Study Hacks Blog

Projects vs. Tasks: A Critical Distinction in Productive Scheduling

January 2nd, 2021 · 40 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.

40 thoughts on “Projects vs. Tasks: A Critical Distinction in Productive Scheduling

  1. Nick says:

    Cal,

    This is an excellent post. Would love to see you explore this topic further.

    For instance, how do you breakdown a project that is more complex? i.e. there are multiple steps but you’re not sure what they are past just the first 3 or 4 when you start

    1. Dana says:

      Thanks, Nick, I wanted to ask the exact same thing!

      Specifically, you mentioned that a deep-work session should be focused on a concrete task, but when working on important projects, how you determine what that task is without breaking a project into a series of actionable steps?
      Or – how and when do you reduce project-uncertainty?

    2. Ryan says:

      Hey Nick, I love your question as I think it is something that many folks struggle with who work on longer-term or larger-scale projects. I come from the world of education and something that is common in our field is backward planning. We start with educational standards or student competencies and then work backward to build in the lessons and activities that will get students the skills to master that competency. I think project managers will often go through a similar process.

      Now that I am in leadership, I will often sit down with my team or by myself and map out my project. We clearly define what the outcome will look like, then generate all the tasks/work that will need to happen in order to get there. We write them on individual sticky notes. This allows us to put them in a coherent order. We then assign each one a time value (how long will it take to complete) and that will give us a rough estimate of how long the whole project will take. We can also assign folks to the stickies. This can take a while but has been super helpful in generating action on our team.

      Hope that helps

      1. Nick says:

        Very helpful @Ryan!

        Sounds like a Kanban / Sprint set-up…

    3. Study Hacks says:

      The broader project exists on my semester plan. For example: “work on smoothed analysis paper for submission to PODC.” Then each week as I build my weekly plan, I try to figure out where I am in on that project and what’s the most useful thing to during the week ahead.

      Sometimes I’ll some intermediate milestones to my semester plan: e.g., “try to have initial results done by the end of October.”

  2. Linda Maye Adams says:

    What really helped me with the understanding of a project vs. a task is Tiogo Forte’s basic definition: A project is something you can’t do in one sitting.

    I had a really hard time with Allen’s next action concept because it doesn’t apply in what I do in my day job, or for that matter, the side hustle of fiction writing.

    Most of my day job is a lot of little tasks that come in, like researching the regulation to answer a question, or helping someone with a travel voucher. I occasionally get something that would be a project under Tiogo’s definition, but wouldn’t be defined as a project on Allen’s standards. I just did a project that took most of December. The whole thing was one task, repeated over and over.

    For fiction writing, I’ve found that there aren’t any next actions either. Non-writers and non-fiction writers would disagree saying “Write Chapter 2” is a next action (and this is often the example used). But it assumes the process is purely sequential and it may not be at all. I’ve also found that such thinking also tends to put the inner critic in charge.

    1. Joe says:

      I feel like the fiction “next items” might be simple tasks like hitting word counts for the day or spending a session on something like sketching a character profile or building out the world that the story takes place in.

      1. Hi, Joe,

        Those might be true for some writers, which is why this area gets really challenging. I don’t do any pre-writing. The world building and characterization happens as I write the story. At one point, I did do daily word count goals, but I had to stop because it sent my inner critic into warp speed. It’s made it really hard to apply a next action where it’s such a moving target.

        1. I find time goals are an underrated strategy for projects like novel-writing. I’ve made tremendous strides by blocking out the first two hours of every morning for creative work. I use that time to figure out what happens next, occasionally to do needed research, though mostly to write.

          As long as I am doing something towards moving the ms to completion during this block of time (I have to be honest with myself about this; checking Twitter doesn’t count), it is a useful tool that doesn’t require parsing things down to often counterproductive tasks like “write 2000 words.” Sometimes the best thing to do today is to take out 500 words and go in another direction. Tasks like “write 2000 words” obscure this reality whereas “work on my project for two hours” doesn’t.

          Obvs. not everyone can do two hours every day but some version of this can help.

