“Doing” a Project

Posted in GTD at 10:53 am by Haider

One of the most useful insights for me from the GTD system is the distinction between an action and a project. This distinction can easily be blurred, which leads to procrastination. I tend to blur the lines between the two from 5 to 50 times in one day, and this is usually the key factor that determines how productive I am during the day.

So what is the difference between the two, and why is it so important?

The fact is, nobody ever “does” a project. Most projects are extremely complex, and require a clear plan and a sequence of actions to perform, by a number of people, in order to achieve the desired results. If you think of any project you have undertaken, or participated in, you would realise that there are a number of actions that were performed as part of the project. So which action is the project? When you say you are “doing” your project, which of these actions are you referring to?

It is this ambiguity that can bring a project to a screeching halt!


Well, for you to move a project forward, you need to know what has to get done next. If this “next action” is vague, you would not be able to know what to do. Therefore, the project won’t go anywhere.

For example, if I wanted to write a book, I will have to think of a subject, write an outline, do some research, make notes, write a draft, proof read, etc, etc. If I simply say to myself: “Work on book” I’m not clarifying for myself what action I need to take now.

The next action is a physical, visible action you can visualise yourself doing.

A project is when the desired result takes more than one “next action” to achieve.

Suppose I wanted to brainstorm for a book I’m writing. If I wish to brainstorm by myself, then the actions I need to take are:

1- Grab pen and paper

2- Write down the ideas for the book

If I don’t have a pen and paper readily available, and I don’t acknowledge this need when I state my intention to brainstorm, I might never end up brainstorming, simply because I have not defined my next action!

Procrastination can be much, much worse when the project involves more actions to take. If I wanted to brainstorm with others, I might need to:

1- Call the people involved

2- Decide on a location to meet up

3- Decide what materials we need

4- Buy the missing materials

etc, etc.

Now, if we have “brainstorm” as the action to take, but not realise that we need to make a phone call first, the project won’t go anywhere, and we wouldn’t know why. That’s because “brainstorming” involves more than one action and is, therefore, a project. We need to consider it a project, then define the next physical, visible action to take in order to move the project forward.

If you are stuck, and don’t know why, ask yourself: “What is the action I need to take right now?”

Once you have an action, ask yourself: “Can this be done right away, or does it depend on something before it?”

If there is something else you need to get done before your next action, then that should be the next action. You may implicitly know that there is a missing step, which is why you’re not undertaking your next action. This is the issue you need to clarify before you can move on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a few “next actions” that I should be moving to my projects list!

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