Tackle big projects one bite at a time

Chances are, if you’ve got a to-do that’s been lingering far too long on your lists, it’s a project, not a to-do. When I do the one-on-one coaching calls with folks going through the Buttoned Up Boot Camp, I never cease to be amazed at just how universal the confusion between to-do’s and projects is.


A project is a temporary undertaking, with a clear beginning and end in order to accomplish something specific. A project can be something you create from scratch or a major change to an existing system…or just digging out from under a huge mess. It requires effort in terms of definition, planning & delivery. A good rule of thumb is – a project is anything you’re committed to finish in a year that requires more than one action to complete.

A task is a small activity that will contribute to a project’s completion — or simply a routine step.

A task can be done relatively quickly (30min). A project has a longer time horizon.

Here are some great examples of projects that frequently masquerade as to-do’s on busy people’s lists:
– Clean out the spare room
– Organize my papers (especially if there are boxes & piles of them)
– Organize my finances
– Organize the garage
– Clean out my office (especially if you can’t see the floor)

Why Understanding the Distinction is Crucial

When a to-do item lingers on…and on…and on, a few things happen, none of them good.
– You start to feel stressed that your list is never ending and, worse…
– …that you’re not accomplishing anything, or at least not as much as you should.
– You carry a low-level anxiety with you that something is falling through the cracks
– You undermine your own self trust each time you fail to get to something you’ve told yourself you would get to

All of these things put dents in your organizational identity. What’s your organizational identity, you ask? Well, it’s a fancy way of saying that it makes you more likely to believe you’re a failure (I can’t ever get to the bottom of the paper pile on my desk…I can’t get that guest room cleared out, etc.). And as Henry Ford said so well, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit demonstrates the point academically in his book, explaining why our beliefs about ourselves are so critical. He points out that Henry Ford’s truism is right because those beliefs shape our eventual actions, which in turn yield results. Negative beliefs lock you in a vicious cycle.

I like to call it a doom loop.

The bottom line: when you believe you are a failure at anything, you’re less likely to take the steps you need to get better in that area, which in turn will yield poor results, which reinforce your belief that you’re a failure.

A Doom Loop Looks Like This:

Negative self-belief yeilds negative results

I say: avoid a doom loop just by understanding the distinction between a project and a task!

Once you recognize something on your list is a project, it’s time to do a little planning.

Step 1: Define Your Project
This is an often-skipped step, and yet it’s crucial. The point of this step is to get very clear on what your desired outcome is. Do you really just want to detox a room, or do you also want to put some systems in place so that it doesn’t keep piling up with crap?

Step 2: Map It Out
This, too, is a crucial, but frequently skipped step. In this step, you do the mental heavy lifting (which is why so many of us skip it). First – think about how this big project can break down into smaller chunks, or milestones. For example, if you have an office that you can’t see the bottom of: break the big picture (the office) into zones. Then for each zone, identify the tasks you need to do to get the zone cleared up. Then, assign deadlines and make appointments in your calendar to complete the tasks. If it’s not scheduled, it won’t get done. This is also where you sit down, think about what problems might crop up, and create a game plan on what you’ll do if those problems arise.

Step 3: Execute
Or…in the immortal words of Tow Mater (& Larry the Cable Guy): Get ‘er Done!

Step 4: Celebrate (& set yourself up so it STAYS done)
Before you break your arm patting yourself on the back, take a moment to establish thresholds or routines to ensure your project stays done for the long haul. The problem with organizational projects is, life is always moving – and if you’re not careful the clutter can creep back in. A threshold is a parameter that serves as a trigger for you to do an immediate, small cleanup. For example, I have a threshold established that a piece of clothing cannot remain on the floor of my closet for more than 1 day. If it does, I compel myself to clean it up. A routine is a series of steps that you take on a regular basis to keep the chaos at bay. For example, every Friday afternoon at 4:45, I stop what I’m doing and clean up my desk at work for 15 minutes.

That’s a quick, plain-English overview of the distinction between to-do’s and projects.

Do you have any projects masquerading as to-do’s on your list? What are they? I’m dying to know…