Discover more from Productive Flourishing
Breadcrumbs: How to Find Your Way Back to Your Project
It’s easy to tell what the next step of a project is at the end of a work session, but hard to figure out what the next step is at the start of a new work session.
Consider two truths: (1) it’s usually easy to tell what the next step of a project is at the end of a working session, and (2) it can be incredibly hard to figure out what the next step is at the start of a working session. Part of the reason we can get entranced with our best work is that, once we get on a roll, it’s really easy to keep it up. Likewise, part of the reason we avoid our best work is that the colder the project is, the harder it is to get started.
Charlie shared this in Chapter 9 of Start Finishing before he went on to explain the idea of leaving yourself breadcrumbs (thanks, Hansel and Gretel) as a way to address this tension.
For me, it’s always been a core piece of the book but also how I now approach my work (well, try to). I recently shared this with Charlie along with my frustration that we didn’t have a blog post about it so he challenged me to write one. So here I am.
Like many of the concepts we share here at PF, the practice of leaving yourself breadcrumbs is a relatively simple one to apply and a powerful tool you can use to move your best work forward.
I found the power of it lies in three areas: 1) there are different times you might put this into practice, 2) the many (some surprising) benefits it brings, and 3) learning the art of leaving yourself effective crumb trails.
When to leave yourself a crumb trail…
Here are the best times to leave yourself a crumb trail. (If you think of others, let me know in the comments!)
At the end of a focus block
As Charlie mentioned in Start Finishing, knowing your next step is easier at the end of a working session than the beginning. Yet, often we run out the clock (sometimes overrun the clock 🙋♀️) and jump right into our next thing. Breadcrumbs can ease the transition between working sessions. The key is intentionally leaving time at the end of a focus block to do so.
Trust me, I know how easy it is to fall into “but I just need to do ONE more thing!” (It’s never just one more thing and likely you won’t finish it in the next five to ten minutes anyway.) We think we’ll seamlessly pick up where we left off because it’s clear to us now. Because we won’t have that same clarity later, we’re better off stopping and leaving notes to come back to.
When you need to put a project on hold
It happens. You’re into a project and then plans or priorities change, new circumstances pop up, something happens that means you need to hit pause. Whether you know when or if you’ll be able to come back to your project, leaving yourself notes before you file it away will help ease the process. When you pick up the project again a week — or year — later, those notes will help you more easily dive back in.
And in the event it becomes a dropped project, your notes can serve as the After Action Review that might inform another project down the line. Either way, the act of capturing notes will allow you to set the project down to focus on the project that needs your attention now.
You have a “not yet active” project
The Five Projects Rule states “no more than five active projects per timescale”. But what do you do about those miscellaneous thoughts, ideas, and tasks that come to you related to a project you’re not actively working on but hope to in the future?
A client recently asked me what to do with character and plot points for novels she wants to write but simply doesn’t have capacity to work on right now. (The creative muse does not often follow the Five Projects Rule.) This is where breadcrumbs can be incredibly useful. The client created a folder where she stores the notes as they come to her and built a monthly routine to go in and sort through, connect pieces, and leave herself notes on where her characters might go next. Now when that novel project is ready to move into “active” she’ll have a great head start.
Before AND during vacation
Breaks between work sessions are sometimes extended breaks with the intention of disconnecting from our work. During these times it’s especially beneficial to leave our future selves notes so we can pick up where we left off. But as Charlie has shared, your mind can have a hard time slowing down even when (maybe especially when) you’ve slowed down your physical pace.
Don’t fight it; plan for it. Have a space to drop these thoughts quickly and get back to your vacation. When you return to work, add these notes to the breadcrumbs you left yourself prior to vacation and smoothly transition back into work mode.
Leave yourself a breadcrumb trail to more great content, mini-courses, coaching calls, and other insider goodies when you upgrade to a paid subscription.
Value of leaving yourself a crumb trail
How often have you spent half (all?) of a focus block trying to retrace your steps? Trying to figure out where you saved that file? Or maybe most frustrating of all, spending your precious time, energy, and attention (TEA) redoing all that work you either forgot you did or can’t find? When done consistently and with intention, crumb trails can save you not just time but a lot of frustration, too.
Accelerates your path to Flow
You’ve built focus blocks into your schedule (hazzah!!) because you know they fuel your highest-value, deep work. But there’s a caveat here: you need to be able to get into that deep focus to move your project forward. If you spend too much time figuring out what you need to do or retracing your steps, you’ll find it really hard to get into that blissful state of flow where you tune everything else out and hone in on the work. Crumb trails guide you straight back to the work, which means you’ll be less likely to wander off the path, get distracted by something else, and get to the end of your focus block dissatisfied that you didn’t actually do what you intended to do.
Use your precious TEA on the work, not figuring out what the work is.
Be ready no matter your mode
We can’t always dictate the type of work we’ll be primed to do when we come to a focus block. As much as we can do to plan them around our typical energy cycles, sometimes we hit up against resistance and no matter the effort, we just can’t seem to make ourselves do the planned activity.
Making a practice of leaving yourself breadcrumbs gives you options.
Feeling creative? Open up that writing project and pick up where you left off.
In more of an intake vs. outtake mode? Grab that list of items you wanted to research and hit the books or one of those YouTube videos you’ve bookmarked.
