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Difference Between Tasks and Outcomes

Let’s talk about tasks and outcomes – and why they’re different and how they work in the real world.

A really common question that we get from Asian Efficiency readers is this:

What’s the difference between a task and an outcome? Aren’t they the one and the same?

There is a difference and here it is.

A task is an action.

An outcome is a goal, or mini-goal.

Let’s look into it deeper.

What is a Task?

As per above, a task is an action. It is something that we do.

We can go further and say that it is a singular action, or an action that has a limiter of 20 minutes set on it.

It is something that usually involves only one mode of thought or continuous action to accomplish and mark as “done”.

Here are some examples of what we consider tasks:

  • Washing the dishes.
  • Write article on “tasks and outcomes”.
  • Extract data from CRM.
  • Put extracted data from CRM into Weekly Sales spreadsheet.
  • Email John about TPS reports.

What is an Outcome?

OK then, what is an outcome?

An outcome can be thought of as a goal or mini-goal, and it usually consists of many tasks. A good way to remember this is that there is a 1:M relationship between outcome and tasks.

This is best illustrated by example.

For the outcome “Clean up the kitchen”, you have the following tasks:

  • Collect dishes into sink.
  • Wash dishes.
  • Dry and put away dishes.
  • Clean up the table.
  • Clean up kitchen counters.
  • Reset table for dinner.

For the outcome “Compile sales report”, you may have the following tasks:

  • Create new report file.
  • Extract data from CRM, ERP and SR systems.
  • Put extracted data into spreadsheet.
  • Create pivot table.
  • Email report file to stakeholders.

Outcomes go beyond just a singular description of an action to undertake, they usually also have the following characteristics.

  • A why. This can be mundane or profound. The why serves as a driver for, well, why we are doing something. It attaches a degree of importance to the outcome.
  • A vision, structure, or mini-plan. This is a visualization of the process it takes to complete the outcome, and is usually the sequence of tasks of which the outcome is comprised.
  • A benchmark, result or completed vision. This is an image of what the outcome looks like when it’s done.

If you are familiar with Agile Development, you can think of an outcome as a story card or issue.

How This Looks in Real Life

Real Life

So this is all nice and good, but how does the relationship between outcomes and tasks play out in real life? How does it look as part of a productive day?

We like to follow the Agile Results Rule of 3.

This means that we set 3 outcomes for the day. And each of these outcomes may consist of 2-5 different tasks, and we want to list those out below the outcomes.

When start our day, we start with the “most important task” (outcome actually) first. We get that done, then move onto the second outcome, then the third.

For example, say my day has the following:

Outcome 1. 1 hour of content creation.

  • Mind map BLOG-23.
  • Mind map BLOG-26.
  • Write BLOG-32.
  • Find images for BLOG-20 and set to publish.
  • Upload additional images for BLOG-21.

Outcome 2. Clear inboxes.

  • Clear email inboxes.
  • Clear OmniFocus inbox.
  • Clear physical inbox.

Outcome 3. Compile proposal for CARD project.

  • Identify stakeholders.
  • Create outline of proposal.
  • Gather initial data and supplementary information.
  • Write proposal.
  • Write introduction.
  • Write conclusion.
  • Task up additional supporting data that needs to be gathered.

I would start my day with the most important outcome which is #1 (1 hour of content creation) and work through it task-by-task. I then move onto #2, and #3.

In Closing

That’s pretty much all you need to know about the difference between tasks and outcomes. 1 outcome, many tasks. Start with your most important outcome, and work through them until they’re all done. Make sure you implement this starting today!

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Last Updated: February 2, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. To distinguish between outcomes and task I describe an outcome as something that is done. After all you want it to be something that is realised at the end of the ride.

    Kitchen cleaned up
    1 hour of content created
    Proposal for CARD project created

    This way I look at it “with the end in mind” and I found that I focus better putting outcomes this way.

  2. I’ve found that setting outcomes really works best for “deep work”.

    I often see myself building up a pile of small one-step tasks in my task manager, where it really doesn’t make sense to split them up into even smaller tasks and make them an outcome. Stuff like reading and a long or complex e-mail, scanning a pile of documents or errands like changing a lightbulb. Planning only 2 og 3 outcomes for the day would be difficult (and the outcomes will likely only have one or two steps)

    My solution: I set an outcome called “clear to-do list” one or two times a week (maybe three if it’s a hectic week). The night before, I’ll extract tasks from my task manager and create a to-do list for the next day. My outcomes for the day could be: “Write report X for project A”, “Plan agenda for meeting Y” and “Clear to-do list”, each with 3-6 tasks. First I’ll do the most important one, then the other one – and then clear to-do list as the last one (this will rarely be the M.I.T.).

    Of course, this approach is conflicting with the “single focus” rule, since the to-do list can include stuff from different projects, and maybe something that’s not work-related, like ordering a train ticket. What do you think – What’s the most efficient way to get the smaller tasks done, so one can get back to spending time and energy on deep work?

  3. Nice post. You have well described this Blog. I believe many factors influenced the outcome of our efforts. I believe managing time is an important aspect of all. The company’s success is depending on how well the they manage their time.

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