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Superhabits: Personal Project Pipelines

In business there is a concept known as the “product pipeline.” This pipeline is metaphorical and encompasses a company’s various projects as they exist in the product development process: from initial brainstorming, analysis, research, prototyping, development, testing and launch. While a company might have successful products already in the marketplace, maintaining a steady pipeline is an important mechanism for ensuring ongoing innovation and sustainable output.

While the pipeline metaphor is often applied to product development, it can easily be repurposed for individual productivity and personal projects. I find many of my activities make use of this pipeline model in order to ensure a steady state of productivity and output.

The pipeline is distinct from product development. but works in tandem with it. Product development is a process for getting an individual idea from inception to launch. The pipeline is the macroscopic view of all your projects and their respective development states (relative to each other). Moreover, the pipeline represents an individual’s (or company’s) capacity to move projects methodically and deliberately from one stage to the next. Managing the pipeline means you can run projects in parallel.

In business, if a company’s pipeline is empty, it means the company will have to move through each stage in sequence to get to the final product (which as one might expect) takes a great deal of time and effort. If a company maintains a healthy pipeline it will be able generate steady output with little unexpected or unwanted downtime between projects. Similarly, in my personal life, if the various pipelines I maintain are empty it leads to problems. For one, it means the gap between start and finish are huge if I have nothing in the pipeline and have to start from square one on a new project once I’ve finished the first project. Secondly, gaps are dangerous for attention: the times when I face personal pipeline gaps are the times where I often find myself distracted, unfocused, and more likely to turn to Netflix or my PS4 to kill time.

Several months back, I wrote about the process I use to write articles for this blog. I didn’t refer to the process as “a pipeline,” but in retrospect, that’s exactly what it is: a system that captures and tracks a number of projects in their varying states of development from inception to completion. The writing process itself is broadly similar to the product development process: idea capture, research (development of the idea), outlining (development of the article which is, ultimately the final product), writing (further development of the final product), editing (effectively a kind of quality assurance for the product) which ultimately results in publication of said article (launch).

Running projects in parallel is important because each stage of the a given process involves a different set of activities and requirements. Different activities require different skills, which in turn require different types of effort, knowledge, motivation and time. For instance, with writing, I find it near impossible to perform the entire set of aggregate activities that constitute “writing” (e.g. ideation, research, outlining, writing and editing) in a single sitting. The tasks to are too different and the switching-costs between each activity exceeds my capabilities (albeit others far more talented than I might be able to do so). The reality is that much of what we do productively must be conducted asynchronously; pipelines make this reality explicit and actively help us deal with this fact.

My Writing Pipeline

I am much happier when maintaining a writing pipeline. I’ve found that, in tandem, with a writing process, it makes the overall experience of writing much easier and more enjoyable.

My writing pipeline looks something like this:

  • Ideas:
    • Interesting seeds for blog posts are kept on a list of interesting article ideas. The ideas are no more than a sentence and might comprise a proposed blog headline or just an interesting thought that I might want further explore or revisit at a later date.
    • Promoted ideas for blog posts are another list where the interesting seeds are moved to when the idea shows more promise. I might find a topic more engaging given my current interests and start fleshing the idea out further. Typically, I’ll have a rough paragraph for these “promoted ideas” that lists out more points or new bits of information on the topic.
  • Drafts:
    • I keep a folder with active drafts that I am working on. These are 2-5 topics that I’ve taken from my promoted ideas list and am currently working on. These might be a couple of paragraphs or a long, nearly fleshed out article.
    • I keep a second folder with mothballed drafts. These are drafts that I was working on (at one point) but either lost interest or motivation on. However, since they are still half-formed, I don’t toss them. I keep them around for later use. You never know, mothballed drafts might one day make it back into the active drafts folder (as was the case with this article).
  • Editing:
    • This is where drafts that are close to being ready are moved. Once a draft is here, I can rework and fine-tune it. In reality, this is the weakest part of my pipeline: I usually have only a single draft in this box at any time at other times I rush pieces through this part of the process (I’m working on this aspect of my work). Were I better at managing the writing process, I might have 2-3 items here and be much more deliberate and thoughtful about editing.
  • Published:
    • This is where finalized pieces are placed once they are completed. It’s important to maintain a record of your work (plus you can always revisit or even revise that work in the future).

The beauty of the personal pipeline is that the timeframe between initial idea and completion is completely up to the individual. Projects can be shepherded as quickly (or slowly) as needed through the process. Alternatively, projects can be set aside quickly and later resumed just as quickly (wherever they sit in the pipeline). When one project comes to a standstill, others can be restarted until the former is ready for further progress.

The same idea can be applied to other areas of your life. For instance, in order to maintain my Book Notes series (and maintain my own habit of reading), I maintain a steady pipeline of books to read in the form of a reading list.

My reading pipeline looks something like this:

  • A large list of books that have piqued my interest (one for non-fiction, one for fiction). If I come across an interesting interview with an author or chance upon an interesting title at the bookstore, I’ll add the book to this list.
  • A short list of books that I’ve prioritized to read soon (I’ll download Kindle samples for these and ultimately select what to read next based on my current interest and the engagement with the sample).
  • Current reading list: I have no more than 2-3 books I’m reading at a time. Typically one non-fiction book and one fiction book (and one book I’m reading with my kids). This works best for me, I don’t do well juggling many books at once. If a book isn’t working for me, I’ll drop it and find something else on my short list.
  • Books that I’ve read: I keep annual readings lists with notes about my favorite books and short comments about what I learned or found interesting about a given book. Sometimes I revisit the list and seek out books by authors I enjoyed or even reread books that were especially impactful. Lastly, some of the books are annotated heavily for the Book Notes I post on this blog (that in itself is a separate pipeline, and there’s a good number of book notes that I’ve abandoned or only partially finished there too).

Once I’ve finished reading a book, I’m all set to go with the next one; I only need to revisit my short list to see what catches my eye. Since my large and short lists are typically well stocked with titles, finding something new to read is never a problem. It’s quite the opposite: I wish I had more time and energy to read all the books on my list.

Benefits of a Personal Pipeline

If this seems overly laborious or fussy, I can assure you it’s not. The process, once made habit, is quite simple (it’s the description of the process that appears cumbersome) and the benefits are well worth the effort.

Here are just a few of the benefits I’ve found in maintaining personal project pipelines in my life:

  1. It enables me to track and revisit my best ideas.
  2. It ensures I am prioritizing the best available ideas. After all, it’s hard to make an intelligent selection when you don’t have a pool of things to compare, analyze and select from.
  3. It helps me maintain progress/momentum (I can switch between projects and ideas as needed).
  4. It allows me to quickly move to another project as soon as I’ve finished one OR to gracefully cycle to a different project if I abandon another one.
  5. It provides a record of your progress and output (don’t forget: taking notes and keeping good written records is part of the process).

As for managing your personal pipelines: be sure to keep them well stocked with ideas and proposals. And don’t forget to flesh out and develop those ideas; this part of the process is often critical to determining if the idea or project is worth pursuing. As you build out your pipeline, the resulting abundance should be a source of creative joy. And that’s the real beauty of the pipeline: once it’s well-stocked you’ll find there’s always something interesting to work on. You won’t need to sit around and wait for inspiration to strike you because you’ve managed to bottle up more than enough raw inspiration to get yourself started.

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