Breaking Tasks Down
Friday, April 28, 2023

Breaking Tasks Down

Intimated by the large projects? Add this simple techniqe to your toolbox.

Being faced with a large project or task can be daunting. Not knowing where to begin or exactly how you’re going to achieve the end result is overwhelming, intimidating, stressful, and often leads to procrastination. That’s where breaking tasks down can help.

Splitting a big job down into smaller microtasks makes it more approachable and doable, helping you focus on each individual part to deliver the completed project more efficiently.

Read on to find out why breaking tasks down helps improve productivity and how to organize your work to complete large tasks without the unwanted stress and anxiety.

What Does Breaking Tasks Down Really Mean?

A hand cuting a pie in eight pieces with knife

Breaking tasks down means just that — taking a large project or task and breaking it down into smaller, bite-sized pieces.

Some tasks require you to spend hours concentrating and focusing on one thing, which is impossible with our dwindling attention spans. By breaking jobs down, you create more manageable tasks that require just 25 or 30 minutes of concentration to complete.

Instead of your to-do list including a huge project, it’ll be full of smaller tasks. For example, you’ve got a slide presentation to prepare for next week’s meeting. Instead of having “Prepare a slide presentation” scheduled to be completed over a three-day period, you’d break it down into shorter, more manageable tasks, such as:

  • Research statistics
  • Write a 100-word summary
  • Create 4 bullet points
  • Find 3-4 graphics
  • Etc …

Why Breaking Tasks Down Works

Splitting large tasks down is effective at making us more productive due to how our brains function.

Brain Function Concept Illustration

Limited Brain Capacity

Unfortunately, the human brain is limited in the amount of information it can hold and the number of things it can focus on at any one time. We use our working memory when carrying out mental tasks and, although each person is different, the average number of items the working memory can hold at any one time is four.

When tasks have multiple parts to them, it makes sense to break them down into smaller bits, so our working memory can focus on one action at a time.

We Work Better With Goals

Whether you’re working alone, part of a team, or delegating to employees, it’s important to set clear goals to achieve the best results. This is commonly known as the Goal-Setting Theory, which was developed in the 1960s by psychologist Edwin Locke.

When you’re faced with a big job or project, the guidelines are often pretty vague. You understand the objective, but there’s very little guidance on how you get there.

For example, if you’re looking to launch a new website, your ultimate goal is to get the website ready to go live. But, having the instruction “Finish the new website” provides little direction as to how you go about doing so.

Breaking down the website build into individual elements means you have specific goals for each step of the project. Tackling these smaller components one at a time provides clear objectives and guidance, helping with motivation, focus, and efficiency.

How Breaking Tasks Down Helps Workflow and Productivity

Man working intensely on a big project at desk with laptop.

Breaking tasks down changes the way we work, honing efforts and focus to help improve workflow and productivity.

Improved Focus

Many large tasks come without specific instructions on how to get results and, as the Goal-Setting Theory tells us, we need clear goals to achieve. Without a proper plan and understanding of each component that goes into the larger goal, there’s often a tendency to multitask until you find yourself task-switching, wasting valuable time in the process.

Dividing the project into smaller, more manageable pieces lets you channel your focus into one task at a time, rather than trying to do too many tasks at once.

Prevents Procrastination

Along a similar line, without clarity and a clear vision of the actions needed, you’re more likely to procrastinate, even if you’re not usually prone to procrastination.

Instead of becoming overwhelmed by something that’ll take several hours to finish, splitting the job into 20-minute tasks makes it more doable and realistic to achieve. If you can see the finish line, you’re more likely to get on with the task at hand rather than avoid it.

Ease Stress

Having a large piece of work on your plate can be stressful. Worrying about how to tackle a project and achieve the desired outcome plays on the mind, leading to heightened anxiety and disturbed sleep patterns.

Smaller tasks help break down the psychological barrier to success that a large task can cause. 

Sense of Achievement

Breaking huge tasks down into microtasks means each job is shorter than the whole, allowing you to tick things off your to-do list more often. At the end of a work session, day, or week, you’ll have an increased sense of achievement with the number of things you’ve accomplished.

How to Break Tasks Down

Woman with her feet on desk making a list in her journal.

Breaking down tasks is a simple process of analysis, looking at the big picture, identifying what you need to do, and putting together a plan to get the job done.

Identify the Goal

The first step is to ensure you know what you’re aiming to achieve. What’s the ultimate goal? Without identifying exactly what you want the outcome to be, you can’t measure progress or know when the job is done.

The goal needs to be more specific than simply “Prepare a slide presentation.” Who is the presentation for? What information do you need to get across? How long should the presentation last?

Asking the relevant questions should lead to a much more detailed goal, such as “Prepare a 5-minute presentation and slide show for a board meeting in 7 days on current industry trends.”

Split the Task Into Phases

Once you understand the aim, you can begin analyzing the task as a whole. Like most things in life, each project has a beginning, middle, and end. With the presentation example, this could be:

Preparation: Research and prepare statistics and visuals.

Execution: Write the presentation and design the slides.