          1. Study Hacks says:

            When it comes to my own non-fiction writing, I tend to have context-specific goals, such as finishing a particular section in a particular chapter. If it turns out harder than I was expecting, I’m known to just blow off the rest of my schedule and hunker down writing for hours and hours until I get the goal done. The fiction writers I know, however, are much more likely to find success with the time-based goals you mention (e.g., two hours, first thing in the morning), regardless of how far it gets them on a given day. An interesting distinction between the two styles…

  3. Claire says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thanks for the post, it’s very interesting. I wonder how you deal with deadlines for your projects?

    I write blog posts twice a week and work on developping my online formations for which I set up deadlines.

    I block my time to do this but I need also to have them done in a certain amount of time. You certainly fix you also deadlines for your publications.

    How to ensure that you respect your deadlines when you consider projects as open-end?

    Thanks,
    Claire

    1. Study Hacks says:

      When I setup my weekly plan, I look at my ongoing projects and try to be realistic about where they are and where progress needs to be made. For example, the last four days I heavily prioritized an article for a major publication for which I had a tight deadline. Now I’m doing no writing for the rest of this week, but really trying to nudge forward to research problems I’m juggling for a mid-February submission.

  4. Clemens Adolphs says:

    Thank you so much for this quick but important piece. This addresses exactly what I’ve felt was missing from GTD. I always felt silly trying to come up with a Next Action along the lines of “think really hard about this algorithm”.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      “thinking hard about an algorithm” is literally the activity as an academic I spend the most time doing. I agree, it would be absurd for me to have that as a next action.

  5. Alicia says:

    Your ideas and methods are fantastic, but I struggle with how to apply them to my situation. You, as a university professor, have a fairly predictable schedule, I would imagine. You have your class schedule, then you have your posted office hours during which you are to be available to your students. On top of that I would imagine that you have scheduled regular meeting at various intervals. Within those constraints, you can set aside blocks of time to deal with your inbox and to devote to deep work.

    I struggle with how to apply these productivity approaches to my situation. I am in a reactive, service mode, but must also work on high-cognitive-load projects. I have a schedule, but it is subject to frequent disruption, sometimes within hours.

    If the emergent need requires me to diverge from a scheduled shift at the service desk, I have to negotiate a trade for coverage with my colleagues. By the same token, these colleagues are subject to the same kinds of disruptions and so my schedule may change because I have to cover for them.

    So far, my work/time management look very much like your “standard” scenario described here: https://www.timeblockplanner.com/#timemethod

    I would love a system to which I could offload the mental energy of tracking what I must and – often not the same thing – should be doing!

  6. Piero says:

    Cal,

    Thank you for this post. It is something I was struggling on these days. Agree with Nick: please explore this topic further

    I think we have a lot of tools for scheduling tasks at any level but we all lack a comprehensive tool from Roadmap & Goals to Task and timeblock

    1. Nick says:

      @Cal, I think this topic could form the basis of your next book…

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I talk about this more in the “deep dive” segment of my podcast episode that released today. I might do more “deep dives” on these topics. The goal is to release them all soon as standalone videos as well (I tape myself) so that it’ll be easier to go deep on my thoughts about productivity.

      1. George says:

        Hello Cal,

        Can we already see mentioned video anywhere?

        Best Regards,
        George

  7. Florian says:

    Hi Cal,

    thank you for the inspiring article. I like the distinction of tasks that you made in this article and would like to add another angle to it, in hope that someone else might find it a useful way to frame tasks.

    To me the distinction you made is fundamentally one between process oriented tasks and product oriented tasks. The later are tasks that have a predefined outcome such as emptying the rubbish or reading 11 pages in half an hour. Process oriented tasks on the other hand focus on doing work that, over time, accumulate to a desired outcome.

