How to Break Down Big Tasks to Boost Your Productivity

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When you try to tackle a task that is too big for a single work session or strategy, it can feel like running right into a brick wall. Productivity can plummet, morale can suffer, and a general state of stress and anxiety can ensue.

The next time you come up against a task that feels too big to handle, follow these steps to break it down and meet the challenge one step at a time:

1. Brainstorm then order action steps.

When you’re not sure how to approach a big task, get out a pen and notepad. Start by brainstorming all of the things you’ll need to do in order to accomplish it. The right starting point will become clear once you see them all on paper.

Say you want to develop and launch a new product. It’s a big task, but you probably know the smaller steps:

  • Research product-market fit.
  • Wireframe the design
  • Develop a minimum viable product
  • Beta-test the product.
  • Analyze the beta test results.
  • Research the best time to launch the product.
  • Make alterations and re-test the product (and repeat if necessary).
  • Develop a marketing campaign.
  • Make alterations (if necessary).
  • Develop a marketing campaign.
  • Officially release the product.
  • Follow up with customers for feedback.

Even to someone without a background in product development, that order probably makes intuitive sense. But it can be tough to see that until you’ve actually listed everything out.

2. Don’t overthink things.

For most people, writing down the individual steps involved in a project makes approaching them easier. For others, though, it can trigger a case of analysis paralysis.

If you find yourself in that boat, don’t think about the project as a whole. Focus just on that first step: What do you need to do in order to get the ball rolling? Thinking beyond the step immediately ahead of you only puts more stress and pressure on your shoulders.

Mentally simplifying projects, especially at their outset, makes you more motivated. Keep a map of the broader project tucked away so you can reference it without giving it brain space all of the time.

3. Group similar tasks together.

As you work through the individual steps in a project, it’s wise to group similar ones together. Performing multiple actions that are closely related is known as batching, and it can be a great way to knock out large parts of a project quickly. 

Say you’re building a website and need to create an individual page for a dozen different products. Create all of the pages at once. Then, go back and write all of the product descriptions in a row. After that, go back and add the back-end metadata to every page. You get the idea.

Batching similar tasks lets you get into a flow state. Not only will that mental state make you more productive, but it will help you enjoy the work.

4. Tackle tough tasks during your prime time. 

It’s important to be aware of when you do your best work. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was famous for writing as soon after first light as possible. Many others find that their prime working hours are in the late morning or the wee hours of the night. 

Identify your own “prime time,” and schedule the hardest parts of your project for those periods. Once you have a list of subtasks, you should be able to identify which things will be easy to do and what items may require a bit more work — physically, mentally, or both.

5. Schedule your time.

In the words of William Penn, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” If you don’t make an effort to schedule your time, you’re going to get bogged down as you go along. 

Schedule not just each phase or subtask of your project, but your entire day. Designating time to do things like respond to client emails and exercise ensures you don’t let other important priorities fall by the wayside as you make progress on your initiative. 

Proper scheduling will also give you the opportunity to take breaks regularly. Breaks are a critical part of maintaining long-term productivity.

Avoid working on the same task for more than two hours at a time without giving your brain a rest. Schedule a ten-minute break every two hours, or at least switch to a lighter task at that time.

6. Celebrate milestones, even the small ones

When you finish a step in a massive project, it’s tempting to move on immediately. Don’t: The way you handle those small wins dictates your future progress.

The human brain is reward-oriented. If you train it to expect good things when you finish a task, you’ll be all the more motivated to tackle future ones more efficiently.

Be sure, though, to reward yourself in healthy ways. Try:

  • Taking a walk
  • Making yourself a healthy meal
  • Booking an experience for yourself
  • Brewing a cup of tea or coffee
  • Calling a friend

Every massive accomplishment started with a single step. Plan well, schedule things smartly, give yourself plenty of breaks, and recognize the good work you do. Keep at it, and you’ll be there sooner than you know it. 

About Jon Bradshaw

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