The Five Projects Rule: Defining Your Best Work

Most people commit to too many projects — especially when we add in personal projects. It’s also easy to misdiagnose our overload as a problem with focus, efficiency, or procrastination.

Enter the Five Projects Rule: 

No more than five projects per time horizon.

The Five Projects Rule helps with five critical aspects of finishing your best work:

  1. It helps you prioritize on the front end because it constrains your choices.
  2. It helps you focus on the important projects because it’s a manageable number of projects that you can remember off the top of your head.
  3. It helps you plan your projects because it thwarts creating too-detailed plans than what’s needed and creating plans for projects you’re not going to be able to do in the time frame in question.
  4. It helps you “fund” your projects with the blocks of time you’ll need to spend on them.
  5. It helps you shift and sequence projects as the inevitable emergent projects come up.

Sorry, it won’t do your windows, vacuuming, or creative work for you. ;p

Let’s break the rule down into its three distinct parts:

No More Than Five

Decades of research show most people won’t complete more than five important projects per timescale. And since the projects we finish are more important than those we just start, we do ourselves no favors by committing to more projects than we’ll be able to do. 

A few things to keep in mind:

Five total. We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it isn't five work/creative projects and five personal projects. Try to limit yourself to three work or creative projects to leave yourself bandwidth to use for life/personal projects (which too often fall in the work-we’re-doing-but-not-counting-as-projects category).

Five is the upper limit. Some people see the “five” but miss the “no more than” part. You do not need to fill all your project slots, in fact, we’d suggest you commit to less than five and create some extra space in your life and schedule.

Hidden projects. As a reminder, a project is anything that takes time, energy, or attention to complete. And let’s be honest, there’s only so much of that to go around. Look out for the hidden projects that might be sapping your TEA. Figuring out what your kids need to go back to school is a project. Moving is a project. Getting sick, project. Going on a diet, yup, that’s a project. 

Pay attention to the numbers that appear in parentheses next to your project lists in Momentum.

If you see a number higher than five you may want to go back and reassess that list.

Active Projects

These are the projects you are actively moving forward. The projects “hot” enough that you can easily jump back into them without losing time to figure out where you left off. (You’d be surprised how many projects make the list that don’t meet this criteria.)

Do a quick check of your project list and see if you can identify projects that might actually fit into one of these other five categories:

  1. Possible: Project seeds that you haven't committed to doing. Think of possible projects as sitting in the Parking Lot. These projects make great candidates for the Archive feature—return back to them when you’re ready to commit.
  2. On Hold: Projects you've committed to do that are waiting on something else to move forward (i.e. resources, the completion of another project, someone's response or approval). You might defer these projects to a later date, but if you find you have to keep deferring then you might have a Stuck project on your hands.
  3. Stuck: Active projects that got stuck for one reason or the other. It could be you're thrashing in the Void, one of the key members of your Success Pack left, or you've hit a major unexpected roadblock you haven't figured out how to overcome. Rather than dragging these projects along with you, consider moving them to the archive until the source of the issue is identified and resolved.
  4. Dead: Projects we've actively decided to stop doing. “Dead” is more dramatic than “Dropped" but gives you a better idea of why you probably decided to stop working on it. It's easy to pick up a dropped project and put it in one of the buckets above, but we have an aversion to picking up dead things – or we know we're going to have to resuscitate it. Don’t waste your precious time, energy, and attention—delete it.
  5. Done: You may also consider “ghost” projects—those you marked as complete yet they somehow keep popping up as you work through your other projects. This often happens when we mark a project as finished but then don’t spend time cleaning up the mess that projects often leave in their wake. Block out some time this week to do some C.A.T. work (Clean. Archive. Trash.) before calling it “Done.”

Per Timescale

Breaking projects up based on time horizons (Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly, Yearly) is the only real way we can make sense of everything we’re carrying. We generally can’t process more than one time perspective at a time.

(That's the equivalent of trying to look at a piece of piece of paper six inches from your face while also focusing on something that’s a mile away—it’s simply not possible.)  Projects at different time horizons require different levels of specificity when it comes to thinking about the action. Each shift in timescale is a shift in perspective.

When you’re at the weekly perspective, the monthly perspective informs the why of the month and the daily perspective informs the how of the month. That general rule follows for all timescales:

When you need clarity of purpose, shift up 🔼

When you need clarity of action steps, shift down 🔽

That’s why no matter what planner you’re using in Momentum, you’ll always have a line of sight to the projects at the timescale above and below.

The Five Projects Rule In Action

The Five Projects Rule is simple to understand but may be incredibly difficult to practice, especially if you limit yourself to three “work” projects to account for personal and undercounted work. 

What the Five Projects Rule allows us to do is check our commitments and do routine planning quickly.

For instance, if you’re doing your weekly planning, you don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of each day — you can just focus on the five projects you’re doing this week. If you’ve done your monthly planning and picked your five projects for the month, the week’s projects should be chunks of one or more of those monthly projects. 

If you’d like to see how the Five Projects Rule works for you, start by thinking about what five month-sized projects (or fewer) you aim to complete this month. Then work down to the five projects for this week. 

Once you’ve done that, you can use the Monthly and Weekly Planners to help you flesh out the rest of the month and week.

Of all the ways the Five Projects Rule can help you finish what matters most, which would make the biggest difference for you?

A version of this was originally published on www.productiveflourishing.com

Momentum Team

We're the team behind Momentum. And we're here to help get your most important projects from start to done.