What's on your to-do list? This episode of The Productive Woman podcast looks at the difference between a project and a task, and why forming your to-do list with the right one can help get you past procrastination into action.
Nothing on your to-do list but tasks
During the recent Dream to Done mini-series, we talked through the process of turning dreams into actionable goals and then taking action on them (check out episodes 125, 126, 127, and 129 for more). Some of the topics in the mini-series triggered conversations in the TPW Community Facebook group about how to actually manage a project through to completion. In an upcoming episode we'll talk about managing multiple projects and their component tasks, but this time I wanted to address a stumbling block we sometimes run into when creating our to-do lists.
The only things on your to-do list should be tasks, but it often happens that what we put on the list is actually a project (or a mini-project). Understanding the difference is a big key to making progress on your to-do list (and therefore on your goals).
Task versus project
Generally speaking, a task is something that can be done in a single session, at a single location, and usually with a single set of resources. The amount of time it takes isn't as important as recognizing that a task generally can be completed in one session, whether it be five minutes or three hours, and then checked off your list.
A project, on the other hand, is made up of more than one task. If something you want to accomplish requires multiple sessions or multiple locations, it's almost certainly a project, not a task. If you can't do one “activity” and them cross the item off your list, it's probably a project. Quite often the reason something sits on our to-do list with no action taken is because it’s actually a project that needs to be broken down into doable tasks.
We talked about this in the TPW Community Facebook Group, when Emily posted about her epiphany on this subject. Emily is getting the nursery ready for a new baby and had had “get the crib ready” on her to-do list for quite some time with no progress made toward completing it. She shared with us her realization that this isn't a task, but a project made up a series of tasks. She listed the various tasks she needed to do before she could check “get the crib ready” off her list: buy a crib, buy bedding, wash the bedding, put the bedding on, and so on. Each of these items is a task that can be done one piece at a time, then checked off, creating progress toward completion of the entire project.
Another example of something we might find lingering on a to-do list is “clean the basement.” That's not a task; it's a project, made up of a list of discrete tasks, from gathering the cleaning supplies to getting some boxes and trash bags to enlisting help and more.
Things like finding a new job, writing a book, or hosting Thanksgiving dinner are not tasks, but projects. Each requires a series of steps in order to be completed.
If we're not thinking intentionally about this, our to-do lists can be populated with projects, rather than tasks.
Why does that matter?
Because putting projects on our to-do list without breaking them down into separate tasks will only create resistance, which leads to procrastination. Our mind knows a project can't be “done” in one sitting, so it resists taking on an undefined obligation. We need a starting point–and that starting point is the first task that leads toward completion of a project.
If a “task” has been on your to-do list for a long time and you just keep moving it forward, consider why. It might be because it's not really important to you. If that's the case, maybe you need to give yourself permission to delete it from your task list.
But maybe it’s sitting there un-acted-upon because your brain sees it as too much to undertake, too undefined, because it’s actually a project.
The answer is to this resistance is to break this project down into small steps that can be done in short time increments. This helps to overcome the resistance because the task is more manageable. The longer it has hung around on your list, and the more reasons you find to put it off, the higher the resistance you're feeling. The higher the resistance, the smaller the steps you should break it into–make it too easy not to get started.
Make it as simple as possible to get started.
Example: Organizing the family photos can be an overwhelming project. In order to make getting started (and therefore finished) doable, you could break it into steps, such as:
- Gather all the photos–you could even break this one down more:
- gather paper photos from living room
- gather digital photos from computer, from phone, from husband’s phone, etc.
- Sort them into the categories you choose (years/subject matter/etc.). [Note: deciding on the categories would actually be a task that has to be done before the sorting.]
- Decide how/where you want to store or display them.
- Buy frames or albums or whatever you choose for display.
- Schedule times to work on the project.
Example: Getting your taxes done. Rather than just writing “do taxes” on your list, create a step-by-step process such as:
- Gather receipts: might have to break this down even smaller:
- gather my personal paper receipts;
- get receipts from my husband;
- assemble electronic receipts from emails etc.
- (Hint: Maybe while it’s on your mind, set up a system for collecting them for next year so it won’t be so overwhelming. I send all electronic receipts into Evernote and tag them for the tax year, i.e. 2017 taxes.)
- Get the forms.
- Complete the forms.
- Complete the schedules.
- Get spouse’s signature on forms.
- Submit the forms.
The idea is to identify the very next small action you can take. That’s a task. Then do it!
As I said before, the longer something’s been on your list without action, the more resistance you have, so the more you need to break it down to overcome the resistance. Find the smallest action you can take in just a couple minutes, so there’s no excuse not to do it.
The hardest part of any project or task is getting started. The point of this exercise is to make it ridiculously easy to start.
Once you’ve created that list of tiny tasks, you'll get to experience the satisfaction of finally crossing something (however small) off your list. This will motivate you to do the next small step. This will then create momentum that will get you across the finish line.
What do you think?
Check your to-do list. Are there any tasks lurking there that might be projects in disguise? Share your comments and questions in the comments section below or in the TPW Community Facebook group . . . or email me!
Announcements & Reminders
- Spend time this spring with a group of motivated women like you, in one of my paid The Productive Woman Mastermind groups. If you’re looking for encouragement, motivation, and accountability in achieving your goals and moving forward in a life that matters, you'll find it there. TPW Mastermind groups are small, to allow maximum participation and benefit. New groups will start the first week of May, but the groups are being formed in March and April, and spaces are limited, so get on the list now–visit the Work with Me page for information and a link to the short online application. Questions? Email me!
- Thank you to our sponsor, FreshBooks. Be sure to check out the 30-day unrestricted free trial they're offering TPW listeners by visiting at FreshBooks.com/WOMAN. Please enter “The Productive Woman” in the “How did you hear about us?” section.
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