You have no idea how much clarity you need to get things done. I know this because I have watched how articulating outcomes has evolved for me over the last six years, and I hope to share some of my insights with you here.
If you are like most people, your task list has tasks that look something like this:
- Finish blog post
- Meet with John Doe
For those of you who pride yourselves on brevity, your tasks may just be noun phrases like this:
- Flower garden
- Personnel report
Part of the reason we articulate our tasks and projects in these ways has to do with the limited space we have in our daytimers and digital devices. If you use a productivity app on your smartphone, once your task or project becomes longer than twenty-five characters or so, the phrase gets abbreviated or cut off. As a result, your daytimer or smartphone teaches you to write your outcomes in abbreviated ways so you can keep things on the same page or conserve screen space.
But consider the consequences. Chances are you have more than one personnel report as part of your workflow. Which personnel report are you supposed to work on? Were you supposed to write the personnel report? get it to a supervisor at a particular time? print it out? When you first wrote the phrase down, you knew exactly what it was and what you needed to do about it. But as time moves on, it gets lost in the haze; and every time you now look at it you have to re-ask the same questions to remember what it was you were supposed to do. The time and energy you saved by keeping the outcome short on the front-end results in a disproportionate waste of your time and energy on the back-end.
Here is an example of how articulating outcomes has evolved in my system over time:
- Apple Certifications
- Finish Apple Certifications
- Finished Apple Certifications
- I am Apple Certified
- I am Apple Certified in Desktop and Portable Systems
- Todd is Apple Certified in Desktop and Portable Systems
At first, I started using “action” words on the front of outcomes. So instead of “Apple Certifications” I would prefix words like “Finish” or “Complete.” The thought behind prefixing a task with an action word is that it jolts your mind into action so you can get the task done. Sometime later I read of the importance of articulating outcomes in the past tense. In the same way athletes visualize the race before a track-meet or swim competition, one takes a vantage point on the other side of the project or task’s completion to help get it done. So I began writing these action words in the past tense to subconsciously create this visualization when I reviewed my task lists. At some point, however, I realized this wasn’t the final picture. It was the equivalent of giving myself an imperative, but without any sense of what or why I was doing the task. Eventually I learned that the clearer I articulated the outcomes, the more quickly my mind could visualize the final picture, and the quicker I would get the task done. I further discovered that the clearer the outcomes were articulated, the more positive associations I would have when reviewing and working on them. And when you think about it, it makes sense: The more ambiguous and vague tasks and projects in your system are recurring reminders to you of unfinished work that require redundant question-asking every time you review them.
The residual ambiguity left in your tasks comes back to haunt you every time you review your lists because you haven’t clearly articulated what it is you want or need to accomplish with them.
If you work for others, that ambiguity can come from how poorly they clarified the outcomes they delegated to you. Most recently I’ve discovered the value of writing outcomes in the third person. So, “Todd is…” rather than “I am…” I’m not sure why this works better; for me, it just does.
The upside to longer and more carefully articulated outcomes is that your mind has more positive associations with your lists, you waste less time, and you get things done more quickly and easily. The downside is you have to think more carefully and write more down on the front end. You may also have to give up some screen real estate and/or make it more difficult to “find” some of your tasks and outcomes. A list of longer phrases certainly makes it more difficult to locate, say, “flower garden” or “personnel report.” But if you are using your computer or smartphone, you should be able to do a word search pretty quickly.
But there is a further benefit to this level of clarity on your outcomes. And this is one of the subtle secrets and the power of Ready-Set-Do!: You have to drag-n-drop and associate tasks and sub-projects with these outcomes. Every time you go to drop a new task in a folder, you restate that carefully articulated outcome in your mind. As you type a search for it, your mind conjures up the phrasing. And each time you restate that outcome, the more your mind goes to work visualizing and thinking of ways for you to accomplish it and get it done. Do you want your mind thinking of ways to complete a half-articulated outcome or a fully-articulated one? Which one do you think is going to be more effective in getting you to achieve that outcome? Which one does your mind naturally gravitate toward? Which one gets done more quickly and in accordance with the standards for it?
For some of you this makes no sense to you at all. The difference between “Finish Apple Certifications” and “Todd is Apple Certified in Desktop and Portable Systems” seems negligible. In fact, you see the extra time spent on articulating this as a waste of time. Why not spend less time articulating and more time just getting it done? Part of this comes down to a difference in temperament and the total inventory in one’s workflow. People who think like this have a smaller inventory of tasks and projects to manage. If you were to look at their lists, they have no more than twenty or thirty things they are working on. They are widget-crankers who crank through small projects and like to work on things immediately out of their inbox. But with inventories of over 100-150 projects, and complex projects with multiple sub-projects, one can’t simply work from the inbox or widget-crank—not without periods of time to gain clarity on the higher dimensions of these projects.
Recently, these insights on articulating outcomes have even changed the way I set up meetings with people. I used to write “Meet with John Doe re: Startup ideas.” Now I write “Todd and John Doe brainstormed some amazing new ideas for their new StartUp.” It takes up more space in your daytimer. It gets abbreviated on your smartphone, no doubt. But imagine how much more you would accept an invitation to the latter meeting simply because it has a more clearly defined outcome. If you run regular meetings for your company, I dare you to send an invite to your next meeting with a more clearly defined outcome. Put it in the subject line of the email for the meeting or title the name of the new event with the outcome and then send invites to accept that event on their calendars. Your employees are more likely to want to come to the meeting, they will have greater enthusiasm, and they will be better prepared to achieve the outcome for the meeting.
There are other important dimensions to providing greater clarity on outcomes, such as placing those outcomes in proper relationship to governing projects, career goals, and life purpose, but I’ll address those in another post. Have you observed any evolution in the way you articulate your tasks and projects? Do you have any tips to suggest? Let us know in the comments below:
I used to give each project a short title like ‘Holiday in Scotland 2015’. Now I would add ‘enjoyed’ or ‘successful’, to convert it to an outcome. Having a project list that is a list of outcomes provides a picture of my future life – well, some of it! I find this makes reviewing the list as part of the GTD Weekly Review much more attractive.
Your ideas seem to tie in with David Allen’s (GTD) advice on Natural Project Planning e.g.Vision/Outcome. Clarifying the outcome helps us to get there. Of course, there may be several desired outcomes. And in the Natural Project Planning sequence, the first question is ‘Why’ – why am I doing this, what is the purpose? I guess this question relates to objectives, rather than outcomes.