My Father’s Take On Getting Stuff Done: 3 “Opened” Projects

Conventional wisdom says that your best work is done when all of your resources are focused on a single project.


Well, that’s never worked for me. I’ve never been able to just work on one project for a single day (or afternoon, for that matter), without losing focus or getting plain bored with what I’m working on. Even with the help of the flow. I can only “hunker down” on a project if it really interests me, and no project can interest me for more than a couple hours at a time. So, unfortunately, my working day is filled with constantly switching between ideas and projects.

ADD? Maybe. Hereditary? Probably. It turns out my father is exactly the same way. He recently shared with me his productivity philosophy.

3 “Opened” Projects

Dad has a simple method for keeping himself busy and entertained with what he’s working on. He simply starts 3 projects at the same time. He can work on whichever he pleases throughout the day, and go back and forth as his mood permits. If he becomes bored with a task or needs to think about how to do something, he switches tasks. By the end of the day he’ll have completed, (or nearly completed), 3 different projects. This is much better than only making halfway through a single project and getting distracted.

While this approach may annoy the heck out of my mother and GTD purists alike, it’s worked for at least two generations of Stansberry men. We’re able to keep refreshed and interested in what we’re working on. I’m actually using it right now: I’m writing this post while going back and forth between two websites I’m building.

A major misconception about productivity is that if you’re “productive”, you’ll have worked all day, without a single distraction. Has anyone ever been able to do that? Not a chance. The best “productivity” method is to plan for our distractions, so we’re not sidetracked by them. My father’s method allows our projects to become distractions.

What about you? Would this approach work for you?

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Leave a Comment

{ 33 comments… add one }
  • Kevin Cardinale January 4, 2009, 7:19 pm

    Love it! I usually do this with books XD!

  • Kevin Cardinale January 4, 2009, 2:19 pm

    Love it! I usually do this with books XD!

  • cuan January 4, 2009, 6:52 am

    totaly agree…i have been doing things this way for years…tend to run a few more projects then 3….

  • jdukr January 4, 2009, 3:28 am

    I do this. And, i work to do multiple tasks in an effective and also somewhat systematic manner. It helps if you are project driven and working through the actual “next step” on a mission critical path. That way you can hop around from project to project and know what must come next to effectively meet goals, deadlines and expectations of others (and yourself!) it appears, at least, that the apple doesn't fall far… :)

  • Coldice4678 Aka JRameau January 4, 2009, 2:21 am

    I am exactly this way, I can concentrate on one project, I get bored and rather spend my time watching tv. In all respect to my procrastination, if the stacks are low, I put less effort in completing a task, and if I have to finish more then one project at a given time, there is a better odd I will not let my mind be distracted and I will complete everything efficiently.

    I don't consider it multitasking, some times some projects have wait until your mind or body is ready to complete them, and you can work on another project will you are transitioning.

    Plus with web design and building, working on multiple sites in parallel are key to finishing the tedious initial steps to getting a site up a running, especially with CMS driven sites, where the same issues apply across the board to all sites.

  • mamapadawan January 3, 2009, 11:13 pm

    work for me? I do that too! It's the only way the painful projects get ANY work done on them, and when I can't take it anymore, I just pop to another project.
    THANK GOD I'm not the only one that does this – I'm not weird! :-D

  • Ryan January 3, 2009, 11:12 pm

    like your post

  • sean January 3, 2009, 7:27 pm

    aka Structured Procrastination or Productive Procrastination –

  • Duane January 3, 2009, 6:24 pm

    I'm no paragon of focus, so don't take my endorsement as a negative. But I like this method, and always have 2 or 3 ideas open at one time.

    One similar method that works really well is to keep a list of lower-priority items or preliminary (“lead time”) steps that need to be taken on a project. I refer to these as a-la-carte items.

    And anytime I find my interest or energy flagging, I'll knock out one of the a-la-carte items to distract me – for no more than ten minutes. Then I'll get back to the main project with fresh eyes.

    More significantly, this reminds me of a story of Isaac Asimov and how he was so prolific, yet insightful. Apparently, in his writing room, he had a typewriter set up on all four walls, and anytime he hit the wall with one project, he'd shift to another.

  • Virilitas January 2, 2009, 1:55 am

    This technique works well for me as long as I limit the number of projects (as you suggest). ;)

  • Christopher Perilli December 26, 2008, 3:26 am

    I do this as well. I can't work on any project for more than a few hours tops. I like multitasking during the day it keeps my sanity. Some people say they work better, linear. I find bouncing around produces my most creative work, and sometimes being under the gun and in a crunch will get the best work from me.

