The Six Categories of Projects That Might Be Weighing You Down
Active projects aren’t the only ones adding to your load
When you're overwhelmed, it's probably because you're overloaded. You can't solve for whelm, but you can solve for load.
Sound familiar? It's one of those wonderful Charlie-isms that, after hearing it more times than I can count, has become a comfort and reminder when that all-too-familiar feeling of being overwhelmed creeps in.
So how do we solve for load, exactly? Well, the first step is to identify what load we're actually carrying around. It sounds simple, but that doesn't mean it will be easy. Especially if you've been carrying your particular load for a long time.
But it's only once you can see and acknowledge all you are carrying that you can begin the process of redistributing (and even letting go of) its weight.
As you may have already guessed, yes, I will invoke the Five Projects Rule here. But today, I want to focus on a particular section (actually, a particular and most important word) from the long-form definition that's left out when we use the shorthand "Five Projects Rule."
In case you need a refresher, the whole definition is:
No more than five active projects per time horizon.
Never noticed that word “active” in there? Me neither — until I came across a piece of cut content from Start Finishing on our team's Google Drive (I love my job) that introduced me to five other categories or types of projects.1
I'll share the section:
Consider that projects fall into six buckets:
Possible: Project seeds that you haven’t committed to doing. Think of possible projects, such as sitting in the parking lot.
On-Hold: Projects that you’ve committed to do that are waiting on something else to move forward. It could be resources, the completion of another project, or someone’s response or approval.
Active: Projects that you’re actively working on moving forward. It’s “hot” enough that you can get back into it and get momentum quickly.
Stuck: Active projects that have gotten stuck for one reason or the other. It could be that you’re thrashing in the Void, one of the key members of your success pack left, or you’ve hit a major unexpected roadblock you haven’t figured out how to overcome. A common reason why projects get stuck is that they die somewhere along the way, but we can’t see or acknowledge that the project died, and we’re carrying the project’s carcass along with us.
Dead: Projects that we’ve actively decided to stop doing. ‘Dropped’ is an acceptable substitute for ‘dead’ if the latter seems too dramatic, though the latter is better because it indicates why you decided to stop working on it. It’s surprisingly easy to pick up a dropped project and put it in one of the buckets above, but we have an aversion to picking up dead things — or we at least know we'll have to resuscitate it.
Done: Self-explanatory. [Maghan says: Or is it?]
I share this with you because when we're dealing with overload and compiling our list of projects it’s pretty easy to focus on and name what we are working on — those projects we have committed to doing and are actively pushing forward. But what about the other projects? The ones that might not have made it to our list but nonetheless are taking up a considerable amount of our mental and emotional energy, only adding to the weight of the overall load?
Let’s look at each of these types of projects, how they might be taking up space (and weight) in your load, and how you might manage and adjust that weight.
Possible Projects: The Possibilities Are Endless
Next to our active projects, those that sit in the possible project category are likely the most impactful for moving our best work forward. These are the projects that allow us to dream big and imagine all the future might hold.
They are the project ideas that can fuel our growth and progress. Still, if we’re not careful, they can also overwhelm us — the sheer volume of what we should, could, or would do if only can keep us in a state of analysis paralysis where not only do we fail to choose a possible idea to move forward, but we stall out on the active projects we have committed to.
And us “driven possibilitarians” (Charlie's new framing for a Creative Giant) are never lacking for new ideas — we have gardens full of them. But “we don't do ideas; we do projects.” So how do we not lose sight of all these possible ideas while keeping focused on the active projects in front of us?
Tend your idea garden:
Consolidate your ideas in one place. Decrease the mental load you're carrying, trying to remember your ideas and where they live. While you might require multiple formats for capturing your ideas (depending on where you are when they come to you), make sure to migrate them daily or weekly over into a single location.
Schedule time to regularly review and maintain your idea list. Remember, these are a list of your possible projects, and possible does not mean definite. Let go of the expectation that every idea on your list will move forward. Like any garden, there will be seeds that take root, sprout, and need to be replanted (moved to active), just as there will be ones that never take hold or even start to strangle those that try. At least once a quarter, take time to weed (let go), prune (pare back), and water (nurture) your idea garden.
Allow time for play. Gardens are meant to be enjoyed, so every so often, allow yourself time to revel in the beauty of your ideas. Give yourself a focus block, a day, a week (whatever you have available), and get re-inspired.
Do you identify as a “driven possibilitarian”? Join us as a paid subscriber and get even more support for those big goals and projects.
On-Hold Projects: Hit Pause
Unlike those on your possible list, projects that land in this category have already made it to the active list but need to be paused for one reason or another. This might be due to circumstances outside your control, or this stopping point might have been an expected and even necessary part of the project. But whatever the cause, these projects can take up space in our brains and keep us from moving on to projects that are ready to move forward.
The challenge is that a project that sits on hold too long will likely become stuck. (More on this in the next section.) So, what can we do to prevent a hold from becoming sticky?
Plan for the unpause:
Pick a date to reevaluate. Whether you know how long a project is set to be on hold or not, put a reminder on your calendar for a reasonable point in the future to come back and check in on things. This is not the date at which you are meant to actively reengage with the project but simply to assess if the project is ready or close to ready to start up again. Then, based on your assessment, set a new date to either do another evaluation or restart the project.
Leave yourself breadcrumbs. Chances are that when you return to this project, whether next week or next year, you'll have some brain fog around where you left off and what's needed next. Do your future self a favor and leave some notes to help you get back into things.
