on the difference between projects and tasks

one part of the getting things done methodology that has been of critical value to me has been the distinction between projects and tasks. the distinction is subtle, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. it’s totally changed how i see the world. it’s almost like a superhero power. at times it’s so helpful that it allows me to instantly predict whether or not something will be successful just by watching a few minutes of a meeting. 

ok so what’s the distinction?

there is lots of thinking about this and it can get a little circular but the simplest definitions i’ve found are this:

a task is a specific action that can’t meaningfully be broken down into smaller actions. a project is a group of tasks meant to achieve a certain, usually large, outcome.

so some examples to help illustrate (because it really is a subtle difference): buying a car is a project. the tasks associated with that project might researching what cars are in your price range, making a list of your friends who might sell you their car, deciding whether you will buy new or used.

another example (this example is dear to me because it’s the reason you’re able to read this piece of writing at all): starting a blog is a project. tasks under that for me were: picking a platform, creating a content creation plan, determining who my audience was (ended up using the audience of one strategy), and publishing my first post.

ok, so hopefully the distinction is starting to make a little sense.

now this distinction has helped me to two major ways. first, it helps me to break my projects down into pieces that i can prioritize in such a way that i know i’m being maximally productive while moving towards my life goals. second, it helps me keep my todo list uncluttered and flowing.

one of the most life-changing pieces of knowledge i took from getting things done is how todo lists end up blocking people from making meaningful progress in their lives. one pattern allen points out is that when your todo list equates projects and tasks, it blocks progress on the projects. that’s because the average person will always prefer to check off something that feels doable (watering the plants) over something that doesn’t (buying a car). this often results in easier things getting prioritized and leaves the really important stuff untouched… which, in the long run, undermines real progress.

shit. i’m over time. gotta run!