Acceptable forms of Project/Next Step Support

Both GTD (Getting Things Done) and TRO (Total, Relaxed Organization) distinguish between tasks (one step) and projects (multiple steps).

Software support for these "projects" comes in at least 3 flavors:
1) Hierarchical tasks (tasks that contain other tasks),
2) "Project" field, and
3) Free-form (a discipline or habit).

A lot depends on implementation in the software, but one isn't always better than the others. To appreciate the tradeoffs, you first have to understand a few interrelated principles.

Project Principles

GTD and TRO emphasize the need to 1) focus on just the next step when planning a project. Also, 2) when DOing, DO and think about the just next step. Thinking of the entire project at once will usually stress you out or encourage procrastination.

When recording steps of a project, David Allen and Priacta both warn against racking your brain for all the next steps, since 3) trying to capture all the intricate steps of a project slows processing and encourages further procrastination. In addition, steps tend to be fluid. If you enter them today, they may be invalid tomorrow, so 4) entering too many steps, with too much detail, too far in the future could be a big waste of time. Yoda said it best: "Difficult to see. Always in motion the future." On the other hand, 5) if you've got next steps floating around your mind, get them off your mind into your system.

Approach 1: Hierarchical Tasks

Your software can display a tree-like structure of nested tasks that contain other tasks with hierarchical tasks.

Advantages:
1) Manages complex projects better.
2) May allow you to see the task description separate from the project description.
3) Easily allows multiple project steps to be active at one time.
4) Can see outstanding tasks for a project in one group.
5) May provide a history of completed steps in a project.

Disadvantages:
1) Usually unwieldy for simple projects (2 or 3 steps, which are the most common kind of project).
2) If not implemented well, increases processing time because adding tasks to projects can be more involved than other methods.
3) Increased task display complexity (drilling down into folders to see tasks, more fields on the screen).
4) May encourage entering too many steps in too much detail, wasting your time (see principles above).
5) Multiple steps for a project may inadvertently become active at once.
6) Orphaned projects are possible. (You can have a project with no next step, so Weekly Review takes longer as you hunt for orphans.)

How to do it:
1) Use a software product that supports it.

Approach 2: "Project" Field

This approach gives you a designated Project field in which you specify a project name. Multiple tasks can usually have the same project name.

Advantages:
1) May allow you to see the task description separate from the project description.
2) Easily allows multiple project steps to be active at one time.
3) Can see outstanding tasks for a project in one group.
4) May provide a history of completed steps in a project.
 
Disadvantages:
1) May increase processing time (project name lookup, additional screens).
2) May increase task display complexity (additional fields or columns).
3) May encourage entering too many steps in too much detail, wasting your time (see principles above).
4) Multiple steps for a project may inadvertently become active at once.
5) Orphaned projects are possible. (You can have a project with no next step, so Weekly Review takes longer as you hunt for orphans.)

How to do it:
1) Use a software product that supports it, or
2) Use the Category field to tag tasks that belong to a given project. Use with a consistent naming convention for project tags (like #Project Name) so your project names appear as a group in the Categories list.

Approach 3: Free-form projects and next steps

This approach requires you to enter the project name in the task description line, either at the start or end ("Project - Next Step" or "Next Step (Project)").

Advantages:
1) Works with any software. (This is the only method for many devices and applications. David Allen uses a "vanilla" Palm device per his FAQ on his web site, and this is the only way to do projects on such a device.)
2) Fast entry of new tasks and simple projects (no need to define a new project separately).
3) Simple, compact display of tasks (more information is displayed in less space in most cases).
4) Reinforces principle that, ideally, one step for a project should be active at one time (though multiple active steps are still possible).
5) Harder to get orphaned projects. (Automatically enforces the rule that a project must always have a next step. However, see disadvantages.)

Disadvantages:
1) Requires a new habit (entering project in task description line).
2) Moving to next step requires cut/paste/edit of task name. (Sounds clunky, but in practice it can be fairly efficient.)
3) Multiple active steps for a project require duplicate project records (duplicate task records with the project name in the task description line).
4) Keeping history of completed steps requires cut/paste into notes field.
5) Cannot see a list of all projects. (This is a potential issue for GTD but not for TRO.)
6) Abandoned projects are possible. (If you mark the project/step as complete and don't fill in a new next step, you could lose sight of the project entirely.)

How to do it:
http://www.priacta.com/forum/index.php?topic=179.0
1) Enter the project name in the task description line, either at the start or end ("Project - Next Step" or "Next Step (Project)").
2) When you complete a next step, replace it in the description line with the new next step and reprocess.
3) (Optional) Enter subsequent steps at the top of the Notes section for the task, in rough order.
4) (Optional) When you complete a next step, copy the completed step out of the description line and paste into notes below the next steps. (Optional) Include a date, usually in reverse date order so most recent completed step is at the top.

Which Is Best?

As you can see there are tradeoffs. You'll have to decide what works best for you. However, consider using the Free-form approach for the simplest projects (2 or 3 steps). It will save you a lot of time.

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