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What's in a name - GTD project naming conventions

While coaching my wife in David Allen's Getting Things Done (her request - I swear!), I was asked what project naming convention to use, and I decided I hadn't given this enough thought. My first response was "start with a verb," but I realized I was thinking more of actions, rather than projects. I'm pretty clear that actions should start with a verb, but projects?

First, regarding actions, starting them all with verbs makes sense: Next actions should be named to reflect doing (as he says, projects can't be done, only actions), and verbs (for me, at least) provide a subtle psychological pressure to take action. Put another way, they're commands from my planning self (the part that makes decisions up-front) to my acting self (the part that needs concrete direction, and is easily side-tracked with things that are too big or too vague).

So how about naming projects? Given Allen's perspective on clarifying outcomes, we'd expect him to phrase them in terms of the desired outcome. Interestingly, in the section of the book where he provides a partial projects list (page 37), out of a few dozen examples, only three do not start with verbs ("August vacation", "Staff off-site retreat", and "R&D joint-venture video project"). Here are a few other perspectives:While I like the idea of a project name reflecting the desired outcome (it goes back to one of Allen's two big questions [1]), I have an issue with verbs in project names: I like the names in my project list to match their corresponding project folder labels as closely as possible, for easiest retrieval. Putting "I know how to speak conversational Spanish" is a great affirmation, but would make a lousy label. I'd probably use something like (brace yourself) "Spanish project" or "Spanish class."

I'd love her your thoughts - How do you name projects?

Update: I should have include a post to this nice piece by David Allen on projects: Defining “Projects” – a Key to GTD. It used to be a tip, but it's gone. However, Jason posted a copy of it on the thread How do you manage Projects?.

[1] I talk a little about them in Some David Allen "twos" - two reasons we procrastinate, and two kinds of problems.

Reader Comments (15)

Short, concise, scope-centric. If I'm installing a 5TB disk cluster, that project is called: "EMC 5TB Disk Cluster Install." Catchy, non? I think some of the naming stuff can be more loose (or verb-centric) when there are fewer folks in the company. I imagine 37signals and web2.0 folks having funner-er-er names.

November 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I love it, Chris - to the point, with no waste. Plus, easy to label! Thanks.

November 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Interesting topic; haven't thought about it much, so was curious as to how I actually name my projects. Turns out that in my list about half use a present particple verb (ing verb) and half are nouns.

For example:

Getting Papers
Editing the xxx
Helping xxx with xxx


Cue Cards
xxx Paper
xxx Symposium
Next Meeting

I think the difference between the two might be some implicit assumptions I have about the purpose or duration of the project. For instance, in some of my projects, there is a clear outcome but it is far away, then the project is more of a "doing" project. Other projects are less continuous, or have sharper edges, e.g., getting the furnace fixed is Furnace.

November 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterGTD Wannabe

I appreciate hearing your examples, gtd wannabe, and I like the two-part scheme; something for me to think about.

I'm curious: Have you found any of the longer term ones that needed to move up Allen's hieararchy into Areas of Resposibility, values, etc?

Finally, I'm a regular reader of your blog - keep up the great stuff!

November 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

As for Areas of Responsbility, I don't see that the projects I have listed are quite at that level. That said, I do actually have a few projects that do probably fit that criteria. For example, my many hats include: student, researcher (not necessarily the same thing), wannabe XXX-employee (some of my projects are tied to making myself indispensible to certain people), participant in a couple of groups, minute-taker for large project (in addition to researching for it), web mistress for at least three web pages, not including my own. This is all "work" stuff, as opposed to "home" stuff, where other areas of responsibility come into play.

For the most part, I try to keep my projects as real projects, with discernable outcomes. Obviously, something like "getting papers" is a bit open-ended, but when I fill in the outcome, I say something like, "This project will be finished when I am done my PhD and no longer need to search for papers on a particular topic." On the other hand, I have a project called "Grad Resources Web", which is really an area of responsibility. In that project's supporting material I include any interesting emails/links that I want to add to a particular web page. It doesn't always have a next action, but I'm loath to keep moving it into my "Sleeping Projects" category, because I want to keep reminding myself to look at it.

Long-winded answer, but I guess it just boils down to: yes, some of my projects (although different ones than I already gave as examples) are really areas of responsibility.

November 24, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterGTD Wannabe

Thanks a bunch for the analysis, GTD Wannabe. You've given me more to think about.

On an unrelated note, I'd like to email you, but I can't find an address on your web site. If you're interested, you can send it to me at matthewcornell@gmail.com

November 24, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Because my projects / milestone tracking is done on Wikis (home and lab have separate wikis) all of my project names are wikinames, usually two to three words that make a nice short link and folder name.


They're pretty much nouns.