    When I started to think of tasks in terms of process vs product it helped me to reinforce commitment to doing the work. Product tasks are easy to measure, and it is easy to get motivated by tracking the progress and completing them. Process oriented tasks on the other hand sometimes made me ask if the work is really worth it and if I was still on the right track or if I had worked enough on them for the day.
    I had to learn that there is a concept called “trust the process” and that once one had decided on what the right process is to get to the desired end goal the only thing that is required is to commit to the process. In your example you did exactly that and you used time boxing for your process of reading the book. Time boxing is a key sign/attribute of process oriented tasks to me. It really helps to structure and limit the commitment to the task, one knows when one is done for the day and it makes it easier to make the working routine on the task a habit (to me).

    Best
    Florian

  8. Chetan says:

    I would like to second Nick’s comment.

    Would be great if you provide more concrete examples of this multi-level scheduling (quarterly, weekly, daily) for specific use-cases.

    Thanks,

  9. Ridwan says:

    Hi Cal,

    This is an execellent post. I’m currently re-reading GTD book and this topic on Projects vs Tasks was something I wasn’t sure how to handle in the next-actions & contexts scenarios of GTD. I like this framework and now I have a good example (and would prefer some more) to work on projects that can have “aspirational” tasks.

  10. Andrea says:

    As I was setting up my bullet journal quarter layout for the year, I also included my quarter goals. Then as I was setting up the Monthly layout and the daily, I notice that the tasks as I writing were actually tasks so that I could meet my quarter goal. I would also like to mention that I’ve now added TIME BLOCKS to my daily layout.

    One thing I did take into consideration though… projects vs. tasks vs. habits

  11. Joe says:

    I’m a little surprised that project vs task is difficult to define, but it may just be that both my studies and my line of work make it easy to distinguish between the two. I tend to make projects part of the objectives side of how you define quarterly plans in Deep Work while tasks are more the strategies that support the objective.

    For instance, I’m working on the literature review and then proposal for my dissertation. My objective for this spring is to complete the lit review and get chapter 1 of my dissertation written. That’s the “project” part of things. One of my strategies for this is that I’m going to read and annotate one new paper each night, excepting Wednesday, and then synthesize and write on Saturday. That gives me specific tasks for five days each week to complete the project I’m working on.

    To me, that makes the most sense. I’ve applied that approach to objectives and strategies for a couple of semesters now, and it’s working wonders. I’m using it for spiritual development, reading, writing, fitness, and finances, and it’s the most viable systematic approach I’ve used for those things to date. Even at work, where there are times I need to be responding to faculty or student concerns, I’m working as an instructional designer where we also have long term projects going on almost all the time, and this seems to be the best way I’ve used to tackle those as well.

    1. Nick says:

      This is fantastic Joe and makes a lot of sense.

      As an entrepreneur, I create self directed projects in order to produce a result e.g. a product that generates income or a system that once set up provides ongoing benefit.

      My challenge is that each project is a little different. Steps to completion are not so easy to define aside from the first 3 to 4 tasks. Perhaps I make it too complicated so I could learn from your approach.

      Next actions feels like moving pebbles up a hill. There must be a better way. Hoping to find it!

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I think this is a smart approach. I often do something similar. Except, if I decided, for example, to annotate one paper a day for a given week, this goal would never make it onto my task list, it would instead exist on my weekly plan, then each day as I built my time blocks I’d put aside time for the annotation. Whereas a standalone task, like “update reference tracking software,” might live on my task list until I get around to doing it.

      1. Karl Polanyi says:

        I know this is an old post, but does this imply that your task list (eg Trello) reflects all of and only your commitments (eg GTD tasks and projects) that could be called “shallow”, and all “deep” projects and tasks live mainly/only in your calendar/strategic/weekly/time block plans?

        I’ve always struggled using OmniFocus because it has seemed like I was drowning in the shallow. But at the same time I still can’t quite get my head around how deep projects manifest into actions, and how shallow/midsize projects (like hire course instructor, for example) get managed in your system – and I’ve read just about everything you’ve presented on that.

        For example, as a litigator, I may have many clients and cases that I manage, with many shallow items springing up, but within that pool the deep work will emerge for a few of them ( ie prepare brief; learn new area of law; etc). It seems that you have two separate structures/heuristics for managing deep and shallow, rather than living strictly in the GTD style project/task world. Is this a fair assessment?

