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Start your projects like this and they'll be faster, easier, and more successful

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

GTD Steps: Clarify and Engage

Before I was married, I would walk into a grocery store with a few ideas for meals I wanted to make and then meander up and down the isles looking for the ingredients. I would go back and forth multiple times between the produce section, dairy section, frozen goods and canned goods. A trip to the grocery store always took way longer than it should have.

After marrying my wife she handed me a shopping list and asked me to go to the store. It was a detailed list of every ingredient we needed for every meal that week. Not only that, the items were ordered based on where they were located in the store. All of the produce items were at the top of this list, then the dairy items, canned items, and finally the frozen items which are at the back of the store. I walked in the door, made a single path toward the back of the store picking up each item in order. By the time I got to the back of the store I had everything on the list.

I was amazed at how much more efficient her system was than mine. The few minutes she spent planning upfront saved a lot of time and frustration at the store.

Planning a project well has the same effect. It takes some time up front, but it will save you a lot of wasted time and frustration as you begin executing the project.

You can think of everything you do at work as either a task or a project. A task is a single action. A project is a desired outcome that requires more than one task to achieve.

Because a project is a desired outcome and not a concrete action, you cannot "do" a project. Instead, you "do" a series of actions that when completed achieve the desired outcome.

5 steps project planning

Completing the following 5 steps up front makes the rest of the project so much easier.

1. Define the objectives - this step involves writing your overall desired outcome as a small number of specific measurable outcomes. The question you want to answer in this step is "How will I know that my desired outcome has been achieved?"

Example #1: Process Improvement

If you're doing a process improvement project and your desired outcome is a faster process with fewer errors, you might have the following two objectives: 1) Reduce the process cycle time by at least 10%; and 2) Reduce the error rate by at least 15%.

Example #2: Risk Assessment

If your project is to perform a risk assessment for your department and your desired outcome is to know the biggest risks your area faces, you might have the following objectives: 1) Identify and define the top three risks faced by the department; and 2) Get approval to launch a follow-on project to determine how to mitigate those risks.

In both of these examples, you could clearly know whether the objectives were achieved.

Clear, specific, and measurable objectives are the foundation for your project. If you don't lay a solid foundation, everything you build on top of it is at risk of falling apart. Not clearly defining objectives is one of the most common reasons projects struggle.

When you have clear, specific, measurable objectives, everything else in the project becomes much easier. It's easier to identify the right actions and eliminate unnecessary ones. It's easier to communicate the goals of the project to others and to get their buy-in. It's easier to know whether the project is on track. It's easier to keep team members focused.

If at any point in a project you feel like it's getting bogged down or that you're spinning your wheels, it's time to review your objectives. If they are clearly written, they will help you refocus so you can move forward. If after reviewing the objectives, you still feel stuck, it's probably because your objectives are not sufficiently clear, specific or measurable. Rewriting them will force you to clarify what needs to be done and help you see the path forward.

2. Define and describe the deliverables - these are the specific work products you will create as part of the project. A deliverable is usually something you could send to someone or show someone; a document, report, presentation, diagram, etc.

Here are possible deliverables for our earlier example projects:

Example #1 - Process Improvement

  • "Future State Process Map" and

  • "Error Report" to track errors going forward.

Example #2 - Risk Assessment

  • "List of Identified Risks" and a

  • "Risk Mitigation Follow-on Project".

Detail, detail, detail

Once you have identified the deliverables for the project, spent some time envisioning and writing down what each will look like. The more detailed and specific you can write it, the more focused your project efforts will be. Using complete sentences in your description will add clarity.

Below is an example of two ways you might describe the "Error Report" deliverable. Which one gives you a clearer picture of how it should look when completed?:

Error Report - shows the number of errors each month

Error Report - this report should list each of the five most common error types. For each error type it should show the following metrics: 1) number of items processed, 2) number of errors, and 3) error rate. The report should show these for both the most recent month and year to date. Below the table there should be space for the operations manager to enter comments about the metrics. The top of the report should indicate the date the report was created and the period of time it covers.

Your description of the deliverables may change over the course of the project. That's ok. But the exercise of envisioning and describing them at the start will form a clear vision in your mind that will focus your efforts.

3. Identify the specific actions needed to create the deliverables - now that you have a clear vision of exactly what work products you need to create, you can identify the specific actions needed to create them.

Here's an example of how this might look for the Future State Process Map deliverable.

Example #1: Project: Process Improvement

Deliverable: Future State Process Map


  • Interview Mike and Kerri to identify each of the steps in the current process

  • Meet with the team to brainstorm ways to make the process more efficient

  • Create a process flow diagram of a revised process

  • Review the process flow diagram with the team to get feedback

  • Create a final version of the Future State Process Map

Quick Tip: when you write project actions, always start them with a verb.

The actions needed to create a deliverable may naturally come to your mind in the order in which they need to be performed or they may come in a more random order. Either way is fine. Just get them written down. You'll organize them in step #4.

Don't get bogged down when creating a project plan thinking you need to identify every single detail right from the start. Some deliverables you won't work on until later in the project so you don't need to know every related action right now. Just put down the high level actions and as they get closer you can fill in the details.

4. Put the actions in order - once you have identified the actions needed to create each deliverable, put them in the order in which they need to be completed.

There are technical ways of ordering tasks based on lead and lag time, but unless you're working on a very large, complex project, a non-technical approach is fine. Just put the actions for each deliverable in the order that makes the most sense to you logically. You can always adjust the order as you move forward.

5. Determine how you will communicate - in almost any project you do at work, there will be other people who have a stake in its success - stakeholders. In most cases your boss will care how the project goes. There are likely other groups of people or individuals that will be impacted by it as well.

One of the keys to success in any project is getting the stakeholders on board with what you're doing. Otherwise you risk facing a lot of resistance.

To get stakeholders on board you need to communicate with them. Explain why you are doing the project, the desired outcome, your approach, and what you'll need from them. Ask for their input.

Not all stakeholders need or even want the same amount of communication. Some need to know all the details and be kept up to speed each step of the way. Others only need to know high-level what you are doing and others only need to know what specifically you need them to do.

A good way to think about what to communication to which stakeholders is to create a list of all of the stakeholders. These could either be individuals or groups of people. Then, for each stakeholder determine what information they need, how often, and in what format.

Once you determine what communications your various stakeholders will need, add actions to your project plan to prepare and provide it to them.

How the right tools make project planning faster and easier

A project planning template makes planning a project much easier. You don't have to remember each of the steps or figure out where to write things down. Just open the template and it will walk you through planning your project.

The Get2Done Project Planning Template covers each of the steps above and provides a professional looking document you can share with your manager or other stakeholders.

In addition to a planning document, you also need a tool to record and manage the project tasks. You can do this in a document or spreadsheet but using a project planning tool makes it easier. The Get2Done Ultimate To-Do List provides places for tasks and subtasks, Gantt charts to help visualize timelines, and the ability to view your plan at the milestone or detail level.


Abraham Lincoln once said "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

Planning most small projects will take far less than four hours, but the principle is the same. Spending time up front to plan your project will make the path ahead more clear and direct. Communicating with stakeholders will be much easier and the overall project experience will be more productive and less stressful.

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