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Each morning I'd wake up and tell myself that I have to get certain things done. The problem is that when I get to my GTD management program (Things for Mac), I don't really know what to put down.

Most of these things would probably be projects under the GTD system. For example, creating a graphic in Illustrator—would that be one task, or a project (envision design, choose colors, draw shapes, finish the illustration)? Then, the graphic would be used in another project, potentially one that could take several weeks.

As a programmer, these projects often have many aspects to them. Should a bug fix be one step, or a project... At this point, I'd give up on trying to put these tasks into Things, and start working on something. But then I'd end up procrastinating and wasting the day... and it all just becomes a vicious cycle of lost productivity.

So, what's the best way to break things up into individual things (pun intended — lame, I know) to do?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

In my opinion, the reason that breaking down tasks works is because it makes your vision for what you want done more concrete. Breaking down tasks more achieves this better, but it also takes up more of your time before you actually get started working.

Probably the best thing to do is to break down your tasks a fair amount at first. (There's a limit to how much you can break them down, because at a certain point you have to do the task in order to see what subtasks it'll consist of.) Then once you've gotten in the groove of being productive, you can gradually start cutting down on the amount you break your tasks down and see what the smallest amount of "break-down time" you can get away with is. It's all about treating yourself like a system to be reasoned about and optimizing your inputs.

Also, the best time to break down your tasks is probably the evening before you plan to do them. (Set an alarm that rings late in the evening to remind yourself.) Once I started planning what I was going to work on each evening, I got a lot more productive. (Although this habit took some time to develop.) Your plan doesn't have to be perfect--keep General George Patton's words in mind: "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.".

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Thanks—I would never have thought about laying down a To-Do list the evening before (but then again, it's the obvious stuff that we miss). I'll try that out, and see how it goes. Thanks again, and enjoy the rep! :D – FeifanZ Jul 3 '11 at 1:46

You don't have to make a task for everything you do, especially if you have to spend too much time naming them.

Instead of naming every step you need to finish a project, try naming only the basic steps then add whatever shows up. I only make tasks for things that are likely to find distractions either by difficulty or lenght.

Let's say you begin with this:

Project: Creating a graphic in Illustrator

  • Envision design
  • Choose colors
  • Draw shapes

Then you start working on it and finds trouble finishing the third task.

Project: Creating a graphic in Illustrator

  • Envision design (finished)
  • Choose colors (finished)
  • Draw shapes (working on)
    • Fix bugs
  • Get feedback

As you get used to the system it's going to be easier to setup your new projects and you may be more specific from the beginning if you want.

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GTD defines a project as any result that you intend to achieve that requires more than one action and can be accomplished in less than a year. The conventional way to define projects is taking the vision of what you want to achieve and go all the way down to actions. GTD has a sensational method of its own, the Natural Planning Model, I recommend you to check it out if you haven't already.

That definition of projects is very open, so you can tailor your projects around in the way that makes you feel more comfortable. Does creating a graphic in Illustrator give you a big sense of achievement, and it is something that includes a lot of sub-actions? Then call it a project and give yourself a self-esteem boost when you complete it. Or, on the contrary, creating a graphic in Illustrator is in fact a routine 'action' for you, with the components so tiny that all in all you could call it a single action? The granularity is up to you and what makes you feel more comfortable.

It can be useful to write the name of the project in past time, as something already accomplished: 'The new server is up and running', 'The new software version has been delivered'...

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