Getting past project inertia

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Whenever I am ready to start a new project, I usually sit down and start thinking about the tasks that need to be completed. And I start wondering which tasks I should complete first, second, third, etc. What often ends up happening is that I end up with such a long list of things that have to be done that I struggle to decide which one to do – and I end up in sort of an analysis paralysis.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to start a personal project and ultimately failed to even get going, due to this. I call it Project Inertia.

Inertia is the state of wanting to stay the same or do nothing at all. All objects in the universe have some form of inertia – either to sit still, or to keep moving. In terms of a project, project inertia is the tendency to be stuck, to not be able to do anything at all. It could come from analysis paralysis, a state where you have so many options it’s hard to choose. Or it could come from simply not knowing what needs to happen next.

Either way, it’s real, and it kills projects.

Not starting a project is often not an option, though. Work projects are requirements, not suggestions, and procrastination on a work project can lead to problems with your boss or the business itself. So how do you get started on a project?

I like to take a page out of Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done playbook, and come up with the “next action” for the things on my to-do list. A next-action is something that is specifically actionable. “Install the framework” isn’t specifically actionable if the steps to install the framework include downloading Composer, running composer create project and going through some configuration options. In that case the next actionable step is “download Composer.”

I also borrow a rule out of Dave Allen’s book, called the 2 Minute Rule. In this rule, any next action that takes me less than 2 minutes to complete gets done now. Installing composer is as simple as running the phar installer – it’ll take 30 seconds, so let’s do it. Running through the configuration? That might take a little bit longer to achieve, so let’s put that on the back burner for now, until we’re ready to do it. Unless we decide to do it now.

Knowing what the specific next-action is helps me to get a project started. And that’s where project inertia takes over – because inertia works both ways. Once the ball is rolling on a project, it’s much easier to continue working on the project, even if you don’t specifically look for next-actions. I find that in the thick of a project, the barriers to getting things done come down and I can do my best work.

Getting started on a new project can be a true challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. By figuring out the specific next-action and doing it, you can get the project started – and put inertia to work for you.

Brandon Savage is the author of Mastering Object Oriented PHP and Practical Design Patterns in PHP

Posted on 1/23/2018 at 9:00 am
Categories: Project Management

Neal Anders wrote at 1/24/2018 3:08 pm:

Brandon, do you see this approach in the same vein as the “walking skeleton” method, or are there advantages over it? Starting with the riskiest task removes the unknown of what to do first.. and the solution might drive (or choose for you) options for the other tasks..

Parham Doustdar wrote at 1/25/2018 10:49 am:

This is a great point, and it has changed my life in the past.

Although David Allen mentions this in passing, there have been books written on the subject of doing the smallest possible thing. A common example is that if you don’t feel like going to the gym, just commit to putting on your shoes, and give yourself the permission to not go if you really don’t feel like going to the gym afterwards. This will act as an easy way out for your lazy brain (i.e. you have now allowed yourself to not go to the gym today if you just do this small task). However, what will happen is that once you actually do put on your shoes, you just want to keep on going.

Thanks a lot for the reminder, and this wonderful, insightful post.

Brandon Savage (@brandonsavage) wrote at 1/28/2018 3:26 pm:

I favor picking a task and getting started, even if that task isn’t the most risky or the most important. While I would generally think that doing the riskiest thing first is a good approach, getting any task done is preferable to none at all.

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