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Friday, December 21, 2012

Goal, Resolution, Project, Task: Definitions and Examples

Several people have asked me the difference between a goal, resolution, project and task so I thought I'd go into some detail on what each of these means and how you can apply them to your life.

First I want to define a Resolution and how it's different from a Goal. Gretchen Rubin cleared this up for me in her book The Happiness Project (not affiliated, just giving credit). She points out that a Goal is quantifiable and has an ending. Running a marathon is a goal. You train for it, and complete the marathon. After that it's up to you whether you continue training or become a couch potato.

A Resolution, on the other hand, has no end. It's a lifestyle change. "Quit Smoking" or "Be More Cheerful" are things that you'll have to continue doing for as long as you want to reap the benefits.

Gretchen does point out that the more specific you are with your Resolutions, the more likely you'll be able to keep them. "Laugh at least once per day" is easier to keep track of than "Be more cheerful."  Incidentally, a Resolution can become a daily Goal: did you laugh today? Then you can check off that you did, in fact, laugh today and thus have reached that small goal for the day.

So let's talk about what, exactly, is a Goal.

Goals can be long-term (complete university degree), shorter term (finish report) or just today (read Chapter 3). A goal is something you can measure, and you can complete in a specified period of time.

As an example, let's talk about something many people set as a New Year's Resolution: Lose Weight. Unfortunately, Lose Weight is not a Goal. You can't measure it. How much weight? By when?

"Lose 10 pounds" is closer to being an actual goal, but it's still lacking the time element. Lose 10 pounds at some point in your life? How about, "Lose 10 pounds by June." Now THAT is a Goal. You can do that.

Here's how to break down the Goal of "Lose 10 pounds by June."  How many months/ weeks do you have until June 1? This will tell you how much weight you need to lose each week. Generally 1 pound per week is sustainable, some people can even pull off 2 pounds per week. There are about 3500 calories in a pound of body weight, so to lose a pound per week you'll cut 500 calories per day. Science aside, eating less fatty and carby food and more veg and lean protein plus exercise will help you lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way. Keep it up until June, and you'll reach your goal.

The other thing a Goal needs to be is trackable, and this is where most people succeed or fail. People who track their progress are MUCH more likely to reach their goal. Weigh yourself every week. Measure your waist. Count calories if you can stand to, or food points, or the number of fruit and veg portions you eat each day. Record your exercise. When you track your progress you know what you've accomplished and how far you have yet to go. You also notice setbacks and can get yourself back on track.

What's the difference between a Goal and a Project? Or a Goal and a Task? Timeframe, mainly.

For example, you may have the goal of painting your living room. Remember, to be a true Goal you need to set a time limit, so let's say you want to paint your living room before your in-laws visit 3 months from now. This is an example of a Goal that is also a Project.

A Project has multiple steps. Think of all the things you have to do BEFORE you actually apply paint to your living room walls. Research paint types and choose colors. Buy brushes, tape, and plastic to cover your floor. Prepare the walls by removing old wallpaper, filling any cracks or holes, and smoothing the surface. Move furniture, cover the floor, tape edges. THEN you can actually paint. Then let the paint dry, apply another coat if needed, dry again. Remove the tape and floor coverings, move furniture back into place. Done!

Each of those steps can be considered a Milestone toward reaching your goal of painting your living room. Milestones need to have a time element of their own. Back-count from the Done date to figure out the deadlines for each Milestone. How long will it take you to research your paint options? When will you actually have time to go buy the paint and supplies? When will you do the actual painting? Look at your planner and schedule time to complete each of the Milestones.

Now you'll know if you're on track to reach your Goal in time or not. Your in-laws are coming next weekend and you haven't chosen your paint yet? Unless you've got the week off work, you might not reach your goal. Think realistically about how long it will take you to complete each step to make sure you have adequate time.

Each Milestone can be broken down into individual Tasks. A Task is sometimes called an Action or a Next Action. For example, the Milestone of Choosing Your Paint can be broken down into several tasks: Look online at paint brands and types. Look up customer reviews of different paints. Go to the store to look at paint colors and types. Ask someone who knows about paint what they recommend. Get paint samples and bring them home to get an idea of what the colors would look like in that room. You get the idea: a Task is something you can do without having to do something else first.

Unfortunately, in real life most goals aren't as clear-cut as "Lose 10 pounds before June" or "Paint the living room before 3 months from now." Maybe you want to get a promotion at work, publish your e-book, make more friends, or improve your credit rating. Whatever your goal is, be sure to set a time frame,  break it down into actions, and measure your progress.

I designed the Plannerisms planners to give you space to write out your big Annual Goals, break them down into Quarterly Milestones, Monthly Goals and Daily Tasks. Importantly, there's space to record your progress every step of the way so you can see what's working and what's not, and exactly how far you have to go to meet your goals. Click here to see my post on Using the Plannerisms Planner as a Goals Workbook.

Was this post helpful? Any questions about setting goals?