Just need to do something but don’t have creative energy? Find one of those admin projects that you never seem to get around to, consult your notes to figure out the next steps, and get going.
See your projects from a new perspective
When you come back to your project (and breadcrumbs) fresh, whether that’s an hour or a month later, you may just see things you couldn’t while you were in it.
This is especially true when we take an extended break from our project like a vacation or longer. That time away can be a blessing, allowing us to come back to our project(s) with a clearer head and a lighter heart. We can more easily prioritize next steps and projects without worrying that we’ve forgotten something.
Put down the (mental) load
Our minds, our own personal supercomputers, don’t like open loops. So while you may have stopped working on your project, your brain has not.
While I can’t promise this practice will completely stop you from waking up at 3am trying to solve a problem, it will drastically reduce the occurrence. Leaving yourself crumb trails frees up your attention so that you can be more present for the other projects, people, and experiences in your lives. And it gives you the ability to come back to this project at an appropriate time (hopefully allowing you to sleep a little more soundly.)
Put your subconscious to work
Crumb trails not only reduce our conscious cognitive load, they also free our subconscious minds to work the problem, turning information over and looking for new connections.
When we create crumb trails we’re also leaving ourselves mental notes to come back to. We can rest easy now that the project is no longer front of mind taking up valuable processing space. That doesn’t mean our minds aren’t working in the background.
Those ideas that come in the shower or washing dishes? That’s the work of your subconscious.
Helps us see what needs to be deferred, delegated, or dropped
Capturing breadcrumbs forces us to think through our next steps. Doing so, we may find a blocker or new opportunity that could impact the project plan and timeline.
A crumbtrail may reveal a need for resources or another project standing in your way that require you to put the current one on hold (defer). Or maybe you’ve hit a roadblock you don’t have the capacity or capability to overcome, but you know someone who does (delegate). And sometimes, our breadcrumbs give us insight into projects that we’re holding on to because they serve a past version of who we are but don’t serve us today (consider dropping).
How to leave yourself effective crumb trails
Now that we’ve covered when to leave yourself breadcrumbs, and why it’s a valuable practice, let’s talk about how to do it effectively.
Find your Goldilocks level of information
The amount of detail you’ll need to leave yourself will depend on two things: 1) what serves you, and 2) the length of time between work sessions.
We all have different thresholds for just how much information is helpful vs. overwhelming.
If you’re someone who loves detail and context, remember you’re just trying to help “future you” get back into the flow. Be mindful you don’t end up creating so many notes you end up doing the work in the moment instead of leaving breadcrumbs for later.
And if you are more of a minimalist when it comes to notes, remember that “future you” may not remember what your doodles and abbreviations meant.
Speaking of “future you,” consider when in the future you might be picking this back up.
If you’re planning to come back later in the afternoon, a few quick bullets will suffice. But if you’re putting this down for the day or week (or longer) make sure you capture:
What I’ve done.
Where I left off.
What I need to do next.
Where related or supporting material and resources can be found. (If you end up putting this down for an extended amount of time, I promise you’re not going to remember.)
Make a habit of it
As I shared above, there are a lot of different times and uses for breadcrumbs. The more often you do it, the easier and more intuitive the practice becomes. Try adding it in as a regular feature of your day:
During your morning check-in and evening checkout. Before you dive into your day, capture any spare ideas or thoughts that may have popped in since you left off the night before. And at the end of your day leave yourself breadcrumbs to come back to.
During your focus blocks. Before your next focus block, set a timer to go off 10-15 minutes before you need to end. If you are mid-thought or -action, quickly finish and then stop and leave yourself notes to come back to. Don’t push through to the end thinking you’ll magically finish everything; that rarely happens. Get in the habit of stopping before you’re ready.
Before longer breaks. When you take time off, don’t wait until, say, 5pm the Friday before a week-long vacation to prepare for being out. Instead, plan some time on Wednesday or Thursday. Or use your focus blocks the week before a vacation to capture the breadcrumbs you’ll need to follow when you get back. Avoid the magical thinking that says we can get all the things done before a vacation.
Experiment with different capture and storage methods
Breadcrumbs are only useful if you can find them when you need them. The method you use to capture them and where you store them may depend on the type of project you are working on.
If your project is all or mostly digital, file your notes in the same way/place as the rest of your digital projects. Make sure the project has a document or folder with a label like “*breadcrumbs” (the * will ensure it sorts to the top alphabetically)
If your project is purely physical, try to store as much as you can together in one drawer, box, or file and leave your latest breadcrumb list at the top of the pile. Date the paper so you know you’re looking at the most recent version (or maybe as a reminder of just how long it’s been since you picked it up…)
If your project(s) is a mix of digital and physical or it’s not practical to keep everything in one physical location together, consider storing your breadcrumb sheets for multiple projects in one place — either in a digital or physical file folder. That way you’ll always know where to find breadcrumbs for all your projects. (If you choose this route, make sure you leave notes on where key files, materials, and tools are located.)
But Maghan, what about those miscellaneous ideas and tasks that pop into my brain at random times? We’ve got you covered here too! Our Action Item Catcher (in PDF, and now a feature inside the Momentum app) allows you to get these out of your head and into a central place. Then when you have time, you can move these notes into your relevant project plan or project breadcrumb list.
Like I shared at the start: simple concept, powerful tool.
What’s one small way you’ll incorporate breadcrumbs into your day today? Future you will thank you!