I actually found this post just now because I haven't quite hit the "aha" I need to keep track of projects and next actions. My current way of using wikis results in too much overhead if every single thing that requires more than one physical action has to have its own project page. It's just not worth it. And yet, how does one keep the Next Actions in the system while still identifying which projects they belong to? I need to resolve this before my weekly review today.

I have some ideas, and I seem to be just on the cusp of figuring it out. Hm....

January 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

Hey Brock. Very interesting questions, which I can tell would lead to a nice insight about GTD and wikis. As you point out, capture (of projects, in your case) *has* to be almost effortless, or it just won't happen (similar to ease-of-filing). I'd love to hear what you figure out. Give me a holler if you want to bounce ideas around.

January 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Now I am in the middle of my weekly review. I just have bad feeling about a project name, and search gtd project naming. thanks for this sharing. the problematic project name is "keep the blog uptodate". so there isn't any clear finish. therefore I thought this should not be a project. but then what is it? is it are of responsibility?

some of my project names are:
finish phd
apply gtd
save money
improve salsa
write my inner world
write weakly status report for work
apply unschedule
call house owner to arrange house rent


December 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterispir

BTW, I like outcome oriented naming. I will try it.

December 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterispir

Let me know how it goes!

December 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hey I am surprised that you gave me such a detailed answer. Thanks a lot. I use your advices and finally what I do is that:
- remove almost all the projects to another list such as responsibility
- create a new project list which are much more concrete and finishable.
- the new projects name are described the outcome in past tense
- my project number is doubled now, because of that responsibility have different projects. in this case your example is great: instead of uptodate blog "writing posts, responding to comments, and updating look-and-feel".

these changes boosts my gtd.

thank you very much

December 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterispir
[old comment that didn't import]

Hi ispir,

> thanks for this sharing

You're welcome - glad it helped.

> is it area of responsibility?

This is a great question, and I'm happy you gave examples.

First, you're correct that this is category of on-going work that is outside of Allen's daily workflow method. This could fall under Allen's Area of Responsibility, if structuring your life that way works for you. (I don't personally use a list like this. Instead I have these in my mind, and, when I need to review, I review an on-the-fly mind map of my life.) The Area of Responsibility in this case might be "Maintain Blog." This area involves multiple activities, such as writing posts, responding to comments, and updating look-and-feel, say. Thinking hierarchically, "Maintain Blog" could come under a higher realm like "Establish myself as an expert in __."

Does that help?

> problematic project name "keep the blog uptodate"

Quite so: This is not a project, though "create blog" and "promote blog" would be good ones. For something that doesn't have a fixed end, consider creating a checklist that reminds you of the activity as often as you need. This might be daily or weekly for your blog, for example. I have a weekly one that includes blogging, along with entering the week's receipts for my accounts and getting together with my wife.

The way it works is the checklist /activates an action/. It might be short one you can do at that moment (i.e., two or five minutes), but otherwise it should go on your actions list. Of course now the problem is you have to ensure you're looking at it - that you make it a habit. One approach is to put a repeating event in your calendar. This works great for me. The day you put it on doesn't matter, but I prefer earlier in the week to give me a leeway to get it done within a few days.

You can apply any habit-forming method to this. An interesting starting point is [ Effectively forming new habits | http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/786165.html ]. (This is doubly interesting as it talks about the "21 days to form a habit" origin.

> some of my project names are:

Let's look at these.

o finish phd: Sounds like a good one. This may be what I call a "master" project if it involves multiple "sub-projects" like "finish index," "host peer review," etc. And don't forget an importante action/project :<strong>Celebrate!</strong>

o apply gtd: What specifically does this mean? Is "GTD is up and running" clearer?

o save money: I suggest making this one really specific, e.g., how much you save, and by when. Check out [ Creating S.M.A.R.T. Goals | http://www.topachievement.com/smart.html ].

o improve salsa: Yum!

o write my inner world: Sounds intriguing.

o write weakly status report for work: This one goes under the on-going category I talked about above.

o apply unschedule: I'm guessing you refer to [ Neil Fiore | http://www.neilfiore.com/index.shtml ]'s [ The Now Habit | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1585425524?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1585425524 ]. (For more see [ How to Unschedule your work and enjoy guilt-free play | http://www.lifeclever.com/how-to-unschedule-your-work-and-enjoy-guilt-free-play/ ].)

o call house owner to arrange house rent: This sounds more like an action to me, unless it involves more steps than the call itself, such as "Find number of house owner," "Review rent status," etc.

Thanks again for the meaty question."
October 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
This post inspired these Project Names. They use verbs so are inspiring, and are outcomes as they are in the past tense. And they are short. A couple have a next action following for example.
Got HRM Refund from Amazon
Got Medical Records
Got Quicken: Check email for quicken help
$ In Order
Taxes Filed
Medpay Used: call Kaiser re itemized bill for $69
Fellowship for Gail Organized
Bday Picnic on 26-Feb Successful
Receipts Kept Right
February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas
Thanks, Nicholas. Good examples.
February 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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