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Chipping vs. Chopping

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Here is a tough question:

When was the last time you FINISHED something that actually mattered?

And when I say finish, I mean really put something to bed, definitively, completely, dusted your hands, and said, “What’s next?”

A related question is: How many active projects do you have going on right now?  How many things are percolating in your mind?  10?  20?

About two days ago I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown because I looked at my slate of projects and just felt this opening maw of doom — I knew I’d never be able to finish all that stuff.  I had seven projects I was running around chipping at.  And then it hit me.

We are chopping trees.

That’s right.  Think about this scenario.  One day, you decide that there are ten trees growing too close to your house.  These are fairly large trees, all of the same size.  You decide you’re going to cut them down.  How would you proceed?

Most people would probably cut down one tree at a time.  This is the most sane thing to do.  Because we know where we are in relation to our progress, we stay focused on one thing, and it kind of just makes sense.  Plus, at the end of your day, you look at the trees, and you see nine.  You’ve made definite, obvious progress.  That feels good.  It’s a success.  Success makes us confident.

What most people don’t do is this: take out their axe, then hack for thirty minutes at one tree, move to the next, hack for thirty minutes at that tree, then move to the next, hack for thirty minutes at that tree, then move to the next, etc.  At the end of the day, you look at your forest, and you’ve still got all these trees standing.  You’ve spent a day working your ass off and still haven’t finished anything.  This feeling, if it goes on for too many days, will actually lead you to choose a new project, because this current project is just too painful.  There are no obvious gains in sight.  This feels terrible.  It’s a loss.  And losing makes us feel nonconfident.

Yet this is precisely how most of us (including me) manage our project slate.  Instead of chopping, we’re chipping.

The question is, Why do we do this?

The answer: I’m not really sure.  But I think I’ve identified why I do it, so I hope that can help you.

I’m just going to share the process that I went through to get my project slate under control.  Note: This is not about discipline.  Discipline, is, frankly, bullshit.  It’s about habits and systems.  I don’t want to think.  I want to do.

1. Write down an exhaustive list of all the projects you’re juggling.  It’s probably a lot.  Let it all out.

2. Then stop.  Time for some self-reflection.  Ask yourself, “WHY am I working on this?”  “WHAT will make the biggest difference in my life?”  Identify THREE — JUST THREE.  This will feel like murder to you.  Your mind will scream, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS PROJECT X??? YOU’VE ALREADY SPENT X TIME AND ARE SO INVESTED!!!” Be merciless.  Three is the magic number.

3. Take the rest of your projects.  Go to your computer.  Open up an Excel spreadsheet.  List all these projects.  Name the spreadsheet “Next Projects.” Save it to your desktop.

4. Now you just have three projects to focus on.  But the work isn’t over.  You need a system for dealing with new thoughts and ideas.  I recommend creating a database of this stuff.  A searchable database.  I like OmniFocus, but you can use a spreadsheet, a long document, or Mac’s “notes” part of the Mail application.  But it is critically important that you get a system for capturing these new ideas, then filing them away so you don’t forget them.

5.  When the temptation to start something a new comes up, and it will, take out your three projects and look at them.  Ask yourself, “Have I finished one of these yet?”  If the answer is no, then put that new thought into your database, and get back to finishing your three projects.

Once you get into the habit of finishing, take a look at Study Hacks.  Cal Newport over there has created a metric for measuring his project completion, which he calls a churn rate.  I’ve adopted this myself and I think it works really well.  It makes you stop chipping, and start chopping.

Written by davidcsaint

March 4, 2010 at 10:25 pm