Discuss! :)


  1. Brilliant and simple explanations

  2. Thanks Laurie - that was a great refresher for me. I have been doing way to much studying time management, task management, productivity, etc - instead of actually doing anything. I keep saying I will start in January. So in order to be prepared, I have been taking notes, writing out my ideas for the coming year and how I will track my progress. For instance my weight loss goal is to weigh 160 by 12/31 and that means 20# in 52 weeks. That way there is no pressure and if I do screw up one week - my goal won't be to badly hurt.

    I have never used a planner that was in a bound book before so I am eager to try it. I started journaling in a bound book for the first time this year and found that i love it. But it is not something I want to carry with me.

    I have always used something with rings or wire or discs. I don't like wire because they always come undone and I can't add pages easily, so that is one reason I never tried a book format. Also the weight has been an issue.

    This past year I used Planner Pads, and the Women's Success Planner. This is the first time I have stayed with a planner for more than 30 days! Thank you for helping do just that

    For 2013, I have eliminated the Planner Pad because I am using yours and the WSP. I have been journaling like crazy trying to make decisions on how I want to combine the 2. I also have mu journal and another book with lined pages to track my reading. Plus I will be trying to figure out another way to track my creative projects aka needlework. I want to include pictures of the final product as well as instructions and notes on the product I used in the project. Maybe I can use some of my old Levenger products for that. Still not sure how to set that up.

    I have a small basket that sits on a shelf under my desk where I keep all the planners/journals etc. My 3 ring binder has not only the Planner Pads bur also the instructions from David Allen's Getting Things Done and Franklin Covey's starter pack. The tabs are from F/C and the 5 extra tabs are named after the WSP' Areas of Balance. I have A0Z tabs here as well that will hold contact information and I will be filing notes there as well - based on the subject of the note.

    My question is - Have I made this too complicated? I just realized that I will need to carry a notebook along with your planner to take notes in, so that I can move them to the 3 ring binder. Am I forgetting anything else?

    My Project for next year is to get all my Areas of Balance headed in the right direction and maybe even fixed! Sorry to ramble on so long here.

    Happy solstice!

    1. Hi wilssearch, I'll give you some advice if I can, but ultimately of course only you can decide if your system is working or not.

      It's not necessarily bad to have multiple books, in fact often it's necessary to stay organized and not have everything jumbled together in one book. I like to use separate notebooks for separate purposes, like different subjects in school. For example I have a designated notebook for job searching, so I can record my login passwords for each jobs website, list jobs I've applied to, contact info etc. This notebook stays at home on my desk. I think your creative projects would work well in their own book.

      It's fine to record things in separate books, as long as you know where to look for what information. But for planning, I recommend using one planner only. (The exception to this is for people who can use a separate planner at work because their work schedule doesn't overlap with their personal schedule at all, but I don't know very many people this applies to any more). By using only one planner to plan, nothing slips through the cracks.

      Does that help?

  3. Great post thanks :-)

  4. Your description is excellent! Upon seeing the layout for my planner, people often ask me what the difference is between notes, lists, and projects because I have a section dedicated to each. For me, anything in the lists section is a list of things to download, research, buy, etc - one step things that can be done either with some of the other tasks or alone. Projects are for bigger items, things that require multiple steps. So buy wrapping paper is a task that would go under lists but my Christmas gift list would go under projects so that I see what I have for people, what I still need, how much money I've spent, etc. and notes is a random collection of thoughts - I might need to do something with the information or might not, depending on the item.

    I think of projects in terms of an outline (for a mental picture): the entire project is the outline as a whole (the title - in this example Christmas list); my main points (A, B, C) are the big points of the project (gift for mom, gift for hubby, gift for sister, etc); then I break each one down (I, II, III under each letter - ideas for gifts for each person), and the brak those ideas down further (a, b, c under each I, II or III - go to target for wine glasses for mom). I don't know if my description makes sense written in this format, but if I think of it in those terms, I know how to break down my project.

    Great post!

    1. Wow you are very organized! That's a great way to break things down. Then you just go down the list and you know exactly what needs to be done next. I love the idea of subdividing each topic to see the details.

  5. Thank you very much for this post, Laurie. I'm currently in the process of reviewing my past year and setting my goals for 2013. I think one of the reasons why I haven't always been able to accomplish my goals in the past is that they have often been too vague and not specific enough. Having this clarification among Goals, Resolutions, Tasks, and Projects will be very useful to me.

  6. I agree with Heather, a great post and definitely clears up where I too have gone wrong. I am actually going to review the goals I've written in my Plannerisms planner and think them out a little more (factoring time and specificity). I like the notions of projects and tasks, I always thought of things as goals and sometimes a big "goal" (that's actually a project, ie clearing out the basement) can be underestimated and just pushed aside. Now I see to devise the project into tasks to achieve my goal of having an organised basement by July 1. Thank you for this post!

  7. Great post, I will reread it between Christmas and new year as I set up my planner for 2013

  8. Ditto! PS - Picked up my planner at the post office on Friday and love it. Thank you!

    1. So glad you love it Jolene! I'd love to hear how you plan to use it.

  9. Very useful post, Laurie, thank you and happy new year!!

  10. WHY don't they teach this in school? This would be helpful the rest of your natural life--unlike long division :/


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