  • Twust December 24, 2008, 2:05 pm

    HA this Glen guy is just a nut! He is the most scatter brained person I have ever met!

  • Chris Cairns December 22, 2008, 10:26 pm

    I work in a similar fashion — and it's the only way I can stay productive in absolute terms. But I don't task-switch between projects every 5 minutes, which IS counter-productive. I also think it depends on the nature of the projects. Switching between two totally unrelated projects — like poetry and bioengineering — can be unproductive, esp. from an intellectual standpoint.

    Nice post.

  • kazari December 22, 2008, 7:22 pm

    I do this too! I always have : )
    In fact, if you really want to stymie my effectiveness, clear my desk and give me one (just one!) thing to do. I guarantee it won't happen.

  • Mike December 22, 2008, 3:05 pm

    I completely agree with this approach. It has worked for me for a long time. I also find that — since my work is academic work — working across different projects can encourage lateral thinking.

  • LifeMadeGreat | Juliet December 22, 2008, 9:45 am

    Hi Glen

    I do a bit of a mixture of focussed, and several projects at once. It depends on deadlines, interest, mood etc.
    I do, however, find that having a couple of pieces of work on the go at once does give me a chance to think about those I am not focussing on at the time.

    Also prevents getting bored too quickly.


  • wynlim December 21, 2008, 10:28 pm

    Yup, same here. I tried the single-tasking method many times encouraged by all the GTD people but it doesn't seem to work for me. I find myself alternating between one project and the web browser. Guess my attention span does not last long. I tried having two projects open instead and alternating between them seems to get much more accomplished. :)

  • Armen Shirvanian December 21, 2008, 9:30 pm

    This makes a large difference. If working on just one item, down-time always shows up, due to need for a break, or due to waiting for something to occur. Working on a second item at the same time means that those down-times can be turned into prime times for switching focus. It also provides a motivational boost, as the person involved knows that good results can show up in more than one path of activity. Providing the example of what you were doing while writing the post added a nice touch as well.

  • Karl Staib - Work Happy Now December 20, 2008, 4:33 pm

    I've been thinking along the same lines, but never really put it into words. On a Saturday when I have to do 5 things. I bounce around from one to the next. I feel like I'm not staying focuses, but I still get stuff done. That's what productivity is all about – knocking out the tasks the way that works best for the individual.

    I just have to stop beating myself up for not working like other people. The more that I become aware of my habits the easier it is to accept my productivity methods.

  • m6azeez December 20, 2008, 2:10 pm

    I think this approach wont work for me!!
    if I focus on one project at a time and give it my full attention I wlil be able to achieve more clean and good work. however when I have more than one project at the same time I will start thinking about the second project while I am working on the first and vise versa.

  • Peter Monbailleu December 20, 2008, 5:08 am

    I understand perfectly what you mean. Working on only one project doesn't work for me either. I'd almost say, the more, the bigger the challenge, the more fun… But… one thing I must force myself to focus on from time to time is that I make sure to finish the projects, not only mentally, but also physically. And sometimes, this is the biggest challenge of all.

  • Niklas December 19, 2008, 2:24 pm

    And another filler, this post made me think about creativity and getting things done and working on your own projects.

    Five minutes ago I was tired, I've had a damn rough day. But after reading this post, and thinking about creativity and how much I love it. I'm recharged and ready for action.

    Thank you

  • Niklas December 19, 2008, 2:21 pm

    Yup, same here. Both at work and at personal projects. I make sure to keep at minimum 2 active projects I can switch between. Of course, when I'm in the flow I can focus on one task or problem or projects for maybe 3 hours. Then I start to loose focus or simply fade out.. the energy for that project is gone. However, if I then switch to another project my energy is back again. When I get tired on the seconds project, I start the first again (and have almost full energy).

    It's confusing, wrong to some. But it has always worked for me. Ironically, this also means that I am less stressed. If I have one personal project I am “locked in”. I can't switch. If it bores me or I just dead lock I have no alternatives, which disturbes me deeply.

    If I have two, I simply switch.

    • Glen Stansberry December 19, 2008, 3:07 pm

      “It's confusing, wrong to some. But it has always worked for me. “

      Further proving that there is no out-of-the-box solution to productivity.