How to break down a huge task


Today’s conversation is brought to you by a colleague of mine. In a mental health-dedicated group on our intranet, they talked about how they just can’t get started on large tasks, and it sparked a conversation that I thought was really constructive. Here are some takeaways.

Our first reaction when we see a post like this is to try and figure out the root cause of the freeze. Is it because they don’t know how to manage their time? Is it because they can’t focus for a long time at once, so they never get started for more than a few minutes? Or maybe it’s because the task seems to daunting and they feel they’ll never finish it?

Starting from there, different solutions arise. If it’s a matter of managing time, the Eisenhower matrix is a good tool.

Urgent Not urgent
Important Do now Schedule on calendar
Not important Delegate, automate or decline Delegate, automate or decline

As it turns out, that wasn’t my colleague’s issue. They knew what to delegate and what do take care of. They had time blocks scheduled in their calendar. They just didn’t know what do to during those time blocks. They also implemented the Pomodoro method, so it wasn’t an attention issue either.

So we moved on to the second piece of advice: take your huge task, and divide it into less-than-30 minute tasks. Divide it as much as you can. Yes, formatting is a task. Writing the introduction? That’s a task. Researching one specific link you found? Yep, that’s a task. Everything is a tiny task. Tiny tasks are manageable.

Our colleague said that no, no, the matter wasn’t the task size. They had broken down the project into tiny tasks, that was done perfectly. No, what they got stuck on was this: once they had broken up the project into small tasks, they had a long list of things to do. Where could they start?

Finally, a problem we could solve together!

We suggested dividing those tasks into two categories: things you can do right now, and things you can’t do until you’ve finished one of the tasks in the first category. From there, our colleague could number each of the tasks they could take care of first. Once they had all tasks in a proper list, they could roll a die and get the universe to choose where to start first (and if they didn’t want to start there, they could roll it again, but at least it gave general guidance and removed choice paralysis).

(That’s also how I deal with my ridiculously long list of books to buy and read, for what it’s worth.)

What do you think of that method? Do you have any advice for improving it? I want to hear about you!

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