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The Five Projects Rule: Defining Your Best Work
Most people commit to too many projects and misdiagnose their overload as a productivity problem.
A common challenge I help people work through is figuring out how much work they’re doing and whether they’re going to be able to finish the projects they have on deck in time. Most people have committed to too many projects — especially when we add in their personal projects — and they’re misdiagnosing their overload as a problem with focus, efficiency, or procrastination.
The Five Projects Rule is a powerful shorthand because it helps with five critical aspects of finishing your best work:
It helps you prioritize on the front end because it constrains your choices.
It helps you focus on the important projects because it’s a manageable number of projects that you can remember off the top of your head.
It helps you plan your projects because it thwarts creating too-detailed plans than what’s needed and creating plans for projects you’re not going to be able to do in the time frame in question.
It helps you “fund” your projects with the blocks of time you’ll need to spend on them.
It helps you shift and sequence projects as the inevitable emergent projects come up.
Alas, it won’t do your windows, vacuuming, or creative work for you. ;p
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The information below is a modified excerpt from my coverage of the Five Projects Rule in Start Finishing.
‘Timescales’ = The Starting Point for the Five Projects Rule
Most of us intuitively know the difference between a week-sized project and a month-sized project; we also know the difference between a month-sized project and a quarter-sized project. The difference between a quarter-sized project and larger-sized projects gets a bit slippier, but we can still feel the difference.
And, as I’ve said in the post about using the two-hour rule to chunk your projects, while we overestimate what we can do in either 15-minutes or a full day, we generally know what we can do in a two-hour chunk of focused time.
We can use our intuition about the size of projects when prioritizing and planning. When thinking about what we aim to do this week, rather than thinking about all of the possible timescales, we can think about what important week-sized projects we need to complete this week.
Similarly, when we’re thinking about what we aim to do this month, we can think about the important month-sized projects we need to focus on this month. As we consider the various timescales (day, week, month, quarter, year), it’s important to alter the level of specificity when it comes to thinking about action.
When you’re thinking about the forest (time), focusing on the leaves (action) short-circuits your ability to consider either the forest or leaves. Each shift in timescale is thus a shift in perspective.
People often struggle with visualization, planning, and reviewing because they slip between perspectives too fluidly. For instance, when you’re at the monthly perspective, the quarterly perspective informs the why of the month and the weekly perspective informs the how of the month. That general rule follows for all timescales:
when you need clarity of purpose, shift up;
when you need clarity of action steps, shift down.
Constraining the timescale is the only real way we can make sense of everything we’re carrying because we can’t process more than one time perspective at a time. It’s the cognitive equivalent of trying to look simultaneously at a piece of paper that’s six inches from you and something that’s a mile away.
The Five Projects Rule
Thus enters the “No More Than Five Active Projects Per Timescale” rule, which we’ll shorthand to the Five Projects Rule (or 5PR) because the former is too unwieldy. Let’s unpack “no more than five” and “active projects” separately.
Concerning “no more than five,” decades of research, observation, and experimentation have shown me that most people won’t complete more than five important projects per timescale. Since how many projects we finish is more important than how many we start, we do ourselves no favors by committing to more projects than we’ll be able to do. In reality, three projects is a better limit for creative and/or professional projects because it leaves bandwidth to use for life/personal projects and accounts for the work we’re doing but not counting.
“Active projects” makes you commit to projects that you’re actively pushing forward as opposed to those that you’re just thinking about, queued for the future, or are hanging on to but aren’t actually doing anything with. Your active projects are the ones that are on your metaphorical desktop.
The Five Projects Rule is simple to understand but may be incredibly difficult to practice, especially if you limit yourself to three projects to account for personal and undercounted work. But remember the project pyramid (below): your three or five projects may contain subprojects, depending on the time perspective.
What the Five Projects Rule allows us to do is check our commitments and do routine planning quickly.
For instance, if you’re doing your weekly planning, you don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of each day — you can just focus on the five projects you’re doing this week. If you’ve done your monthly planning and picked your five projects for the month, the week’s projects should be chunks of one or more of those monthly projects. As I said, timescale constraining and the project pyramid do a lot of the work for you.
