Lowering the Project Threshold

One part of GTD and OmniFocus that I’ve always struggled with is the idea that any action that requires more than one step is actually a project. It sounds simple, and I agree with that definition in theory, but I’ve never followed through in practice. My OmniFocus project list has always been relatively sparse – really just containing my three areas of focus each with 5-10 medium-to-big-sized projects plus a catch-all single action list for miscellaneous tasks.

The problem with this approach is that it’s stopped me from adding piddly, little multi-step tasks to OmniFocus because I don’t believe they count as a captial-letter PROJECT, and they don’t fit into my single-action lists. Instead, they stay in my brain, forgotten or causing anxiety.

I really came to identify this problem a few weeks ago and made a mini New Year’s resolution to be better at it. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to be less picky about what crosses the threshold to qualify as a project and now force myself to turn anything with more than one step into a for-real project.

Here’s an example. Previously, I would have had a task titled “Mail Christmas photos to Aunt Betty”. And that was it. Simple. Right? But now I have a project titled “Send Photos to Aunt Betty” with the following steps:

  • Write and include happy new year letter
  • Include family Christmas card
  • Save Betty’s address into iPhone
  • Take photos and letter to post office to mail

You see. All of those tasks were implicit in the original task by itself. But writing it down as a single task was fooling myself into thinking it was just one step to completion. I kept putting off that task and others like it because I never found time to do all of the steps that were actually required to finish it. But now that it’s hoisted into a project and broken down into real, concrete, necessary actions, I’m free to complete each one individually as time allows. If I have five minutes between phone calls I can run downstairs and write out a quick letter and stuff it and the photos into the envelope. When I’m back at my Mac, I can lookup her address and add it to my address book. Then, when I leave the house the next morning, my @Errands context will remind me to grab the envelope so I can stop by the post office.

Adding granularity, precision, and definition to your tasks enables GTD/OmniFocus to operate at a much more efficient and functional level.

The result of all that is a much, much longer list of projects in OmniFocus. Seeing my previously perfectly-ordered and organized project list grow into an at-first-glance messy and overflowing one was a bit of a shock. I felt like weeds were sprouting up in my OmniFocus. But I took a step back and just let it happen.

After a few days it stopped bothering me when I realized the benefit. And that’s that the tasks available to me during my morning planning session – the ones that feed into my Today list – truly, for the first time, reflect everything I have to do instead of mostly-everything-but-kinda-leaving-out-the-small-stuff.

It also helps me make more progress on more projects each day by creating more true next actions. Before, when so many tasks were actually projects, I’d see them during my morning review and never place them on my Today list because I knew they contained multiple steps that I wasn’t ready to commit to.

But by breaking those small projects down into their component steps, it produces more actionable tasks that I can feel confident about adding to my daily list, which leads to me regularly making progress on all my projects and fewer of them stalling out.

And it feels wonderful.

I’ve never really been able to achieve David Allen’s feeling of “mind like water”. But freeing up those final open loops and trusting them into my system has gotten me much closer. If you find yourself avoiding certain tasks because you know deep-down that they’re really multiple steps, try – just for a week – turning them into projects.

That’s my story. If you have any tricks for not falling into the “multi-step action” trap or for just keeping things moving along in general, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

  • Tyler, you have stumbled on a very important part of GTD. It is so important to break down regularly seeming sized tasks into projects and larger projects in sub-projects.

    I find this really helps me get unstuck. I try to make each action something I can physically do. Which really helps break down tasks.

    I know you use OmniFocus (a great product) but in GTDNext (http://GTDNext.com) my product, we really made the ability to break things down into smaller chunks a foundation of the tool. I believe you can do this in OmniFocus as well, which is excellent.

    Great article, thanks for posting!

  • Billy McTwist

    Great article, Tyler. I’ve been poring over your OmniFocus related articles and I’m finding them to be immensely helpful. Thanks.