Planning Series: Fitting in Small Projects

The thing about living in a project while you're working on it is that it's not all easily defined as projects. Sure, painting a room is a project, but what about when you're walking out the front door one day and the doorknob falls off in your hand? Do you need to haul out the project planning cards and have a meeting before you can deal with it?

Well, obviously, no. The more onerous a planning mechanism gets, the less likely you are to actually stick to it, and the point here is to give you a method of planning and help you stick with it over time. On the other hand, I recently overheard a conversation about a couple having slap-fights over all the little projects they kept doing separately, often in conflict with each other, so there has to be a happy medium somewhere. (If you're having slap-fights, another good post to read is Marriage Tips for Renovators. And, uh, stop hitting each other.)

Let's start by defining a small project. I define it as something that takes less than one 24-hour period to complete. So cleaning the refrigerator coils is a small project, but repainting the kitchen ceiling is not.

If you have a house in much worse repair than ours, you may define a small project as something taking only one weekend to complete. In much better repair, perhaps it should take less than four hours. But don't spend too much time worrying about what is officially a small project and what isn't. It's really easy to get hung up on the semantics and argue about that rather than work out a reasonable way of dealing with your real problem, which is that it's hard to do just one thing endlessly without smaller things that give you faster rewards along the way.

Here are three options for organizing your work so that you can fit little projects in around larger projects. The key is not necessarily doing what Noel and I do, but to make it work for you, so you don't feel like you're never getting to do anything you want to do except slave away in service of this larger goal, while also making sure the small projects don't totally overwhelm the larger goals.

So how to we handle it? We have a set of current projects in order, and we mostly work on those on weekends. Smaller projects we do during the week, perhaps in an evening or over lunch or at other times when they fit in.

Then again, sometimes we'll be sitting over breakfast on a weekend morning when we'd planned to do something else, and the idea of a little project one of us has been wanting to do will come up. We'll start talking about it, make some sketches or graph out a plan, and before you know it, we're off to the hardware store to get a new saw blade and a ten-gallon bucket (for example). Maybe we're really lucky to be so in synch with each other, but discussing the project and agreeing to do it instead of the scheduled work really does make a difference, and I can attest that we have never had a slap-fight (over anything, actually).

We don't have to be in total agreement about everything. We may both have side projects as well -- for me that's been seed starting for several weeks now; for Noel it's the irrigation controller. Side projects are things we work on in the evening or when we're in a holding pattern on a bigger project. They also don't interfere with the main projects or with the other person's stuff. If my side project were to mess around with the irrigation controller as well, we'd be all over each other and there'd be more opportunities for arguments.

We also have impulse projects, though they're not really anything we've formally discussed. The aforementioned doorknob incident, for example. We were heading out to a social event when the doorknob suddenly came loose, so Noel just went and got a screwdriver and screwed it mostly back on. There was a screw missing, so at some point when we're making a trip to the hardware store we'll get a replacement and it will be nice and firm again.

In the end, it's all about keeping yourselves motivated and happy. Give yourselves successes and rewards as you go. Make it possible to do things you want to do right now, as well as the things you've agreed to do over the long term. Choose a working style that works for you, and avoid walking all over each other.

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posted by ayse on 05/12/08