One of the worst ways to begin a task is with the words “sort out…” Hidden behind those two little words is a potential animal that, untamed, will result in inaction and stress. This is not a task, this is a project. Whenever I see a task in my inbox beginning with those words it is an indicator there is something that is going to involve a number of individual tasks. It is never just one task.
We collect a lot of tasks of this nature throughout the day. What these tasks do is they build up over time and create a monster of uncompleted tasks that play on our mind and cause unnecessary stress unless we do something about clarifying what they actually are. Let’s take a simple example: “Sort out wardrobe”. This task in certainly not a single task. The immediate question that comes to my mind is: what needs sorting out inside my wardrobe? Do I need to throw anything out? Do I need to buy something new? If I need to throw anything out, do I have enough recycling bags? Just from that one, simple task I have another two questions that need answering before I can begin. Another example would be: “Sort out my website”. This one could mean anything and really needs a lot of clarifying. For example, are we talking about where the website is held? Or are we talking about reorganising or rewriting pages? (While on the subject of websites, another bad task would “update my website” for the same reasons).
In the course of my work, I find a lot of clients write tasks like this. These are incomplete tasks because they have not been clarified. They are too vague and they are going to lead to a lot of inaction and procrastination.
The strength of using clear verbs to start tasks is they make it abundantly clear what you have to do. For example, “Throw away old shirts” This task would go under a project called “Sort out Wardrobe”. While you are thinking about throwing away your old shirts, you would probably think about how you are going to throw them away. Over here in Korea we have clothes recycling boxes at the end of a lot of streets. My nearest one is about 100 yards away, so I probably wouldn’t need a bag to carry a few shirts there. So, all I need is a label of @home and then one day when I have finished work early, if I am at home, I can bring up my @home list and will see that task. It would take around ten minutes to complete, so a very easy decision to make. If all I saw was “sort out wardrobe” it would be very unlikely I would feel motivated to get off the sofa at all.
In the early days of my GTD journey, I wrote a lot of tasks with the words “sort out”. It made the start of my GTD journey difficult. Once I really began to understand the importance of breaking down my tasks into manageable tasks with good, strong verbs I began getting a tremendous amount of work done. Verbs like “look into”, “decide” and “research” can also be deathtraps of procrastination and inaction, because they are not very specific. I prefer to begin tasks like this with “find” instead of research”. For example “research productivity” would become “find a definition of productivity” From this definition I would be able to look at other areas by using tasks like “find three articles on improving productivity”. This gives me something specific, it also tells me when I have finished. “Decide” becomes “make a decision on”. Not a big difference, but the phrase “make a decision” is more specific to me and implies action.
Back in 2006 Merlin Mann wrote an excellent blog post called GTD: Project Verbs vs Next-Action Verbs. In the article he gave a list of verbs you should use for projects and verbs that should be used for tasks. This was a revelation to me when I first came across it as it enabled me to clearly understand the difference a verb could have when writing my tasks. Project verbs would be:
Task or next action verbs would be:
Once you get this, understand it and implement it into your system, you will find you quickly start moving forward on many of those projects that have come to a complete standstill.
I am guilty of trying too hard sometimes to keep my projects list as short as possible. But the reality is life is not quite as simple as that. It is perfectly possible to create a project in the morning and complete it later in the day. Likewise a project that appears to be easy, can often still be around six months later. I would recommend you don’t worry too much about how long your project lists are, but make sure your individual tasks are correctly labeled and start with a verb that inspires you to complete it. After all If you are following the GTD principles, projects are placeholders for a weekly review anyway. It is your next actions that move you forward towards completion.
So as 2016 draws to an end and the new year beckons, take some time to look at the way you use verbs in your tasks and see if you can improve them. Make them more inspiring, more clear and watch your productivity soar.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century