Projects vs. Tasks: A Critical Distinction in Productive SchedulingJanuary 2nd, 2021 · 38 comments
In a recent episode of my podcast, an Australian doctor named Nathan asked an interesting question regarding some difficulties he had maintaining and organizing his task list:
“David Allen asked ‘Is it actionable?’; separating tasks from ideas. But I also find that there are different types of tasks. The easiest to deal with are what I’m taking to calling ‘concrete’ tasks, such as taking out the rubbish, or submitting a final report. These are defined, necessary tasks that are cognitively easy to deal with. However, I’m also aware of ‘aspirational’ tasks, such as ‘summarize War and Peace,’ which are open-ended, and don’t really matter if you accomplish them by a specific time…they tend to just pile up.”
This is an important question because it touches on the rare productivity topic that’s both crucial to my personal process, and something that I haven’t already written much about. I thought, therefore, it would useful to briefly review the answer I gave Nathan.
In the influential world of Getting Things Done (GTD), all work eventually reduces to specific and unambiguous “next actions,” an idea David Allen adapted from the business consultant Dean Acheson (unrelated to Truman’s Secretary of State). In GTD, you might have a list of broader “projects,” such as Nathan’s example of summarizing Tolstoy, but these are just reminders that should spur you to add relevant next actions to your task list during your next review; perhaps, in this case, “buy notebook for book summary,” or “read the next 10 pages.”
As I told Nathan, I do not strictly subscribe to this philosophy of task essentialism. For me, some projects are never translated into tasks. Instead, I place them on my quarterly plan. I’ll then see the project when setting up my weekly plan. At this point, I work out what progress, if any, I want to make on it during the upcoming week. Finally, I see these notes each day as I setup my time block schedule, leading me to allocate the specific minutes the project needs during the upcoming hours.
For the sake of example, let’s tackle how I might schedule Nathan’s War and Peace case study:
- Description of the project in my Quarterly Plan: “One of my goals this winter is to finish reading War and Peace, while taking good notes on each chapter.”
- Sample Weekly Plan note about this project: “Put aside 30 minutes for lunch each day this week, and work on War and Peace while eating. The one exception is Thursday, as I have a lunch scheduled with Diana.”
- Sample time block schedule: Every day of the week, with the exception of Thursday, includes a 30-minute time block labeled “lunch + W&P.” When I get to that block, I know exactly what I need to be working on.
For projects that require an ambiguous but significant amount of deep work, this planning flow from quarterly to weekly to daily is how I ensure that the sheer volume of cognitive effort required to accomplish something hard actually occurs. If I instead simply added the equivalent of “read the next 10 pages” to an overflowing task list, I doubt I’d ever make much progress on the things that matter.
To be clear, most of the obligations on my plate exist as concrete items in my task lists (which, as my podcast listeners know, I maintain using Trello). But most of the projects that move the needle in my career — working on a research paper, writing a major article — never get discretized into bite-size actions on a list. I instead treat them with the level of intention that their formidable difficulty deserves.
This distinction between tasks and projects is subtle, but it’s also critical to how I think about my work, so I thought it was worth discussing as we enter a new year and begin pondering how to make the most out of this annual return to a proverbial clean slate.