  12. Luke says:

    Would any part of this War and Peace task ever end up on your Trello board? Or does it only exist in the Quarterly/Weekly/Time-block plans? If this whole project skips Trello how do you decide what tasks/projects can skip Trello?

    1. Yes, I am also curious about whether the project itself will skip Trello. And what if you have a couple of more projects like the War and Peace scenario that you have where you are moving the needle constantly. How to examine whether there is a lag or if that project requires a varied set of stuff to do unlike the summary for War and Peace which results in repetitive tasks on a daily basis.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      Probably not. It would live on my semester plan, and then get made into concrete strategies in my weekly plans, which would then influence my daily plans…all without next actions living on my task list.

  13. Jared Williams says:

    Thanks Cal! Great new post. I enjoyed learning the million dollar word “discretized”.

    According to Wikipedia: “discretization is the process of transferring continuous functions, models, variables, and equations into discrete counterparts. This process is usually carried out as a first step toward making them suitable for numerical evaluation and implementation on digital computers.”

    Sounds like a word a theoretical computer scientist would be very familiar with. ?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I know it from discrete Fourier transformation algorithms, but tend to apply it more generally to mean to break down complex challenges into individual bite-sized chunks.

  14. James P. says:

    There may be indeed some projects that don’t get translated into tasks, but I find that’s often the case with work that is well understood, with lots of previous experience. For someone who has had lots of repetition when doing “summarize “, they won’t need to break it down into tasks. But someone who has never “summarize ” or only does it once year, they may need as much detail as:
    * put planning time in calendar (30 mins)
    * find quiet location to do work
    * gather notebook and pens
    * spend one day’s worth of work attempting to summarize, then evaluate schedule
    * spend 30 mins reevaluating schedule and adjust calendar
    * etc.
    For someone who “summarizes” all the time, none of that ever ends up on a task list. For those who rarely “summarize” but don’t make the effort to lay out those tasks, typically they find that such projects languish and they end up frustrated.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’m not sure I would ever go into so much detail. If I decided I needed to put aside time to summarize an article during a week, I’d trust I’d figure out what that meant, and if I wasn’t sure, I might elaborate in my weekly plan (i.e., “go to library X and take the notes using Y”), which I agree is a good idea.

  15. Moin Rahman says:

    Just one quibble. Not to multi-task when eating as Cal suggests one do for a bite sized 30 min task on War & Peace.

    IMHO, Lunch should be just lunch. To put it in Cal’s words “Deep Lunch.” I expand this thought here:
    https://www.linkedin.com/posts/moinrahman_professional-personal-best-practices-working-activity-6741145545991045120-wnBS

    1. Osman Din says:

      I completely agree with your comment on this particular example Carl gave (although I too understand the larger point). Either don’t take 30 minutes to eat a sandwich (drink a milkshake instead, for example) or don’t try to divide your attention from this important activity for which one should be present and grateful (not everyone in this world gets to have a proper lunch). Try to always eat with someone (in fact take a risk and buy somebody a lunch) and reflect on what you’re eating. Don’t think that the time you’re eating is a waste of time if you have the right mindset.

      In addition, one of our problems is that we don’t take the time to do things properly in this quantity driven culture (more papers, more books, etc.)

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I like to read during lunch. But I agree that I wouldn’t try to do other types of “productive” activities during this time…

  16. Cal, post your thoughts on Big Tech’s censorship of conservatives. I know you don’t want to offend your liberal audience but you must agree that Twitter’s censorship lately is outrageous. Trump needs to follow your lead and start his blog and avoid social media. Live to hear your thoughts.

    1. George says:

      I think, it would be better not to inject politics here. Everybody eager to hear Cal’s additional ?larifications on the questions, not his political preferences

  17. FloatingSara says:

    Dear Cal,
    If remember correctly you live in Washington. I hope everything is OK for you and your family.
    Cheers
    Sara

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