Reviewing: Double-check the information, ensure the presentation meets the brief, incorporate feedback, and practice timing.

Separating the project into phases gives you a skeleton plan to help guide you through the next step.

Break Down the Phases Into Microtasks

Now you have a rough outline of the steps that’ll help you achieve your goal, it’s time to break the phases down into individual tasks. Think about the steps needed at each stage of the process. For example, the preparation phase for the presentation could look something like this:

  • Identify the four top industry trends
  • Research your closest competitor's latest product
  • Ask Dave for his report
  • Choose 4 or 5 appropriate graphics
  • Pick a background, font, and text color for the slides

The execution phase would include actions such as “Create four bullet points to summarize Dave’s report” or “Write 100 words describing each trend,” while the third phase would involve “Proofreading,” or “Implement any feedback.”

By the end of this breakdown process, you’ll have created a list of microtasks that will all contribute to delivering the final goal. Try to ensure each task can be completed in 20 or 30 minutes. If they’re likely to take longer, see if you can break them down further into even smaller actions:

  • Choose a graphic for industry trend 1
  • Choose a graphic for industry trend 2
  • Etc …

Prioritize Tasks

Now you have your new to-do list, work out any dependencies and the importance and complexity of each task to help determine how you’ll schedule your work day. What needs to be completed first, as other tasks are reliant on them? Which tasks are time-sensitive? Which are the most important and difficult tasks? Can anything be delegated?

This should allow you to effectively plan your time to attack each microtask at the right time and ensure you’re as productive as possible.

Create a Schedule

Careful planning is key to achieving the goal of completing and delivering the whole project on time. Split your day into chunks of time when you focus on each microtask. Aim to work on the more complex tasks during your most productive times, and the more straightforward jobs when your energy levels are at their lowest.

Stay on Track

The plan to break down a large task only succeeds if you stick to the schedule. Deviations mean you have to adjust the plan, which can lead to delays.

Utilize technology, such as Pomodoro timers or productivity apps, to help keep your plan on track. Limit distractions during your deep work sessions and when your focus should be on complex tasks by switching off your phone and using Do Not Disturb to prevent push notifications from interrupting you.

Break Those Tasks Down

Whether you’re prone to procrastination, worry, or anxiousness, or simply become overwhelmed by the thought of tackling large jobs, breaking tasks down is the answer.

Splitting tasks into smaller, more manageable microtasks helps you formulate a focused plan to achieve your ultimate aim. The job becomes more doable when you can attack shorter actions and tick them off your to-do list as you go along.

Taking the time to analyze a task and break it down before jumping in will save you valuable time in the long run and improve your chances of being productive and delivering the desired outcome as efficiently as possible.

Breaking tasks down is the key to working smartly and achieving the ultimate goal.

Jackie Smart
LinkedIn Profile

Breaking Tasks Down FAQs

What does it mean to "break tasks down"?

Breaking tasks down, also known as "chunking," involves dividing a larger task into smaller, manageable parts or steps. This approach makes it easier to tackle complex projects without feeling overwhelmed, as each part can be completed independently.

How can breaking tasks down improve productivity?

When tasks are broken down, they appear less daunting and easier to start, reducing procrastination. It also provides a clearer path to completion, allows for better planning and time management, and provides a sense of progress as each small task is completed.

How do I break tasks down effectively?

Start by identifying the final outcome or goal of your task. Then, think about the smaller steps or actions required to reach that goal. Each of these steps is a subtask. Try to make each subtask actionable and achievable within a set period.

Can breaking tasks down help with team projects?

Absolutely. Breaking down tasks in a team project can make it easier to assign specific tasks to different team members, improving efficiency and collaboration. It also helps ensure everyone understands their role in the project.

Can breaking tasks down help manage deadlines better?

Yes, by breaking a large task into smaller parts, you can assign individual deadlines to each subtask. This staggered approach helps prevent last-minute rushes and ensures steady progress towards the overall deadline.

Is there a limit to how much I should break tasks down?

It's important to find a balance. While breaking tasks down can make them more manageable, if tasks are broken down too much, you can end up spending more time planning than doing. Aim for subtasks that can be completed in one work session.

What should I do if I get stuck on a subtask?

If you're stuck on a subtask, it can help to break it down even further. If it remains challenging, consider seeking help or advice. Being stuck on a subtask doesn't mean the whole project is stuck, which is one of the benefits of task breakdown.

How can technology help in breaking tasks down?

There are various project management and to-do list apps that allow you to create task hierarchies or checklists. These tools can help you visualize the breakdown of tasks and track your progress.

Can I use task breaking for personal goals?

Yes, breaking down tasks can be helpful for personal goals like planning a trip, organizing an event, or achieving fitness goals. By breaking the goal down into manageable tasks, you make it easier to start and less overwhelming.

Is breaking tasks down compatible with other productivity methods?

Absolutely. Task breaking can be used in conjunction with other productivity techniques like time blocking, the Pomodoro technique, or the Eisenhower matrix. For example, you might break a task down into smaller parts, then use time blocking to schedule time for each part.

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