“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”
-Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

It happens about once per seminar. During the practice session, where people are clarifying their project outcomes and next actions, a hand goes up, and I wander over to a question that goes something like, “What about the middle bit?”. It’s a good question.

You see, in the GTD® methodology, we have found that the minimum set of ‘bookmarks’ one needs for a multi-step outcome are: what getting started looks like, and what will be true when this outcome is complete. For more on the power of GTD ‘bookmarks’, see this article.

There is, however, a natural and sometimes necessary third leg required to provide stability in one’s system. You see, we humans are naturally planning creatures. Give us an outcome, and we won’t necessarily just leap to the very next action (unless we’ve been practicing GTD for some time) – but instead rattle off a litany of possible steps and stages along the way. It sounds like: “Well, I need to do this, and this, and then this…” and it is part of how we think.

I call these our ‘best laid plans’, after the Robert Burns poem. We all know by now that things don’t always go to plan. Yet having put in the effort to think these steps through, it seems a shame to waste them. In fact, referring back to “how I thought it might go” from time-to-time in the course of completing the project could be useful.

Fortunately, there is a place for the ‘middle bit’ in GTD. We call it ‘project planning’ (steps, sequences, Gantt charts, brainstorms) and, like ‘project support’ (documents, guidelines, parameters, meeting notes), it can live happily alongside the project outcome and very next action in your trusted GTD system. In physical form, it might live in a folder labelled with the name of the project, referenced from the project entry on your projects list (e.g. ‘see project support folder’ at the end of the project description).

In digital form, many list-making tools like Outlook offer a notes field underneath the subject field, wherein one can type out project plans, attach documents, paste in URLs, etc. Often, a useful rhythm for large and complex projects is to first type in the desired outcome to the subject line, then start writing out project planning steps into the notes field. Having jotted enough of those steps and considerations down, it then often becomes instantly clear what the very next action should be.

Figure 1: Project Support in the notes field of the project

Figure 2: Project and Next Action

Clarifying project outcomes and very next actions from the vast array of ‘stuff’ that comes at us is often in itself revolutionary. But for planners, it’s sometimes not quite enough to feel that things have been clarified sufficiently to let go and move on. (For more on the importance of clarifying enough to move on, listen to this podcast.)

Things don’t always go to plan. But if plans are on your mind, they need a place in your system to let you get them off your mind and come present. Find a place for the ‘middle bit’ so that you can get it down, and get moving on that very next step.

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