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Productivity consultant Charlie Gilkey says our working life is about projects. They are mirrors of what is going on and bridges to a better world. But too often we don’t get to that utopia. We fail to finish the project.

He describes the four common barriers to completion as cascades, tar pits, logjams and red zones.

A cascade is a pattern where one project gets behind, causing others to get off track. While in some cases the projects are linked, in other situations it’s simply that they are backing up on each other as if on a conveyor belt with a blockage at the end. To handle this you have to work on both ends of the conveyor belt, not just completing projects near the end but limiting how many more join the stream. In his book Start Finishing, he suggests:

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  • Put all optional projects on hold. He defines optional as something that won’t get you in hot water if sidelined.
  • Say no to new projects when you can. That may mean explaining your situation to people who delegate you projects.
  • Sort the remaining projects by importance. Often that devolves to which ones will get you in the most trouble or be most embarrassing if not finished soon. If tied in importance, focus on the one that can be finished first.
  • Keep to no more than three to five active projects at any one time.

Logjams occur when you have too many parallel projects happening at one time. They need not be linked; you might have two large projects with simultaneous deadlines competing for your attention and time. He advises:

  • Review the conflicting projects to determine which chunks will get a project moving. “If one project starts to move, it tends to open up space for the others to move as well,” he says.
  • Triage your projects and renegotiate deadlines if possible.
  • Anticipate and address logjams before they occur. When working on projects be alert for chunks of projects likely to cause snags and give priority to finishing them so your logjam doesn’t turn into a cascade.

In a tar pit a project not only is stuck but the longer it gets stuck the harder it is to pick up. “It’s the difference between throwing a ball on concrete and throwing it into a tar pit. If you’ve ever tried to pick up a project that’s been stuck for longer than a year, you’ve likely experienced the ‘ugh’ of a tar pit,” he writes. Here’s how to handle them:

  • First, make sure the project isn’t dead. If it’s dead, let it go.
  • If it’s alive but just stuck, reconnect with the pain of not doing the project. Then you can compare it to the pain of not doing other projects, which is probably why you are stuck. Compare pain to pain.
  • Chunk the project down into smaller pieces. Pick a chunk you can do within the next three days. “A project in motion is easier to keep in motion,” he notes.
  • Work on a chunk of the project at least twice a week. That will prevent you from sliding back into the tar pit.

Red zones are the last stretch of a project, where things can fall apart. Mr. Gilkey turns to the Tao Te Ching, which warns that if people were as careful in the end as the beginning there would be no failure. He urges you to double down by returning to why the project is important. Also, be willing to accept less than perfect results to gain completion.

Keep those four barriers in mind in our world of projects – cascades, tar pits, logjams and red zones – and his advice for handling each.

Quick hits

  • When you get home leave your mobile phone in the foyer near your front door and if you need to use it afterward do so only in that uncomfortable space, says Digital Minimalism writer Cal Newport. If you’re expecting an important call, turn on your ringer. “The one allowable exception: listening to a podcast or audiobook during tedious household chores. Let’s be reasonable,” he concedes.
  • When you say no you are only saying no to one option but when you say yes you are saying no to every other option says blogger James Clear.
  • To find your passion, focus on things you care about not things that are fun, Harvard Business School assistant professor Jon M. Jachimowicz advises.
  • Consultant Robert Glazer recalls a mentor who said: “If you don’t control it, why worry about it? Because you don’t control it. If you do control it, why worry about it? Because you control it.”
  • Research shows that if you want to be more creative or be perceived as creative engage in active social media networking, connecting with new colleagues, employees working for partner companies or fellow professionals in the industry.

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