An Example of the 5PR in Action
Given that the deadline for this book is in October and how many of my available blocks it’s taking — which isn’t a complaint, because I love writing — I know not to add anything more than what’s already active. I’m also intentionally not doing a lot of month- and week-sized projects on the personal side.
At the weekly level, I don’t have to specify more than what I’ve done above. Fixed times for events such as flights and meetings are on my calendar and I know when those are, so I don’t need to include them in my weekly planning. But preparing for my workshop and attending Camp GLP are two different projects, and the latter prevents me from doing anything else starting Wednesday — I don’t work well on planes, and when I’m at an event, I try to do nothing more than be fully present and connect with people.
At the daily level, I don’t need to specify when I’m doing the work because that’s driven by my week block schedule. I know I’m going to be writing in the morning, meeting with my client from my office, and, after that, completing the proposal for the event from my office. I also have some admin tasks to do that are batched in that admin block that I don’t need to specify because they’re captured in my work management software.
When I sit down to make next week’s plan, I only need to update my weekly plan and go from there. You can probably guess what next week looks like, given how the projects are linked.
What’s not included above is the fact that I have a full roster of clients on top of the creative work that I do. I’ve learned to not give myself five project slots at the monthly level when my client schedule is full because, though it’s unlikely that I would be creating during those times, holding all of those worlds, attending meetings, and doing prep work displaces my ability to do another monthly level project. I could just as easily write down “serve clients” as a monthly slot, but I don’t need to at this point because I know it’s there. Simplicity favors removing the slot and not writing it, and, as long as I stick with limiting the number of projects I commit to in the future, it works. (It took me a few years to learn to assume I’d be fully booked in the future, too.)
My service work actually falls under the category of recurring projects. Like personal projects, they’re often under-counted. If you’re being truthful about what your days, weeks, and months look like, you may see that 50–75% of your available time, energy, and attention is already committed to recurring stuff. If that’s the case, you may only be able to give yourself one or two project slots to commit to; this may also mean you need to communicate and negotiate with your boss about the never-ending stream of projects they want to give you every day.
Recurring projects and tasks are some of the first things to start delegating to other people. As a general rule, if you can list the steps it takes to do something, you can delegate all or major parts of the work to someone else.
The Five Projects Rule vs. the To-Do List of Doom
A major upshot of the Five Projects Rule is that it allows you to work from a smaller, more focused list of action items rather than trying to decode and parse the To-Do List of Doom that so many people create for themselves.
After talking to many hundreds of people about their to-do and project lists, I’ve learned that having too many things on the list is only one of the things that’s short-circuiting their brains. Many people’s lists are a mix of projects of radically different timescales. It’ll be something like:
Book (yes, with no verb in front of it)
Create weekly report
Get an appointment for an oil change
A list like that is difficult to parse because we have to figure out which sub-steps of some of the bigger projects fit into the timescale we may not be explicitly centering. Is all of that something we need to do today, this week, or this month? They can’t be all we need to do this week or this month, right? What else is missing? What’s most important?
Far better to have the list be centered on the timescale we’re thinking about and translated into that. For instance, if we’re considering a weekly timescale, then we can convert “Book” into “Finish editing the book” — with the verb leading the action item — and, if needed, convert “Finish taxes” into the week-sized project we can do this week if we see that we’re going to need more than three focus blocks to get it done.
But if we were considering a daily timescale, we may need to chunk those two projects down into pieces we can work on today at the same time that we’d likely need to add a few more tasks and frogs that wouldn’t show up on a weekly list. If we were considering a monthly timescale, we’d probably drop the tasks and upgrade some of the week-sized projects into the month-sized projects that contain them.
The end result of constraining the timescale and translating projects is that we end up with simpler, more coherent, and more compelling action lists. The Momentum Planners bake timescale constraining right in, which is one of the reasons they work so well (and can be quite the paradigm shift for a lot of folks).
If you’d like to see how the Five Projects Rule works for you, I suggest starting by thinking about what (no more than) five month-sized projects you aim to complete this month, then work down to the five projects for this week. Once you’ve done that, you can use the Monthly Momentum Planner and Weekly Momentum Planner to help you flesh out the rest of the month and week.
And, if it’s hard to choose the five projects, you may find my post on project cagematches useful, too.
Of all the ways the Five Projects Rule can help you finish what matters most, which would make the biggest difference for you? I’d love to know in the comments.