Reduce Stress By Learning One Rule: The Difference Between Goals, Projects, and Tasks

Before we move on to the next step in the Git’er Done Series, I would like to explain the key distinctions between Goals, Projects, and Tasks.

A GOAL is a MEGA-PROJECT made up of two or more projects

A Goal, no matter what that goal is, is comprised of many related projects that MUST be completed before the goal can be achieved. Think of a goal as a Textbook.

A PROJECT is a MEGA-TASK made up of two or more tasks.

A Project is one group of related and required tasks bound together by function, clarity, or structure. Think of a Project as a Chapter in a Textbook.

A TASK is an ACTION.

A Task is an indivisible and elemental action that does not require any planning or context. Think of a Task as a Word…in a Chapter…in a Textbook.

Granted, you can complete Tasks (to-dos on a to-do list) without having done any planning or having any context of a bigger picture. However, a Project, and therefore a Goal, cannot be completed until all of the required individual Tasks are discovered through research, knowledge, or guidance and then completed.

This may all seem like an unnecessary splitting of hairs but it is one of the reasons many of us become overwhelmed and/or give up on our goals all together.

Knowing the difference has a profound psychological effect on how we approach our goals and react to setbacks and here’s why: Most think of a Goal as a Task, or ONE thing can be completed if they work hard, smart, or long enough. In fact, a Goal can’t be “done” because it is an outcome, an effect of multiple Projects made up of multiple Tasks. This fundamental misunderstanding leads the most well-intentioned of us to both over-commit and under-prepare.

For example, if a friend invites you to wedding, in the moment you might think that accepting the invitation is adding just one thing to your to-do list or schedule. That’s pretty manageable so, you check your calendar and make sure you don’t have any scheduling conflicts and RSVP. You then put it on your calendar and move on with your next item of business.

But eventually issues arise because you thought you said “Yes” to a Task but it turns out to be a Project instead. At the very least you need to: find/buy an outfit, purchase a gift, get dressed for the wedding, get directions to drive to or purchase a plane ticket to fly to the wedding, attend the wedding, and then drive/fly back. Now, how many people in that scenario checked their calendar to see if they had the time to do all of those individual Tasks and then schedule them individually? Some, but probably not many.

This is why we tend to feel overwhelmed. Not because any of those individual tasks are particularly difficult or even time-consuming. It’s because when we don’t plan in advance Tasks can sneak up on us and then snowball.

Back in our hypothetical life, it’s now two days before the wedding and some other agreement you thought was just a single task is pressing you for time or other resources. So you rush, don’t show up, have to settle for how you go about completing each Task, and/or you don’t enjoy the process. Not only do you experience exaggerated stress related to this one unplanned Project, the time/resource conflict it creates affects your other Projects and now you’re overwhelmed by something that was supposed to be fairly manageable.

The Takeaway

The takeaway here is to be mindful of what exactly it is that you are agreeing to when you create a goal or are invited to become a task in another person’s project.

As you set goals, make to-do lists, and commit to other people, be clear about whether or not it’s a Goal, a Project, or a Task. It will save you from a lot of frustration, distraction, and failure.

A Quick Rule-of-Thumb:

If it can’t be done in less than 15 minutes it is likely a project and not a task. Before you agree to it or add it to your New Year’s Resolutions, break it down to determine if you truly want to or can commit to it.

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