Is That a Task or a Project?

Don’t let implementation details slow you down.

A common question when getting started with OmniFocus (or GTD) is “is this a task or a project?”.

The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. Either way, you have the idea captured. In OmniFocus, you can convert back and forth at any time. What’s important is that you have it written down and are clear on the next action necessary to move things towards completion.

The long answer is to start with the simplest thing that could possibly work, then let it grow from there as needed.

©iStockphoto/tab1962

The question is based on the distinction between an action and a project in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

An action (or task) is a desired outcome that can be achieved in one step. It’s one thing to do.

A project is any desired outcome that takes more than one action to complete. It isn’t necessarily long and complicated, with its own budget and half a dozen trips to Home Depot, though it can be. It’s just a series of related things to do.

Say the light bulb in the bathroom has burned out. You can fix it with a single task:

  • Change the light bulb

Or with a project:

  1. See what kind of bulb burned out (@Home)
  2. Buy a new bulb (@Errands)
  3. Install the new bulb (@Home)

The desired outcome is to be able to see when you’re taking a shower. Either approach will get you there. It largely comes down to personal preference and how much you need to break things down to not get stalled.

The general approach is:

  1. Start with a task. Put it down as a task on the appropriate Role. (If you’re in a hurry, just use the Quick Entry panel to record it in the Inbox; you can process it from there during your next weekly review.)

  2. Flesh out the idea. Here is where OmniFocus’s lineage from OmniOutliner shines. As you start to flesh out the idea, add sub tasks underneath the main task. These can detailed or as rough as you need.

  3. Promote it to a Project if/when necessary. When it’s time for a weekly review, do you want to review this item on its own or as part of the role? This is the main question that determines whether an item is a task or a project.

    To convert a task to a project on OS X, drag it from the task list into the projects list, or select Edit > Convert to Project. On iOS, tap the Convert to Project button; any folders you have set up will appear in this list. If you change your mind, you can change a project back to a task at any time.

The steps are specific to OmniFocus, but the principles apply whether you’re using another app or good old pencil and paper.

However you track what you do, the key to being productive is to have a clear idea of what the next action is to move things forward. If you’re stuck, spend a few minutes thinking about what needs to happen. Start breaking it down. You’ll be surprised how quickly the path forward can appear.

Question: How do you decide when to upgrade a task to a project? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.

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  • soccervalet

    Your article says: “If you change your mind, you can change a project back to a task at any time.”

    How?

    • On iOS, edit the project and tap “Convert to Action”. On OS X, just drag the project into the task list area.