The one thing you didn’t know about your to-do list

Have you ever noticed that some tasks on your to-do list get crossed off right away, making you feel like a productivity superstar? And other tasks … well, they tend to stay on the list and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get them to budge because:

  • They’re overwhelming
  • You’re not sure where to start
  • You’ve got to rely on other people to do parts of it

And so they stubbornly stay put on your to-do list, mocking you, shaking your confidence as someone who gets stuff done.

Here’s the problem.

What you’re thinking is a task is really a project in disguise. People who are able to move mountains fast know the difference.

Let’s take a look at the two:

You see, a task is something that will take one or two steps to complete. You schedule a time to do it, you take action, and finito … it’s complete.

On the other hand, a project is something that’s much more complex. It may include:

  • Several tasks or steps
  • Stakeholders or people that are invested in the outcome
  • The need for several meetings
  • Other people or departments to get parts of it completed
  • Outsourcing pieces of it
  • A budget

No wonder it won’t budge.

So let’s take a different approach.

First, confirm this is a project and not a task. Ask yourself if any of these apply:

  • Many tasks or steps
  • Requiring input or approval from someone else
  • The need to outsource part of it to someone else to complete
  • A big deadline
  • Many meetings to discuss issues
  • Progress reports to management
  • A monetary budget
  • The impulse to curl up in a ball every time you think about it (just kidding … no, not really)

Now that it’s clear you’re dealing with a project, you need to start thinking like a project manager.

Step 1: Take it off your to-do list

Projects are special, they get a time and action plan. This can be as simple as using a spreadsheet or a more sophisticated project-management app like Asana.

Step 2: Get clear on the objective of the project

What is the intended outcome? Why? Who is requesting this project? What will make it a success? How will you measure success?

Step 3: Agree on a deadline

When does this project need to be completed? Is there any flexibility with that date? What are the consequences of not meeting that date?

Step 4: Discuss the budget

How much will this cost? What happens if you go over budget? Who needs to approve the budget?

Step 5: Create your plan of action

This is where the party starts!

  • First, visualize the completed project.
  • Then make a list of every single task (yup we’re back at tasks!) that the project will require.
  • Next, assign a due date for every task, and note if someone other than you will handle that task.

Projects tend to be high-maintenance. They can be demanding, unrealistic and have a mind of their own. So a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pay attention to the details. For example, if one part of the project changes, what else or who else is affected? Be open to making regular adjustments to your plan of action.
  • Remain flexible and creative. How can you save time or money? Is there something you can do now while waiting on someone else?
  • Be considerate. How will your deadlines impact someone else? Your priority may not be someone else’s priority. Will your co-workers or counterparts have enough time to complete their part?
  • Communicate. Let others involved know what’s going on. If something is off track let people know sooner versus later.

Completing your project should give you a reason to celebrate (or take a long nap). I’d celebrate and take a nap! Then look for the next project that may be hiding on your to-do list as a task. It will never trick you again.

Mimi Bishop is a productivity + time management expert and a certified life coach. To survive the days you’re just way too busy download 10 Ways to Take Back Your Time at