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Tis the Season…to Conduct a Ruthless Project Purge

Tossing Dead Weight ProjectsTrash

As you moved through the fall, you probably found yourself accumulating an ever-increasing load of “crucial” projects. If you’re organized, these are all recorded somewhere on a fancy list. As you watched this list grow, you probably grew increasingly frustrated by the impossibility of tackling it all. By now, you may have reached a point of productivity paralysis. There’s too much to do! It’s hopeless!

Now is the time to act. Take advantage of your upcoming holiday vacation to reflect on your priorities…and then ruthlessly cull the ungainly stack of projects clouding your productivity horizon.

In this post, I’ll explain a simple but effective system for accomplishing this goal.

The Ruthless Project Purge

The key to the ruthless project purge is to invert the standard logic for simplifying your obligations. Most people try to identify projects that seem expendable. What we will do, instead, is look for the projects that are unusually important — and then dismiss the rest. This is why I use the term “ruthless.” Most of what you’ve planned to look into will be purged. Only the strongest will remain.

It works as follows…

Step 1: Identify the Spheres of Importance

What are the most important roles you take on in your life? For me, I can divide things into: (1) my grad student life; (2) my writer life; and (3) and my personal life. These are three spheres that are most important to me. I want to wring the most from each.

Step 2: Envision Your “Perfect World” Scenarios

For each sphere of importance, envision what, in a perfect world, that part of your life would be like 5 – 10 years down the line. Write this down. For example, for me, my perfect world scenario for writing involves two things:

  1. I’ve become established as a well-regarded general non-fiction writer.
  2. I have a national profile as a student advice expert, helping to change the way undergrads approach school work.

Step 3: List the Support Paths

Imagine you’re taking a test. Your perfect world scenarios are written at the top of the page. The prompt below asks you to describe a path you could follow over the next year or so that would move you closer to fulfilling these scenarios. Your grade will be based on two factors:

  1. The practicality of the path. The more realistic it is for you to actually have the time and ability to follow it in the near future, the more points you will get.
  2. The potency of the path. The closer it would move you toward your perfect world scenario, the more points you will get.

Assume the test is graded out of 100 points. Up to 50 for each of the two grading criteria. Assume I will give you $1000 for every point you receive. What answers would you record? In other words, you have to find a direction that maximizes both the practicality and power. (Too often we neglect one or the other when brainstorming a plan.) Write down what you came up with under each sphere.

For example, for my writing scenario, the following path would earn me a high score:

  1. Grow this blog into a more prominent community, use as a foundation from which to increase both speaking and expansion of on-campus programs; and…
  2. Identify an potentially wildly popular, non-how to topic on which I am uniquely suited to write, use this to put together the strongest possible book proposal for next book.

Step 4: Choose the Lucky Few Projects

Consult your current project list. For each sphere of importance, identify only the 2-5 projects that best seem to align with the corresponding support path. If none align, make one up that does. Everything else gets tossed.

To return to my writing example, as of today I have a list of over 20 writing-related projects stored in my GTD system. Only three make the cut as best supporting my support path. They include:

  1. A project concerning the expansion of the look and content on this blog.
  2. A project concerning the development of a major article that will serve as the cornerstone of my new book proposal.
  3. A project concerning a writing seminar, conducted by an editor I know, that will help me hone my craft.


The key to the ruthless project purge is starting fresh. When you return from the holidays, you want your attention focused on what’s important — not bogged down with minutia. Over time, of course, you’ll finish these projects and new, more important projects will arise. Less important projects, too, will inevitably creep back onto your list. But that’s okay. Once productivity paralysis sets in again, you can conduct a new purge. In the meantime, however, you’ll have made some serious progress towards what’s important. And, in the end, that’s what counts.

5 thoughts on “Tis the Season…to Conduct a Ruthless Project Purge”

  1. (Dutch student) Implicitly.. I came to the same conclusion that I cannot continue in my self-made-17-square-meter-library I live in and need to FOCUS, so IDENTIFY on WHAT to do.. (And therefore have to get rid of the rest) Your post is a welcome medium for starting this.. Thanks!

  2. I like the simplicity of the purge’s structure, and how it commits a person to the best results ever with no excuses.

    I am curious about your thoughts in applying this to an auto-didactic’s schedule, where the structure of the school schedule exists where the student creates it.
    Vacations exist in this person’s world, so the ability to reset a schedule exists as well.

    I’m curious, however, about how you set the scope of your few, important projects to pre-prepare for the next project purge.
    Do you set a general date to check in and reset again, to prevent projects (whose scope you set) overshooting their due dates?
    How do you relate the times of purges with the due dates of projects?

    Thanks for the articles – they’ve been helpful in my practice & studying.

    • Hi Aron,
      hello from 2020. 🙂

      I wonder, how did you approach applying this to auto-didactic schedule, because I’m now tackling the same problem and curious, how are others solving this.

      Maybe you remember something?


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