today?” The answer is always, the current project or, if I’ve just completed something so the question might be “what to work on next?” the answer is equally easy:  the next project on the list.


(1) I learned long ago that writing them down is the only way for me to avoid spending the rest of the night mentally “spinning” around the ideas expanding on them and trying to avoid forgetting them – the result being very little more sleep.

(2) I need to get one of those waterproof note taking setups for in the shower that I’ve heard some idea guys have.


4 thoughts on “Getting things done…”

  1. I agree completely.

    On a related note: if, like me, you often have to juggle contract work and your own projects, my advice is to resist doing so at any finer granularity than blocks of 2 days at a time, unless it’s simply high-level advisory work or something like that. Anything less than that on a project that requires creativity or continuity of thought is simply a drain on your resources and your stress levels will increase due to trying to switch between the commitments at an unnatural frequency. It also helps if it’s pre-planned, so you have perhaps Mon-Wed on one project and Thur-Fri on another; having a planned switchover with a decent block of dedicated time for each seems to help.

    Even though I blogged about being able to handle interruptions a while back, that was really about temporary interruptions (15-30 mins at a time) within a wider continuous context.

    1. Hey Steve – that’s an excellent point and suggestion! I’m still trying to figure out the contract work vs entrepreneurial work mix. The tension between the two is, at times, painful. I’ve been thinking of working contracts for 3-4 months, then entrepreneurial work for 6=8 (or as long as I can afford to). I’ll have to try your suggestion and see how that works for me. Thanks!

    1. Sure! Let us know how it works out for you. I look forward to hearing about any refinements you may come up with that improve upon the idea!

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