Should you create subprojects?

A GTDer asked: I am using the GTD Outlook Add-In software. Should I create subprojects?

Coach Kelly: I personally don’t use the subproject feature of software. For me, everything is just a Project. But if you do decide to use it, it can be a nice way to sort major components of a large project. For example, let’s say you are getting married. You could have “Get married” as the project that you track, however, there would be many, many
steps that would fall under that. Some people would choose to create subprojects for each of the major components, such as:

Project =
Get Married

Subprojects =
Rehearsal Dinner

I’d say it’s an optional feature in the Add-In, not required. Only use it if it helps you. Don’t use that feature if it seems confusing or more complicated than you need. [Addendum: this is my universal feedback for people on creating your system. Use as many features as you need, but as few as you can get by with.]

11 Responses to “Should you create subprojects?”

  1. EJ says:

    Hi Kelly,

    As a large medical meeting planner, I struggle with the use of sub-projects daily. I would say it is the single largest barrier to me implementing GTD successfully.

  2. Ken says:

    I too treat all projects as projects, and use a keyword to link them together. The trouble that I have is with updating the content of those projects as time goes on.

    I often find myself just adding tasks for @Computer for things as they come up, but do not wind up going back to the original projects where the initial plan is laid out. For tasks that are next actions, this is okay, but I wind up throwing all other thoughts in this bucket as well so that I don’t forget.

    I know that the weekly review is for this cleanup, but any suggestions on how I can dicipline myself to be better at updating the projects themselves, and keeping the tasks for true next items.

  3. Jinnie Lee Schmid says:

    I’ve wondered about whether to use sub-projects, too. After a very small bit of experimenting, I think I’m going to stick with a tip I learned when working with Coach Meg (sure hope I articulate this right!): get real clear about Areas Of Focus, then use those as prefixes on project names. For instance, my work at my main client splits into AOFs of Events, Development, Branding, etc. So my project names are things like Event-June 3; Dev-Templates; Brand-Logo Rollout.

  4. aa says:

    Perhaps, but I find that begins to look too much like MS Project (a tool I’ve always associated with blame or after the fact review, a bit like the grammar school outline david refers to in his GTD book). I don’t want an “automated” system that determines strictly what must come next, I want one that is fun and easy to use with less structure and more progress.

    I generally think in phases, and not subprojects. Most IT projects aren’t really handled by one person, so I don’t mind treating them all horizontally as either the same project or multiple projects, or even as a single item called “John’s Piece” with a delegated status (something to watch over but not worry about)

    To use Kelly’s example, each one of those subprojects are independent really, each can have a next action, and each can, for the most part, make progress without depending on the other. Maybe the overall goal is Get Married, but each of those is a project by itself.

    my two cents…

    Again, whatever works for you…

  5. In my understanding of GTD, “Getting Married” would be more of a Goal or Objective, I’d want to fullfill, possibly within a certain fram of time though.

    If so, I would mark it as a Goal, put some ideas down how I could fullfill this (on a 30-50k Level) and set up any number of Projects that supports my goal.

    The difference between Projects and Goals is often a very fine line!

  6. Bish says:

    I dont understand how you could do without sub-projects at all.

    My work doesnt seem to go from flat projects to goals, I have projects that take six months, that have 5 sub-projects within that take a month each, and ones within that that take a week and so on. Theyre definitely not next actions, theyre projects. And theyre definitely not 20K foot stuff, theyre projects.

    to take the classic tyres project – my task might be to give my car a thorough tune up – and getting the tyres changed might be a sub-project for that. In terms of next actions, or doing the damn thing, having a sub-project as opposed to a project makes no difference – however in terms of having a clear vision why you’re doing it at all its vital – im not doing it for the fun of it, the endgame isn’t tyres, the endgame is the larger project, getting the car sorted out. i think its pretty important to tie these things together.

    id say that not having sub-projects and not being able to link them together was a bit of a problem when I started using GTD, because this issue isnt really spelled out in the first book. In the end i just tried a few ways and got one that worked for me.

  7. I follow David’s hieracrchy(sp) as follows:

    Projects for each Area-of-Focus
    Tasks for each Project

    I use the GTD Outlook plug-in to implement this as follows:

    Area-of-Focus Project
    Project Subproject
    Task (actual entry) task name>Next Action

    My weekly review is simple and quick: I prioritize no more than 21 next actions that are needed to move key areas of my areas-of-focus forward. Restricting to only 21 next actions really forces prioritization. Those 21 are set to ‘high’ priority, the rest are set/reset to ‘normal’. Then I force those 21 next actions to be scheduled on my calendar over the next 7 days, removing myself from some meetings/commitments if I need to.

    Of course if I am in the ‘context’ and there is a ‘normal’ priority I can get done, I knock it off – but I clearly see the strategic aka ‘high’ priority next actions first on that ‘context’s list.

    In other words, I focus on getting 3 strategic next actions done each day – 3 x 7 = 21.

    Works for me…..Barry James

  8. Kelly says:

    Hi Bish,

    It’s personal preference based on what will give you sufficient reminders of the moving parts and pieces. Putting simply “Get married” would work for one person and not another.

    “Get Married” could be a longer-term goal ir vision(30 or 40k item on the Horizons of Focus), or a current project if it’s moved to that point.

    Thanks all for commenting.


  9. Brad says:

    I could not implement GTD without sub-projects either, an most GTD software does not support it. One that does quite well, and the one I love and use, is mylifeorganized. Unfortunately for Mac users, it’s Windows only.

  10. Chinatown says:

    I’d like anyone’s opinion on a more specific question:

    How would I approach the “getting married” goal example if it involved two separate but very near equal phases, such as two wedding dates?

    While my personal preference is to treat every complex goal I have as its own project, I’m trying to get my head around planning two weddings in succession. My overall budget will cover both, meaning I have flexibility with one to the extent that some things (dress, decorations) can be used in the other and some (actual budget to pay for things like location deposits) cannot.

    So, what do you think? 2 projects? Project with 2 subprojects? Something else?

  11. George says:

    Consider doing the following…


    VISION =
    Get Married (Love)

    Rehearsal Dinner {Get Married}
    Ceremony {Get Married}
    Reception {Get Married}
    Honeymoon {Get Married}

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