How to Break Down a Task

How to Break Down a Task

How to Break Down a Task

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In David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, he talks a lot about projects vs. tasks and how projects don’t belong on a task list.  The reason projects don’t belong on a task list is because projects take time, planning and multiple sessions to complete.  Nothing should go on a task list that can’t be completed in one step.

If you find you’re not getting some of the things done on your to-do list, perhaps the problem is that the tasks are too big.  Even if those undone tasks aren’t technically projects, perhaps they still need to be broken down into manageable chunks that fit better in your time budget and motivation level.

I break down bigger tasks into bite-size pieces all the time!  For example, I don’t like cleaning house but I do like having a clean house.  If I write on my task list

Clean house

It’s obviously vague enough and overwhelming enough that it’s easy to ignore.  But if I break it down a little, it’s more doable:

  • Dust
  • Master Bathroom (dump trash, sink, toilet, shower/tub, floor, glass, wash rug)
  • Main Bathroom (dump trash, sink, toilet, shower/tub, floor, glass, wash rug)
  • Glass
  • Dump trash
  • Change sheets
  • Kitchen (microwave, stove top, sink, cabinet fronts, change sponge)
  • Mop

If you find that you’re still struggling to get the house clean, you can break it down even more.  Instead of doing the whole house at one time, try one room at a time and list each individual chore for that room.  Let’s clean the living room:

  • Dust
  • Vacuum upholstery
  • Vacuum dog bed
  • Clean windows inside, as needed
  • Wipe any spots off wood furniture
  • Vacuum rug
  • Sweep floor
  • Mop

You can either do all those tasks in one sitting or work on them on and off all day.  Marking off eight tasks makes me feel much more satisfied than marking off one (clean living room).

If you’re working on a paperwork project, like doing your taxes, you could break it down like this:

  1. Make a tax folder or retrieve tax folder
  2. Gather information you already have
  3. Make a checklist of what’s still needed
  4. Start gathering information
  5. Download turbo tax
  6. Input information
  7. Print taxes
  8. Mail taxes

If you’re working on a craft project with a deadline, like a quilt, you can break it down, too.  Here’s what I usually do:

  1. Decide on a design.
  2. Figure how much fabric is needed.
  3. Purchase fabric.
  4. Wash fabric.
  5. Iron fabric.
  6. Cut pieces (if I have a lot, I would probably break this down, too – maybe by color or piece size).
  7. Sew top together (again, if it’s a big quilt, I would probably subdivide this).
  8. Add borders.
  9. Iron.
  10. Sandwich quilt.
  11. Quilt (I would definitely subdivide this step. If I had a deadline, I’d figure out how many squares I needed to do each day in order to finish on time and then I would make a chart for my planner.)
  12. Wash quilt.
  13. Take photo.

I also use subdividing for organizing.  I clean my desk off regularly but it always ends up a big mess again.  Cleaning it off is overwhelming!  So you know what I do?  This is going to sound really dumb, but on my to-do list, I put

Desk (5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5)

Each of those 5’s represents 5 minutes.  I have a timer on my desk which always shows either 5 or 15 (15 minutes is my other magic tool).  I set the timer for 5 minutes and do as much as I can.  Then I walk away.  I come back later, when I have 5 minutes free, and do it again.  It’s absolutely amazing how much I can accomplish in 5 minutes.  By the time I finish 30 minutes of 5’s, I’m done.  Sometimes it doesn’t even take that many.

See what I mean?  Most of the time I can’t handle a task on my list like:

Make a quilt
Clean the house
Do taxes
Clean off desk

It’s overwhelming.  So any time I can, I subdivide.  It’s like a miracle!  If you’ve never done it, you should give it a try.  You might be surprised at how much more productive you are when you break down your tasks into tiny, little bites.  Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

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Born in Kentucky, I am a wife and mom to 1 son and 2 daughters . I have an ink pen obsession, as well as a love for all things planner. I have been married for 10 years to my high school crush. I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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20 thoughts on “How to Break Down a Task

  1. If a task is really, really big, then I might break it down, especially if I’m not sure what I’m doing (this happened at work with an enormous project where I ended up not having any help at all). But for the most part, it’s more of a way of thinking than anything. Like on a novel, it’s easy to think, “The novel is big! I’ll never finish it!” So I focus on thinking about writing only the scene I’m in and not thinking about the bigger goal of the entire. But if I were to break a task like doing the taxes down into the level that you have here, it would drive me crazy and then I would get overwhelmed — even though this is a very small project — and put it off until I had to do it.
    But I also think in big picture terms. The whole often doesn’t feel as overwhelming as the broken down parts do. There’s a cartoon for how visual spatial thinks. They have the non-VS, and he’s got this model airplane he’s building and he’s breaking it down into each step. Then the VS-person is jumping to big picture — the plane. That’s me.

    1. We’re opposites, Linda – well, some of the time. Sometimes the big picture does seem less overwhelming but other times I need the detailed list. I don’t think I realized it until you said this.

  2. Housecleaning is usually where my mind goes to mush. Ive tried breaking it down by room, details for each room, nope. I’ll try out your 5 minute method. Usually, I don’t have a problem lumping projects and tasks together. Many moons ago, I had separate sections for tasks and projects, but my brain just saw them as things to get done. So those sections became a master list. Ye older brain isn’t doing “sections” too well. Maybe it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Or, it could be laziness.

  3. homey- great tips.
    i call it “small steps”. for my desk, i divide it into areas.
    your tips for cooking etc usually have broader application, like these for house cleaning.
    doug

  4. I really like your 5 5 5 5 idea! Now, what is your idea for making myself disciplined enough to apply it instead of sitting here playing on my computer?

  5. Hi Patty! I had to leave you a comment and tell you how frequently I use your tips for motivation! (I’ve read your blog for a long time but have never commented before.)You have inspired me to try out using a planner, something I have never done before! I can’t wait to try your 55555 trick and see if breaking jobs down helps me be more productive! ( I am a mom with three children, the oldest is three and the youngest is five weeks with a 18 month old in the middle; I really need to be productive! 🙂 ) Your blog is always so inspiring and encouraging; it’s one of my favorites! Thanks so much for writing!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words.

      I say the 55555 trick is like a miracle. It really is. Especially when you have young kids – sometimes 5 minutes is all you can squeeze out but it can make a really big difference.

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