How I Organize Projects as an Indie Developer

When I was in elementary school, I had a reputation for being completely disorganized. Homework assignments were often lost or forgotten because they were swallowed by the dark abyss that was my backpack. Efforts were made by my teachers and parents to improve things, but sadly, progress from age 6 through 18 was not substantial.  Let’s also just say that I wasn’t the ideal college student.  I found a sanctuary in my first real post-college job as a web programmer at a small firm.  Because all the organization was done by the project manager, all I had to do was execute. It was simple and beautiful.

This all changed in 2002, when I got an offer to switch careers into something I had dreamed about doing since I was a kid: making video game soundtracks.  I took on my first ever paid gigs, with Amaze Entertainment, doing all music and sound effects for both Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets GBC, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers GBA.  Now, I was responsible for everything: making my own hours, choosing how to spend my time, problem solving at the project level. As a contractor, I was on my own. And it started out great… I remember the teams being impressed with my first couple audio deliveries. The work was steady but not overwhelming… at first.

lotr_ttThe turning point was getting emails in my inbox faster than I could handle them.  Emails were starting to represent day-long to-do’s in themselves. My project notes were also starting to get out of hand.  When I met with the teams at Amaze, I wrote down everything important on a big yellow pad, which I used for reference. Thirty pages of hand written scribbles. The chaos was mounting.

GTD – The Induction

It was around this time that I remember reading a sidebar in WIRED on the latest trending buzzwords, and one of them was “open loop”–any ongoing project that has unresolved aspects to it, subconsciously draining your mental energy. This came from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which was gaining traction as a nerd-friendly organization methodology for the 21st century.  I picked up a copy and instantly became a zealot.  It was one of the few legitimately life-changing books for me.  24 years into life, I finally learned how to keep a calendar–something I never did before then, and have continued to this day.  It also taught me how to plan projects, organize my room, clear out my email inbox, and generally track tasks so you don’t have to do them as fast as they appear..

In a nutshell, GTD is meant to operate like a filter than turns the chaos of your life–clutter, new emails, scraps of paper, thoughts, worries, downloaded files–into various lists where they are managed, so you can stop thinking about them, freeing up your mental RAM for more important daily tasks…like getting things done.  One of the linchpin principles is the “next action.” This means picking the very next step in a project, no matter how small, and writing that down as a starting place.  Contrast this with writing down entire projects as to-do’s, which is everyone’s tendency.

The Modifications – Heresy

GTD got my work life back under control, and I was able to pretty consistently keep up with the demands of multiple projects and managing my own time. I can’t say I was perfect with that, but on the whole my productivity was where it needed to be to stay afloat.  And yet, there were problems with the system I never quite resolved.

My main hitch is that GTD focuses heavily on “100% capture”.  This means not allowing for any lingering chaos in your life–even that cardboard box full of IDE cables and video cards on the top shelf of your closet, which might also have your CD key to Red Alert…  In short, everything must be on a List.  In the GTD universe, it boils down to 3 of them: Next Actions, Projects (which NA’s are tied to), and Someday/Maybe. There’s also Waiting For which is for stuff you can’t do anything about right now, but should follow up eventually on.

  • I found 100% capture to be impossible. You’re supposed to do weekly reviews, bringing all the lists up to date and removing all the chaos from your life, but the magnitude and tedium of this task made it so undesirably that I would typically only do reviews every few months.  I decided to aim for 80-90% capture and being fine with it.
  • My next modification was removing the Someday/Maybe List. You’re supposed to use this to track things you want to do someday so you don’t forget them. Within a year, my list grew to 200+ things, and even the quickest scan of it was enough to depress me. I called it the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Do I really need to be reminded constantly of all the things I wanted to do at some point, but haven’t yet?  Deleting this list felt amazing.
  • There’s one other thing I couldn’t get around with GTD, and that’s the size of the lists themselves. Allen suggests a Next Actions list of 100 items, and projects list could be around that same size.  So imagine sitting down to work, taking a sip of morning coffee, and having to face that. It’s like staring up the Cliffs of Insanity.  Instant overwhelm. Urge to play online games rising.  I ended up leaving less important stuff off the lists, to keep the size down.

As time went on, my methods resembled GTD less and less. Eventually, it could no longer be said that I was a GTD practitioner.

