In a Free Your Mind to Do Great Work session, a participant asked me whether an item on his “to do” list was both a project and a goal. His example: “build our own house”. He wanted to know whether to consider that a project, a goal, or both. I wanted to share the answer with you.

I classify “build our own house” as a project, primarily because it is something to do, and we can quite objectively evaluate whether we’ve completed it. I consider something a project, then, when it is something to do, it has a definite end, and most people could agree by observing me whether I’d done it. By contrast, a goal could be open-ended and difficult to define. I would put “live a happy life” into that category.

You can ask the question “Why?” to find the goal behind a project. Consider a project, such as “build our own house”. Why do you want to do this? (I don’t know, because it’s his example, and not mine, and he’s not here to answer.) The answer to this question might be your goal, and if it doesn’t seem like your goal, then ask “Why?” again. No doubt you know this technique of repeatedly asking “Why?” until you feel something about the answer that makes it different from the preceding answers. I would guess that that different-feeling answer is the underlying goal.

Of course, you can ask a few different kinds of “Why?”

  • What’s the good business reason to do this? (One of my favorites.)
  • Why should I do this specifically today?
  • What would be the consequence of not doing this?

What different ways do you ask “Why?” when doing the “n whys” exercise?