Using The 4 Laws Of Simplicity To Streamline Projects

Wednesdays are simplicity days at SimpleProductivity blog.

The Four Laws Of Simplicity: Projects

Photo by mrrakt

After bumping into the 4 Laws Of Simplicity, I realized that they can be applied not only to physical stuff, but also the aspects of every productivity system. In this series, we have already talked about applying it to “stuff”, as well as calendars, task lists and reference material. Now we’ll take a look at how to apply them to projects.

The 4 Laws Of Simplicity

Let’s start out with a review of the four laws:

  1. Collect everything in one place.
  2. Choose the essential.
  3. Eliminate the rest.
  4. Organize the remaining stuff neatly and nicely.

It’s fairly straightforward, right?

What Is A Project?

I like David Allen’s description of a project (from Getting Things Done): something that has two or more actions in order to complete it.

By separating projects with more than one action from the things that only take one action to complete, you cut down on the size of your lists.

This is best shown by example:

A project is replacing the water filter in my refrigerator because I have to get the model number of the fridge, find the part number online, order it and install it.

A task (or as I prefer to call them, one-offs) would be something like “get cat food at Target”. One-off tasks are generally things of a maintenance nature (or admin tasks, as I talk about in Using Classification to Wreck Overwhelm)

Applying the 4 Laws To Projects

The Time Management Ninja had a good article about what happens to people when they have too many projects (see 6 Steps to Keeping Your Projects in Check). When your project load is too heavy, it is difficult to make progress on all of them, and it is easy to become discouraged, at which point you can stop making progress on all of them.

I personally believe that for me, it is better to have fewer projects I can bring to completion than have a dozen projects that I inch along at. Overall, I find that switching context less lets me bring projects to “done” faster. But that might just be my imagination. :)


The first step in applying the laws of simplicity is to collect all the items together. So the question to ask is, “where do your projects live?” I recommend that you take a sheet of paper and make a list. Here are places to look:

  • Notebooks
  • Calendars (look for things with due dates, or events that need to be prepared for
  • Lists you have on hand (such as the Someday/maybe list)
  • A tour of your home (look for projects that are incomplete or you want to do)
  • Email

Choose The Essential

The first time I purged my projects, I found many things that I was doing because I hadn’t said no in the first place. There were also several items on there that were never part of my long-term plan, but I was going them anyway.

Example: I had taken on a role in my church’s communication team to produce the newsletter while I was webmaster there. I wasn’t interested in producing a newsletter, or doing any of the things that went along with it. Yet I hadn’t said no when I was asked. That project was jettisoned without much regret.

Example #2: of all the family I had married into (I have no siblings myself), all of my husband’s siblings and spouses hold master’s degrees or better. I felt I should, too. So I began to pursue a master’s degree. The truth is, my field of work doesn’t require formal education – it’s more about learning on your own; and the degree courses I followed weren’t likely to bring me any long-term benefit. It took some struggle to be OK with my bachelor’s degree, but that is where I got to, and I was able to relinquish that goal with no regret.

Go through your project list. Evaluate each one against the following criteria:

  • Is this something someone has told you that you should do? If so, is it something you are doing with wholehearted joy and willingness? If not, cross it out.
  • Does this project further you? If there is no benefit, either tangible or intangible, to you, why are you spending your time, energy and money on it? Cross it out.
  • Does it light you up? Do you really want to do this project? If not, cross it out.

What it boils down to is asking yourself “why” the project is on the list to begin with. When you find the reason, ask yourself if it is a valid reason. Sometimes it helps to keep asking why.

Back to my master’s degree, the “why” strategy was the first crack in the project: why am I taking courses? To get a master’s degree. Why do you want a master’s degree? Everyone else wants it. Why else? Because a master’s will make me more marketable. Why do you think a master’s will make you more marketable in your field? … ?

Eliminate And Organize

Although these are technically different steps, I find that for projects it is best to eliminate and organize in one go.

For those things that you have taken off the list, get rid of them altogether. Now we need to go through the rest of the projects, and cull them some more.

Each of us has limited time and capacity in order to accomplish what we set out to do. We must now choose what we are going to work on and what will be tabled for a bit.

For each of the projects remaining, ask yourself if it is currently in progress. If it isn’t, put it into a project backlog, or what David Allen calls a Someday/Maybe list. This list can exist in paper or electronically, but write it down.

For the rest of the projects, you will divide them into three areas: quick finish, current, and queued.

Quick finish projects are ones that you can quickly bring to completion. These projects just require one or two more actions to get them done. Write them on a “Quick Finish” list. Although I do not recommend this as a long term way of working, it is a good strategy to clean out the project list.

Queued projects are those that you want to finish, but have either lower urgency or importance than other ones on your list. These are the projects that can wait a bit, but need to be finished when you have the capacity. Write these on a “queued” list.

The remaining projects go on your “Current” list. I recommend having no more than 4 or 5 projects on this list, just for your sanity’s sake. :)

By simplifying your projects, you will find a boost of energy and space in your life.

Have you simplified projects? What were your results? Please comment below.

Photo by mrrakt. Licensed under Creative Commons.



  1. Margaret Fisher says

    LJ, do you count things like preparing for the holidays and preparing for vacations on your project list? It seems to me that by David Allen’s definition those are projects, but they recur every year. I loved your Simplifying the Holidays ebook and I have checklists for preparing for Christmas, Easter, and our summer vacation, so that it’s not excessively hard to do each. But that would only give me 1 or 2 more slots on a project list.

    • LJ Earnest says

      That is a great question! Yes, by David Allen’s definition, they are projects. I approach them more as a repeating task, though.

      For vacations, I have a separate list in Remember The Milk that allows me to set up the tasks as repeatable (see Simplifying Vacation Preparation Using Remember The Milk). For holidays, I approach them the same way – checklists that need to be completed. However…If I do something out of the ordinary, like hosting a party, during the holidays, I treat that as a separate project.

      For me, the difference is whether or not I have to think about it. When it’s a checklist, I just have to follow the steps, and it really isn’t a project. I just have to complete the actions. When it’s something new, I have to think it through. I do have a tendency to save my notes from things that might happen again — like planning a holiday party — so that I can repeat them the next year.