messy-garageI have found that the number one reason we struggle with tasks is that they are actually projects, that we TREAT like tasks.  So what’s the difference between a project and a task?

The easiest way to answer that question is with another question:  How do you eat an elephant? It’s an age old question with an age old answer: One bite at a time.  Simply put, the project is the elephant and the tasks are the bites.

If there are tasks you never seem to cross off your to-do list, it may because they are actually projects in disguise.  A project needs to broken down into steps and there needs to be a plan for those steps, starting with a FIRST step.

Take for example, the task of cleaning out the garage.  Face it.  That’s a project.  If you treat it like a task, it not only becomes something you avoid (because in the back of your mind you know it’s an ‘elephant’), but there’s a good chance the job will be done inadequately, when you finally get to it.  It’s possible that some efforts may even make the mess in the garage worse, because you aren’t giving it the full project status it requires.

When you recognize that you’ve got a project on your hands, you will take the necessary steps to get your to-do to done.  You recognize, for example, that IF you are going to open up some space, the contents of that space have got to go SOMEWHERE.  Your first step, then, may be to confirm how late your local dump is open or rent a dumpster.  You may generate a lot to donate, in which case you would want to reserve a clear area for donates and schedule a pick-up service.  Clearing a garage usually involves opening a lot of boxes.  A clear work surface and good lighting will make this much easier and save your energy.  So have those set up.

When all of these steps are in place, you will actually find this “task” a lot easier to do, because you are treating it like a project. It is a clearly defined process, not just a wish.

Some other examples of tasks that should be treated like projects might include filing papers and updating a website.   If your file drawers are packed already and you have a pile of papers that need to be filed, your filing system probably needs an overhaul.  That’s a project, not a task.  Updating a website is important, but it is made up of a lot of steps, so that’s a project too.

When you get stuck with your tasks, don’t focus on your central action, but on the FIRST step.  If the journey of a thousand miles does indeed start with the first step, then that first step is where your attention needs to be.

Projects are not always easy to recognize.  In fact, I still sometimes struggle with the distinction myself.  For example, one of the to-do’s I have had for sometime is “assemble packets.” I have been seeing this as a task, but it is a project.  It requires a series of steps and the first one is to collect all the documents I need to print, in one folder on my computer. Now THAT’S a task and I am giving it a time limit of 10 minutes.  I may even set a timer.

No kidding!  Tasks are things that you need to take care of quickly, so give yourself a limitation and, if it helps, give yourself a “task-master” in the form of a kitchen timer.  It makes you conscious of your limitation and allows you to focus.

Sometimes, the difficulty in doing a task just comes down to the fact that you really don’t want to do it.  I can’t help you with that, except to say you might be surprised how often being unwilling is just being unprepared.

The next time you find yourself delaying a follow up call, for example, just grab the phone and it will suddenly hit you, why you’ve been putting it off.  Maybe you’ll find yourself saying “well I can’t call yet, because I don’t have the information I need.”  Bingo!  There’s your first step: collect information.  Put down the phone and either collect the information you need or make a note to do so.  Either way, you have made progress on this task because you have correctly identified the first step.

One reason I often delay making a follow up call is because I worry it may eat up a lot of time.  In that case I grab my trusty kitchen timer.  When that loud beeping goes off after ten minutes, even the most animated conversation on the other end screeches to a halt with “Ooh, do you need to go?” I’m back in control!