goal-oriented productivity

Simple Critical Path Management diagramIn the course of designing and testing hPDA templates, I have found that many of the people who organize their planners also follow a productivity methodology such as David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done (GTD) system.

As a freelance writer and editor, I understand the importance of good workflow management, so I looked into GTD and other popular methodologies. To my surprise, none of them felt like a good match with my style.

Curious about why, I took a serious look at how I manage my own workflow. What was different? What was similar? The answers that I found were personally illuminating. They also offer interesting possibilities for other freelancers too.

What I found unsatisfactory about the systems I looked at — or, more precisely, about the ways people seemed to be carrying them out — was that they tended to focus on “clearing the decks,” on managing the piles and tasks immediately in front of them. Every evening, people would write lists of all the things they had to do the next day. Then, the next morning, they would dutifully consult the list and methodically proceed to check them off one by one — making room for more tasks that they would add that evening.

Plus, they explicitly or implicitly defined productivity as “getting as many tasks done in as little time as possible.”

Why did all that feel completely backwards to me?

Looking back on my own experience, I quickly realized that my personal methodology dates all the way back to high school, to one of my gym coaches. Or was it the vice-principal?

The details aren’t as important as the message he — or she — conveyed: start with the goal. Before you do anything, identify where you want to end up. Then, start dividing the space between here and there into steps that you must take to move toward the goal. Then, and only then, start taking those steps.

You don’t even need to identify all the steps between the start and the finish, said my first life coach. Just the first few to get you started. The others will come to you as you get closer to them. It might look like you’re heading towards a cliff, but a bridge will appear.

A goal provides a unifying logic, a purpose, to activities that a simple list of tasks cannot (or in my case, simply does not). A goal-oriented view also helps you assess priorities much more easily, because you can see how they affect — or don’t affect — the outcome. A goal, in other words, allows you to predict the effects of your actions with uncanny accuracy. All tasks are not created equal, and a goal-oriented approach will let you make that call with confidence.

Consciously or otherwise, I have been applying a goal-oriented perspective ever since I first learned about it; for me, it “just works,” as Apple fans like to say. It was the principle around which I organized my academic, business, and management careers. When I set out on my full-time freelance career six years ago this month, the processes that I had developed and refined to track projects, time, and payment required only a few tweaks to fit the new venue.

The nature of freelance writing is ideally suited to goal-oriented planning. Every project has an explicit goal — a completed article, chapter, or book of a specified length, incorporating given elements, to be completed by X date. All you have to do is identify the steps along the way.

My approach is more akin to Critical Path Analysis in that it’s all about the relationship of the steps to each other and to the goal, and not a rigid sequence. Some steps have to be taken before I can take another. Some steps can happen later. Some can happen in parallel.

Freelancers learn to expect that interviewees might cancel at the last minute, or that the vital background article might be hidden behind a pay wall, or that no one knows who owns that perfect picture. Sometimes you have to jettison your outline or change the entire thrust of a piece on a dime. The goal remains the same — your client is paying you to have the words on their desk by COB Friday — but your process has changed from a cadenced march to an intricate line dance to an improvisational solo softshoe. A good freelancer knows how to slide from one to the other gracefully, while still proceeding across the stage.

How do you manage your workflow? Can you see past the bottom of your to-do list? Or do you have your eyes on that distant horizon, getting closer with each step?

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.

2 thoughts on “goal-oriented productivity”

  1. I recently found out the difference in thinking terms of goals rather than tasks. When I got a new Circa planner with its cool annotation ruled paper I started out with an amazingly long list of things to do. The list was huge, utterly overwhelming and just plain useless. I then reworked the list going from a laundry list to “to do” items to a short list of projects with a couple of bullet points next to each it. I went from a list of twenty-five things to do, to a list of five. That I can manage.

  2. Thanks, Mary Jo! I like your approach. (Disclosure: in addition to being a highly organized and smart person, Mary Jo is also my wife — but her comment is the result of a discussion sparked by this entry, so it’s almost legit.)

    It’s interesting how sometimes the need for a goal-oriented approach can emerge naturally from a pile of to-dos. In other words, necessity may be the mother of invention, but desperation often performs midwife duties.

    I find that my to-do list is mostly populated by what I call “orphans” — stand-alone tasks that fall outside of ongoing projects, which I would otherwise forget about if I didn’t write them down. Do you track those too?

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