What’s the difference between eating an apple and eating a pumpkin?
The latter requires many more steps. Sure, eating an apple might involve a trip to the market if you don’t have any on hand. But if you had a pumpkin and an apple sitting on your kitchen counter in front of you, you could simply pick up the apple and bite into it. But a pumpkin has to be cut, cored, or chopped; baked, boiled, or steamed; and usually mixed, mashed, or seasoned.
In other words, eating a pumpkin is a project — something that requires more than one step to accomplish or complete. Eating an apple is, if it’s in front of you, a simple action. (I’m using David Allen’s helpful distinction between projects and actions from his book, Getting Things Done.)
Understanding the difference between projects and actions, and applying that knowledge to your to-do list, can help you gain clarity and break through procrastination or resistance.
You can’t just do a project. You can only do one step of it at a time. Your brain knows this. So if you have written “eat pumpkin” on your to-do list for tomorrow, every time you look over your list, some part of your brain freaks out a little bit. When we feel unsure or confused about how to proceed with something, we tend to put it off.
Many things we procrastinate about are, in fact, projects in disguise as actions. When you break a project down into its constituent steps, that task you’d been putting off or dreading suddenly seems a lot more manageable. I can’t “eat pumpkin,” but I can “look at recipes for vegan pumpkin pie in my three favorite cookbooks” as a starting point.
Here’s how to write a better to-do list that focuses on actions:
1. Start each item with a verb. Nouns by themselves like “garage door” tend to gesture at projects that could be broken down into steps. Even if “garage door” is meaningful to me today, it might not be five days from now. Writing your action list with clear verbs makes it easier to identify and group tasks later on. “Buy 9-volt battery for the garage door opener” clearly states what I need to do and lets me easily take care of it when I’m doing other errands.
2. Include measurable specifics, such as amounts, duration, or location, so that you have a clear way of knowing what the action consists of and when you’ve accomplished it. “Write for 30 minutes” or “write 3 paragraphs” are measurable actions. “Write a great American novel” is a project.
3. If you feel stuck or unsure about something, try breaking it down into smaller steps, even micro-steps. If writing for 30 minutes seems too difficult, try writing for 5 minutes. Or start with the micro-step of turning on your computer, or gathering your pen and notebook.
Unmasking the projects that might be hiding in your to-do list and rewriting them as specific actions frees up your energy for creating, building, thinking, and growing — taking action and moving forward.