WEB Advent 2008 / Getting Started the Right Way

Everyone has that grand idea. A few want to finally write that open source project or that great novel. Most need to clean the garage. All of us have a full inbox. But let’s face it, whenever we think about starting the project, it just seems ginormous. It’s impossibly complex. It’s going to take forever. There’s so much to do. You’re waiting on someone else. The Getting Things Done method works for some people—in fact, it works quite well for me. I’m talking more about what leads up to it… And all of the problems boil down to something simple: You don’t know where to start.

Right off the bat, list three things that you can do on the project right now. If you’re writing a book, maybe it’s: sketch out a character, choose a setting, and get a new writing pad. If you’re starting an open source project, it could be: create a Subversion repository, write a paragraph on the goal of the project, and convince your coworker that it’s a good idea. If you have to clean the garage, they could be: dispose of old paint cans, sweep the floor, and get that smell out. If you think of more, great… but three or 50 things, it doesn’t matter.

As you’re building this list, you’ll see natural dependencies pop out. For example, it’s much easier to convince a coworker on the value of the project if you’ve clarified your goals. Great—draw a little arrow connecting the two. When you feel like you’ve written enough tasks—for some projects, you could write dozens—take a break and go do something else for five minutes. After you come back, write down all the things you just remembered.

Now you’re really ready to start:

Choose one task without dependencies and do it.

No, seriously—that’s all it takes.

That’s the key. When you’re starting off, just take the first step. The step could be as small as getting the Subversion repository set up, but the point is that once you start crossing off tasks, you’ll want to cross off more. After a while, when you look at the huge tasks in front of you, you’ll start to see all the little pieces and smaller tasks that make it up. You don’t see a garage filled with junk; you see a floor and a broom. You don’t see a huge novel; you see a character with a background and history and interactions with other characters that you can describe.

As you get better at it, you’ll notice a few other things happening. You’ll start doing the same thing in other projects and the tasks you create will become more granular and specific. As you attach estimates and information to each of the tasks, you’ll notice estimates coming more easily and more accurately overall. Instead of saying “this big task will take 40 hours,” you’ll say “these nine tasks will take 34-45 hours” where each of those nine tasks are specific, measurable, and have dependencies described. The power of this cannot be understated.

Not only will you be more productive, but your Project Manager will love you as well.

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