The Difference Between a Routine and a Project

The core of my productivity system is separating out routines from projects. The idea is that you do not want to be bothered by things you have to do just to maintain your life in its current place. Instead you want to be focussing all your creative energies on moving your life forward with the projects that move your life forward. To do this I recommend you move out the routines in your life and place them in a separate place in your to do list manager.

Recently, I’ve had a few conversations about what exactly is a routine and what is a project. Occasionally something could be classed as a routine, yet it could also be classed as a project. The question is, how do you determine what something is?

If you are a follower of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system you will be familiar with asking yourself a series of simple questions to determine whether something is a project or a single action task (what is it? Is it a project? What is the next action to move this project forward?). With my system you should do the same thing. However, the vital question with my system is: “is this task something I am going to regularly repeat or not?” If the answer is yes, then it is likely to be a routine. After all, routines are things you regularly repeat. If the task is a regularly repeating task then you will need to decide how frequently you do the task — daily, weekly or monthly.

Let me give you an example of a routine task that some may feel is a project. Let’s say I want to learn Korean. To learn any language you need to do some daily studying. Therefore I will need to set up a daily repeating task of “do 30 mins Korean study”. I could make this a project, but I really do not want to be thinking about this every time I look at my projects list. Instead, I would put this into my daily routines folder and allow it to come up at the time I have set for studying Korean (in my case 9:30pm every evening). I may create a separate project for Korean study for tasks such as “research language schools”, or “find a list of the most common Korean verbs”, but the actual day to day task of studying is a routine.

Another example of a ‘grey’ area would be the annual family holiday. It is likely you will take your holidays at a different time and a different place each year. When you begin planning for the family holiday may also be at a different time each year. In this case, I would classify this as a project, not a routine. Each holiday will involve different types of research and different discussions at different times of the year. As there are so many variables, it would be difficult to classify this as a routine. A routine might be: “begin discussions about family holiday”, but the rest of the tasks would be a project. And that is fine. A trigger to do something is fine as a routine, but the variables can and most likely should be a project.

The goal here is to remove things you really do not need to think about from your projects list. Your projects list need to be things that will move your life forward, improve your life or make you a better person. These can be work related or personal. Your daily routines should be separated out from these so you have the time and space to focus your attention on the important things in your life. Routine tasks should pop up when they need to be done and disappear when they’ve been done. You really do not need to be wasting valuable mental energy on these routine tasks. Just do them and forget about them.

When You Really Don’t Know

A good way to determine whether a task is a project task or a routine is to decide whether a task is going to be repeated over a long period of time. For example; if you were to brainstorm new marketing plan ideas and you created a repeating daily task of “think about new ideas for marketing plan” this is going to be a project task. Although you are repeating the task every day, there is going to come a time when you need to move on to the next stage of creating a new marketing plan. This task would therefore be best placed in the project “New Marketing Campaign 2016”. In contrast, if part of your job is to come up with ideas for new marketing campaigns every quarter, that would be a repeating routine task in your monthly routines, set to repeat every three months — “brainstorm new campaign ideas”

In my experience though, deciding whether a task is a routine or part of a project rarely comes up. In most cases what a task is is obvious. However, if you do come up with a task that you are not sure about, put it into your single actions list and watch it. If you find you are repeating it regularly, just move it to the appropriate routine folder.

Remember, routines are things you have to do every day, week or month that maintain your life in its current place. These tasks should not involve much thought. They become due, you do them, you tick them off. Done. Project tasks are tasks that take your life further forward and should be the tasks that are on your mind so that you can focus all your creative energies on improving your life and moving forward.

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