My Own System – Apostasy

notepadMy new method revolved around plain text files in Notepad, which had a short list of Next Actions at the top.  Sometimes I would write a goal for the day or week at the very top of the file.  As I completed next actions, I would copy them to a list below to show my daily progress (did you know you can clock in and out of Notepad with F5?). I had about four such files, each representing a different major project in my life.  Everything that didn’t fit in there was tracked in Gmail–every email that represented a task was labeled “Action.”  A good blend of order and chaos, but it was a bit too hard to get an overview of the immediately important things, day by day.

1MTD – The Innest Religion, 2014

Every so often I crawl the web to see what the latest organization software and methodologies are.  Would something, someday, supplant GTD as the reigning personal organization and life management solution?  And I found Master Your Workday Now. Brand new, but intriguing based on the reviews. The author graciously provides a free ebook describing the whole “One Minute Todo List” (1MTD) system.  It only took about an hour to read the whole thing and set everything up.  I’ve been using the system without modification for a month now, and I have to say, so far, it’s pretty freaking awesome.

The basic idea of 1MTD is keeping the visible size of the lists small. This is accomplished by a) sorting tasks into three urgency categories, and b) deferring tasks by putting a future start date on them.  (It recommends Toodledo for task management because you can set priorities easily, and future tasks can be hidden from view.)

The three urgency levels:

  1. Critical Now–Do this today or stay up all night to finish it (most days don’t have anything here)
  2. Opportunity Now–Is due in the next 10 days, so work on it if you can
  3. Over The Horizon–Don’t worry about these until later, just check this list every week or so.

What works so well is that by keeping lists small, they don’t get enormous and overwhelming.  It’s an important psychological component. Stuff moves around day by day–what seemed critical yesterday might not be very important today. And maybe there’s a whole category of work you’re going to put off until Thursday, you can just defer it by setting the start date to then.

If you’re struggling with getting things done, and have a love-hate relationship with organization, give the free ebook a read.

Four weeks is not really enough time to judge a system like this, so we’ll see how it mutates under my command as the year goes by. But, I can say so far it’s simple and fun to use.

If you found this article useful or entertaining, please comment below, and I’ll do a follow-up later on.

8 thoughts on “How I Organize Projects as an Indie Developer”

  1. Thanks for this! Toodledo looks useful and simple enough. Interesting background info about your personal organizational history, too.

  2. I did the Don’t Break The Chain thing for a while. It’s less about task organization and more about forming positive habits, and it worked really well for me while I was doing it. I set a few really basic goals for myself – I’d spend a few minutes tidying up the apartment each day, a few minutes doing some development, a few minutes exercising, a few minutes on basic personal care that I tend to forget about. I forget exactly why I stopped, but it worked fairly well while I was doing it. Pretty soon I ran out of cleaning tasks and my apartment looked really nice. I found myself broadening the task – laundry, for example, was cleaning. Vacuuming. Dusting. Putting stuff away. I started spending fifteen minutes on it, but after a week I could barely find enough stuff to fill half that. It was pretty nice.

    Here’s a link:

  3. I’ve come across a few articles and books on the power of micro-habits. I’m a believer–though I’ve found that breaking these habits is ten times easier than making them. Even things I did for months, if I go a week without, tend to get broken until I go through the patterning process in my brain again.

  4. I had kind of forgotten that there is a whole category of fans who read this blog, but don’t follow me on Twitter… time for a post here, I guess! It’s way past due.

  5. Now that’s an incredibly useful article for me. It’s almost as if you wrote that specifically for me. I’ll give that eBook a read and test the tools.

    Other than that: I’ve realized since quite a while, that the psychological aspect of not overwhelming yourself with tasks and todos etc. is a really important aspect in getting things done. Too much, and my brain shuts down and goes into “screw this” mode, making the boring games I play at the time suddenly much more appealing.

    Overall I use a lot of trickery to get myself to do things, but I haven’t found anything solid up to now… Or to be more honest, I haven’t looked for/into anything because I never realized, that it should be made easier.

    Also, the F5 on the notepad is extremely useful, I use it constantly for various stuff ^^

    Thank you, very nice

  6. It’s really a combination of tactics I’ve picked up over the years which work, and an ever-evolving system. Glad you found the article useful!

  7. Hey Ian !

    Thanks for the very interesting article. I’ve been struggling with organizing my work for years and I need to say I haven’t found a perfect solution yet. Very good method for me was Pomodoro Technique – but it’s effective for focusing on work during short periods of time, but the whole task organizing part didn’t work for me so well. I’ll check out the MYWN book and see how this will work out. Thanks a lot and good luck on Spellcaster 3 !

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