Play some Project Tetris. If you know when you might have to actively reengage with an on-hold project, have a plan in place not just for what project you might slot in during that period of pause but also for what will happen to your active projects when you hit unpause. Unless you leave yourself with an open project slot (which you can do!), something will get displaced when you pick things back up. If you feel the need to fill in this gap in your project list, consider what could fit there without too much disruption when your project comes back from pause. (These pause periods can be great opportunities for playing with your possible list.)
Stuck Projects: What to Do When Things Get Sticky
The difference between a project on hold and one that’s stuck is this: a project on hold has a clear reason for stopping work and a known event that will allow it to move back to your active list, and a stuck project does not have either of these. With a stuck project, you've found yourself at a standstill and are struggling to find a way out.
Projects slip and end up stuck for different reasons. Understanding how and why can help you get back on track or avert the issue entirely. An entire bonus chapter in the Start Finishing Field Guide is dedicated to getting projects unstuck, so here I'll focus on helping you identify what type of stuckness you're dealing with:
You're drowning in a cascade. You've gotten behind on one project, making everything else fall behind, causing a backlog of project tasks to come due faster than you can possibly address them.
You're dealing with a logjam. You have multiple projects going on simultaneously and don't have enough focus blocks to get them all done. Everything is at a standstill.
You're stuck in a tarpit. Your project has been stuck for a long time, and it isn't easy to figure out how to get it unstuck (or even if you should).
You're in the creative red zone. You're close to the end of your project, and things keep coming up (distractions, feelings, head trash, etc.) that are slowing you down and preventing you from finishing.
Dead/Dropped Projects: Avoid Being Haunted by Ghosts of Projects Past
As Charlie said in the definition above, you can substitute the word “dropped” for dead here, but the latter has a way of making things feel more final. Because how often have you felt the ghost of a dropped project come back to haunt you — either in the form of regret for not finishing it or because you've picked it back up, perhaps in an attempt to bring it back to life?
How do you deal with these ghosts?
Admit the project has come to an end. For some projects, simply recognizing that you have hit an endpoint — even if not the one you originally envisioned — will be enough to allow you to move on. For others, you might need a little more.
Commit to not working on it anymore. What do you need to do to allow yourself to truly let go of this project? Do you need to share the decision with someone else? Journal about what the project was and why it's no longer serving you? Remove all reminders of the project so there's no temptation to pick it back up? The more important the project is to you, the more work you'll need to do to let it go.
Done! (But Is It Really?)
It can be easy to call something "done" when you just have a bit left to finish. It's as good as done, right? Sorry, nope. Listen, I fall into this trap more often than I care to admit. It's so tempting to move onto something new and fresh rather than spend one more minute on that thing you've been working on for what feels like forever.
How often have you had a project you'd considered done and dusted inextricably land back on your to-do list? To avoid those boomerang tasks and the frustration of tripping over the detritus of (what you hoped were) past projects:
Check for incomplete tasks. Make a game of it by listing any remaining tasks you'd need to do to get to the finish line and start sprinting. And if you have a few projects that fall into this "almost done" category (and many of us do at the end of the year), why not make a week or month-sized project out of tying up all your loose ends?
Run a victory lap. Finishing anything deserves some celebration. Don't let your rush to move on to what's next take away from the celebration. Take a moment to bask in the glory of this win!
Make time for C.A.T. work. Clean up, archive, and trash the remnants of your completed project so you can avoid the pain of these remnants coming back to bite you, derailing another project when they re-emerge at an inopportune time.
Finish to start. Complete an After-Action Review of this project to give yourself a head start on a future one.
These steps all help close mental loops, so you can fully let the done project go.
Active Projects: Keep It Moving
You didn’t think I forgot about the active project category, did you? Like the others, the list of projects you are actively moving forward needs to be reviewed regularly — I’d suggest no less than quarterly.
Take a look over your active projects and ask yourself these questions:
How are things going? Are you ahead of schedule? Behind? Did something unexpected pop up? Do any of the planned project parameters need to be reset?
Has my project morphed into something else? It happens, we start a project, and somewhere along the way, it shifts into something else. Just make sure you acknowledge the switch so later on, you don't beat yourself up for not finishing that first thing.
Is this an active project? Watch out for ideas from your possible list sneaking in and grabbing hold of one of those precious five slots. The possible bucket holds ideas that have the potential to become projects, but until they have a plan, they can't be moved to active.
What goal is this project attached to? Once we decide to move forward on something, we can have a hard time letting it go even when completing it no longer serves us. If you can't connect a project to a goal, why are you continuing to spend your time, energy, and attention on it?
Are any of these projects keeping me from what I most want to do? We can't always control the hand life deals us, and there will always be projects that we must do. But take a good look at the projects on your plate, specifically the ones you chose to take on. Are there any you might reconsider?
Manage the Load, Not the Whelm
It’s easy to misdiagnose our overload as a problem with focus, efficiency, or procrastination.
If we could just get our act together, create a better routine, or find the extra time (if anyone figures this mystery out, please do share), then we will magically be able to get it all done.
The first step to gaining control of our schedule, projects, and lives is to get honest about our load. This includes not just the projects we are actively pushing forward but also those which take up precious space in our brains and hearts.
How heavy is the load you are carrying? What might you do to lessen it so you can move yourself forward?
As I was writing this post I also came across this one written by Charlie in 2008 where he describes four of the six categories of projects listed above. Clearly these ideas have been part of Charlie’s body of work for a long time, with the 5 Projects Rule and these six categories as the (current) culmination.