How many times has this happened to you? You think about something you want to do that gets you really excited, so you make a note in your task manager. It's a half-formed idea, but you're eager to make it happen.
Then you look at your list a few days later and see a task with only one word. You have no idea what to do next. Where do you start? Maybe you should Google something. And you end up down the rabbit hole of the Internet for hours and your project doesn't move one bit.
A close friend had this exact experience last week. I was telling him about the SCUBA diving I'd done over the weekend and that night he had a brilliant idea. He wrote it down in OmniFocus. He wrote a single action titled "Mexico".
To be fair, he's a recent convert to OmniFocus and is still getting his head around it. He tends to drop most things as a task inside a Single Action List and struggles to distinguish between a task and a project.
We had a long chat in which I tried to help him unravel the mystery of his "Mexico" task. I found it an interesting conversation and thought I'd share it here (with is permission). So, paraphrasing a bit while it's still relatively fresh in my memory, here it is:
Me: So, Mexico. That's nice. What does that mean? What do you want with Mexico?
Him: I want to go to Mexico.
Me: OK, so make the title of your task "Go to Mexico", not just Mexico. When do you want to go?
Him: In December.
Me: OK, so make it "Go to Mexico in December" and now you know you have 7 months to organise it. Where in Mexico do you want to go?
Him: Uhhh... Cozumel. You got me excited and I want to go SCUBA diving. I've heard Cozumel has great diving spots.
Me: Ah, now we're getting somewhere. It sounds like you need to sort out a few things to make this happen. It's a project, not a task. The title of the project could be "Go SCUBA diving in Cozumel, Mexico in December".
At this point in the conversation I realised my friend probably knew less about SCUBA diving than I had thought. You see, most people that have done enough dives to consider an overseas trip have heard about Cozumel. Most likely another diver told them about the amazing spots, clear caribbean water, and beautiful weather. My friend was being extremely vague, so I asked:
Me: Have you been SCUBA diving before?
Him: I did a dive in the Barrier Reef about a year ago.
Me: So you don't have an Open Water Certification.
Him: Uhhh... no.
Me: Well, if you really want to get into SCUBA diving, you need to get certified. Otherwise you'll only be able to do the introductory dives, which is what I assume you did. You don't want to fly all the way there and then not be able to dive to the cool spots. The course only takes a couple of days. You can either do it here before you go, or you can do it there.
Him: I guess it's best if I do it before I go?
Me: Yes, I agree. So now you have a sub-project titled "Learn to SCUBA dive" with an outcome of getting your Open Water Diver certification. Where do you start?
Him: I ask you where to do it?
Me: OK, that works. But you should do your own research. Maybe there's a dive shop closer to where you live. You don't want to drive all the way down here if there's a better option for you. The first task of getting your certification is to research dive shops near you. Then find out dates and costs for the course. Then book it.
Me: Where are you staying in Cozumel?
Me: Do you know anything about Cozumel?
Him: Errrr... not really.
Me: OK, so you might need another sub-project to organise the actual trip. Maybe start with researching all you need to know about Cozumel? How to get there, where to stay, how much money you'll likely need, etc. With that info you can start thinking about booking flights and hotels.
Him: I'd also like to brush up on my Spanish. I haven't practiced since high school.
Me: Excellent idea. There's another sub-project that you need to break down into the steps you need to make it happen.
And so the conversation went. At the end, we had the project divided into 3 sub-projects each with a clear next action. Something that was clearly defined and easy to do without being overwhelming.
I find this approach of thinking through each project and action to see if I can break it down into smaller and smaller pieces very helpful. As long as the immediate next action doesn't seem daunting I'll get it done.
In this example, the overall project is parallel, meaning all tasks immediately under the project can be acted upon. They're all visible. But each of the sub-projects is sequential, meaning only the first task is visible since each subsequent task is dependent on the first one being completed. So when the time comes to do stuff, only the first action in each sub-project will show (e.g. the 3 research tasks).
And since these are now defined, that Google search will be focused and hopefully prevent us from falling down that rabbit hole.
Of course, the plan will change often. That's ok. I see it as being refined with the new knowledge from finishing a task. But the key thing to keep any project moving forward is to make the next step as clear and simple as possible.
Update: @jaheppler asked me about the icons in the screenshots. I should've included credit and missed it. The icons are by Dryicons and they're awesome.