“Task Creep”; Knowing When to Identify a Project as a “Project”

Many of us in our day to day working environments have been assigned “tasks” that seem so small that they can be completed almost as an afterthought of the regular work we have. “Sure Boss, I can knock that out today. I brought my lunch and will be at my desk for that hour. No problem to take care of this” Once you begin working on completing the “task”, you realize that you may need more than a lunch hour; what you thought might only need consultation from a co-worker actually needs work to be completed by them. Then there is a greater use of company resources than was initially expected.  Somewhere along the way, the “task” has become a “project” that you have become the de facto project manager of, but without all of the support or resource allowance that is normally allowed with a formally announced project. Yet, your supervisor is still expecting the “task” to be completed after lunch. What to do?

  • Communicate Right Away! As soon as you see that the “task” has morphed into a project, inform your supervisor. He/she may decide that it needs to be tabled until there are the proper resources for undertaking a project. Conversely, they may decide to make it a formal project and extend the resources you need to complete the project. The biggest misstep you can make is to try and impress your supervisor by completing the project haphazardly as if it still is a “task”. It is in situations like these that future tasks become bogged down with project like requirements that make them cumbersome and impossible to complete. By showing your supervisor that you are capable of triaging a “task” and determining if it is indeed more than that, he/she may trust you with more “tasks”; knowing that you will be honest about the true scope of the situation at hand.


  • Clarify the Expectations. Sometimes a “task” is just that. You may have started to do more than was initially requested, and turned an otherwise simple “task” into a project. The task you have been put in charge of completing may be part of a larger project that your supervisor has just not formally announced as a project, and your supervisor is acting as an ad hoc project manager.


  • Be Prepared With Estimates. Your supervisor may ask you how much time the project that was a “task” will take to complete. There may also be questions regarding cost and scope. Remember, your supervisor may have thought this something simple, and now you are telling him/her that it is much more involved. You will need to be able to convince your supervisor of this, or you risk your supervisor getting the task completed by another staff member. It may even be done sub-standardly, but because you did not express the true nature of the “task”, you risk a failure in the process that may wind up making your supervisor look bad.


By following these three easy steps, you can save yourself the hassle and danger that occurs when “task creep” is present.

5 thoughts on ““Task Creep”; Knowing When to Identify a Project as a “Project”

  1. I’m totally guilty of doing this! What usually begins as a simple request can become quite complex if I need to gather data from another department or if my outputs/data sources can’t be manipulated in a way that I expected. For the past few years, I’ve been encouraging my coworkers to use a shared database so that we can refine our marketing strategies and do more niche marketing. It’s gotten to the point where we have useful data and coworkers understand our data points, but sometimes the report requests get a little wacky. Adding a few additional criteria to a report can change it from a 5 minute run-report task to a half-day project analyzing in excel.

    To balance these requests, task creep, and my daily workload, I find myself constantly overestimating time, so I can deliver on time. In the past year, I also spent a bit of time improving my excel skills and learning VBA, to expedite some of these task-to-project items. Maybe what I ought to be focusing on instead is the communication of, “this looks like a project instead of a quick task. Do we want to devote my time to it, or should we instead look for ways to scale it back?” Like you mention above – communicating right away is key!

  2. These are all such excellent points! As I read them I can think of many examples where I was guilty of doing exactly the opposite of what you recommended. A lot of times my boss doesn’t understand how long something will take or maybe it’s that I just can’t help but dig into more details than he’s expecting. Either way I end up stressed out and frustrated when I’m asked why tasks are taking so long or when too many “tasks”, for which I don’t have time, show up on my desk. I will try to keep these three points in mind and most importantly will try to work on my communication. Thanks!

  3. This is a great post! I think this is something that a lot of people, including myself, deal with on a daily basis. One thing that I will take away from this is to clarify the expectations up front. There have been countless occasions where I have spent a good amount of my time working on a “mini-project” only to realize that this should have been treated more like a “task”. This is also great advice for managers. As a manager, explaining your expectation of the time invested to complete the task up front will pay great dividends and avoid frustrating your team members.

  4. I cannot agree more with Julia and Angela, I have also been guilty of doing this. working as lawyer in Law firm, when any last given to me with all the information in hand, it really used to take few hours to finish but before that task the preparation needed for facts findings used to take days and months involving various other task like consult to client,take advise from partners, due diligence and so on which definitely changes the characteristic of task to project. And to make project successful we need planning and estimates. somebody made good point in class that it is always good to under promise and over deliver, which is true when there are so many unknowns involved in the task.

  5. How true this post is! My group at work, Client Service & Marketing, is guilty of this as an entire department. One specific situation occurred when we were redesigning a marketing pitch book (presentation) – we were not winning at raising capital, even though we were in the top 3 finishers. So we looked at each situation where lost and tried to identify similarities in the feedback we were hearing…one consistent theme showed up: our story was too complicated, people did not walk away from the table from us understanding exactly what we do. So, we set out to recreate/redesign the materials with an estimate 7 to 10 business days to finish it (this allowed time for folks to work on other projects too). What started out as a “let’s change this graphic or let’s rewrite the sentence or move this slide forward” ended up being about a 6 week long process that was much more complicated than it needed to be. We had trouble pulling people to help because this wasn’t really a priority and the end result wasn’t much better than what we started with. I vowed then and there not to let tasks spiral out of control without someone in executive management signing off on it and the resources needed to finish it strong.

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