Writing Clear Tasks

A task is a statement of vision and intention.
The more clearly we write our tasks, the more clearly we think.
Clarity in writing tasks is a useful practice.
Kourosh Dini

Why it's important

Could you pick up your todo list and hand it to a coworker and they’d know how to action what is next? While you may think you are writing your tasks just for yourself, the reality is it is the future you that you are writing for.

We need to be able to effectively delegate to our future selves. When we write our tasks right now we have a lot of context. We can fill the gaps on very tersely written instructions. But future us has lost that context. When we pick up the task in the future we will struggle first to remember "what the hell is this all about". This gives procrastination a much greater chance of putting it in the “too hard” basket.

For information workers sharpening the saw is all about planning. Not endless planning for plannings sake. But getting to a concise instruction sets that get us moving forward.

Words are powerful things. Knowing how to do something is one thing. Being able to communicate that to someone else is a different beast.

The TLDR is write action orientated tasks. If there is no doing in the task then it is not clear enough.

Too much detail. Not enough details. What is the right balance?

How to do it

When recording your tasks always think as though you are delegating them to someone else that you know. Some key ways to get that right is as follows:

Aim for your Goldilocks difficulty - just right

Break the job down into actionable bites. Outlining tasks with only the end goal in mind can lead to being overwhelmed with no clear place to start. There is a balance to strike. Going too far in the other direction leads to overwhelming counts of instructions.

If your tasks are too detailed (easy) then you may never start it because it looks too boring. Too vague, abstract or hard then you will never start because you are overwhelmed. Aim for a balance where the task definition will push you 4% outside of your comfort zone.

Ideally a task should be a block of work that can be picked up and not put down until finished.

Single Step vs Multi-step Verbs

Every task should begin with a verb. If it isn’t a verb then there isn’t anything to do! Based on the goldilocks difficulty these verbs may encompass one or many steps. It is OK to setup multi-step tasks if you can accomplish them all in one block.

Aim to start all task definitions that are a single step with one of the following set of GTD verbs:

  • Book
  • Brainstorm
  • Buy
  • Call
  • Copy
  • Discuss
  • Draft
  • Edit
  • Email
  • Fill out
  • Find
  • Gather
  • Load
  • Outline
  • Print
  • Purge
  • Read
  • Record
  • Register
  • Research
  • Review
  • Schedule
  • Send
  • Update (single-step)
  • Verify
  • Wait For
  • Write
  • Multi-step tasks describe desired outcomes more than next specific actions and begin with verbs like these:

  • Analyze
  • Complete
  • Decide
  • Deploy
  • Design
  • Ensure
  • Finalize
  • Finish
  • Handle
  • Implement
  • Install
  • Launch
  • Look Into
  • Maximize
  • Organize
  • Research
  • Resolve
  • Roll Out
  • Set Up
  • Update (multi-step)
  • Use simple words

    We are not trying to impress our future selves with our vocabulary. Everyone understands simpler words more quickly. Even when we are familiar with fancier alternatives, keep it simple but clear.

    Reduce the complexity of your tasks to make them easier to digest. Some examples to watch out for:

    Elaborate words Simple Word
    ascertain find out
    commence begin
    constitute make up
    fabricate build
    initiate begin
    terminate send
    utilize use

    Replace vague words with specific ones

    Don’t use abstract words or concepts that cloud the point of the task. Always ask what needs to be done in this step. What is the desired goal or outcome. If you can’t clearly express what this task is, then the next step is likely a research or brainstorming one.

    Bad: Improve website user experience
    Better: Reduce website load times to improve end user experience
    Best: Reduce image asset sizes to reduce load times so we can improve end user experience.

    Use affirmatives instead of multiple negatives

    Using multiple negatives force you to interpret the meaning. Don’t waste your future self’s energy on this. Be specific and affirmative with your language where you can.

    Bad: Review text for irrelevant details that the audience will not appreciate
    Good: Review text to ensure details are relevant to the audience

    Avoid noun strings

    Stringling lots of nouns together in a row gets confusing. Keep it simple.

    Bad: Draft end of day procedures for the fleet of public operation transportation vehicles
    Good: Draft end of day procedures for the public transport fleet.

    Monitor sentence length

    Where it makes sense limit your task subject to a single sentence. Move details into a description field.

    Avoid using "be", ”is”, “am”, “are”, “were”, “was” as verbs

    Avoiding these works to help stop writing in a passive voice. These verbs indicate a state of being instead a state of doing. We always want to be doing!

    Working through an example - Completing a blog post

    So let’s put this all together. Starting with the multi-step task:

    • Complete a blog post on clear task writing

    let’s break it down

    • Complete a blog post on clear task writing:
      • Outline blog post with introduction, major bullet points and conclusion in Google Docs.
      • Research supporting bullet points filling the bullet points with notes.
      • Write introduction and a conclusion to the post.
      • Write fleshed out supporting bullet points from research.
      • Edit post after stepping away for at least an hour.
      • Wait for 3rd party review of post.
      • Format post in blogging system.
      • Publish post as per scheduled time.


    Capturing your tasks is key to any good time management system. Things to do don’t belong in your head. When you spend the time to get them out of your head, it helps to make sure that we can get them back in there with the context they deserve. Keep all of your todo lists action orientated to get more done.

    Go have a look at your task list. What needs to change?