Freewriting Exercise: Finding Clarity About A Complicated Project

When you are faced with a complicated task, it can feel all the more daunting because of how multi-faceted it is.

Every time your mind turns toward this project, you can’t make sense of it. Your thinking around it feels tangled in the layers of project management that seem to be required to get everything done.


The problem:
Your project is cluttering your head.

The solution:
You just need to know what to do next.

Once you have a next action, it’s only a matter of feeling out and choosing the next one after that.

Any complex project consists of many sub-tasks. If you’re trying to build a shed, it’s not as simple as putting onto a list

  • Build a shed

And then one day making a checkmark next to it.

Building a shed involves leveling the ground, putting down a foundation, putting up walls, and on and on.

Only when all of the action items are done can you check the project off as having been completed. And if you’re building a shed, it’s necessary to build things in a given order, more or less.

Projects involve many action items. Only one of those actions is a “next action” item.

Next items are a category unto themselves. You know your next step because it’s the necessary one that gets you where you want to go.

It isn’t very efficient to just do one thing and then a different thing. A complex project is like a multi-headed hydra. You’re constantly faced by new problems. Unless you have a solid next-item strategy, it’s hard to make reliable progress or have clarity about it.


In order to best know which action item should be next, you need to know what you know and know what you don’t know.

When you know everything about your project, then you can easily choose a basic sequence of events.

In How is a Next Action List Different from a To Do List? David Allen describes the difference between what you’ll find on a next action list and a to do list:

90+ % of the to do lists I’ve seen are incomplete inventories of still-unclear things. The Next Action definition (if you’re really getting down to having no ambiguity about the next visible physical activity required to move something forward), actually finishes the thinking you’ve implicitly agreed with yourself that you’ll do. “Mom” is an unclarified to do item. But when “Mom” is translated into “Celebrate Mom’s birthday with a party” as a project outcome, then “Call Sis about what we should do for Mom’s birthday” is a clear next action. Because “Mom” is vague, it still triggers stress when you look at it on a list. “Call Sis . . . ” triggers action and positive engagement.

It’s not about staying busy, doing thing after thing indefinitely. It’s about getting things done.

The exercise

1 – Mind dump

Unload onto the page or computer everything that you can think of about the project.

Don’t get too into the nitty gritty if you can avoid it. Keep things on the same basic surface level.

For example, instead of debating what kind of flooring you might want to use and the various pros and cons and opinions about bamboo versus cork, maybe just stick with the actionables.

If you first write “install the flooring” but then you realize you need to do some work to decide what flooring you will use, you would add “have a conversation to decide what flooring we want” and then you’ll need “go to the store to shop for flooring” as another step.

It might seem excessive, but these are all necessary steps. You can’t skip ahead to installing the flooring if you haven’t bought any yet, and you can’t buy any if you can’t agree on which one to get.

This is one of the important roles that deciding the Next action plays.

2 – Take a breather

When you feel finished with how you have described all the various things that need to be done, take a break. A breather. Even if it’s no more than a couple of minutes. Reconnect with yourself and the environment around you.

3 – Shift gears and return to your writing

It will look like a mess, but it’s already a giant improvement over how things were, since it’s not all cluttering around in your head. You probably feel less burdened already.

From this standpoint, read back through and take the various pieces and put them in a list. In this step you don’t need to order things yet, just get them more or less lined up. Remove the other things you wrote that don’t fit or aren’t actionable or belong elsewhere to some other project.

4 – Reorder

The next step is to get things into a rough order based on what seems to make sense right now. After getting a rough order, then decide which is your next item to tackle.

Which things can you delegate? which should you do yourself? Are there missing steps based on what you are learning as you reorder? Maybe before you meet to discuss, you need to watch a youtube video about how to install one kind of flooring or do some research on the values of one versus another.

Finally, now that you have your list, you are ready and uncluttered. Free and able to take action on your next action item.

In a few short minutes you can take an overwhelming and complicated project and use freewriting to dump it all down, explore what you know, what you don’t know, and build a logical sequence of actions that will take you where you need to go.

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