Do you want to feel like you got a ton of stuff done at the end of the day?
Do you want to make steady progress toward your life goals?
Of course you do!
The key to achieving this is to work off a daily to-do list and to make sure the tasks you put on your list are tasty tasks.
A tasty task is a task that is so well written that you almost can’t resist doing it.
One key feature of any tasty task is that the task will take you no longer than 1 hour to complete! And if you struggle with procrastination and/or staying focused for long periods of time, your maximum task length should be smaller still — closer to 30min.
This sounds easy enough in theory. But many people struggle with creating small tasks.
If you have a huge task on your to-do list right now and are wondering how to make tiny bite-sized tasks out of it, this guide is for you!
How to break down a large task into small tasks
A step by step guide
Each of the following steps will help you break your large task into smaller pieces, each being a nice action step you can act on right away when you see it on your to-do list.
1) Define: project or task?
First, let’s think about if our “task” is really a project. It’s wise to make a clear distinction between tasks and projects.
A task is something you can do more or less in one sitting. If something takes you several months/weeks, multiple days or even the better part of a day it is best to think of your “task” as a project.
You might associate the word project with something from the corporate world or school. But almost anything we want to do and achieve can be thought of as a project. And it is actually a really good idea to turn most goals into projects!
So, is your task really a project? If so, continue to step 2.
If your task is not a project, but rather just a really long task, then skip ahead to step 3.
2) Break a large project into milestones
If your giant task turned out to be a project, let’s check if your project is so large that it should be broken down further into individual milestones.
Here are two general rules to follow when it comes to milestones:
- If a project spans multiple months of work, create monthly milestones.
- If a project spans multiple weeks of work, create weekly milestones.
There are different ways to break a project into milestones and the best way depends on the nature of the project. But it is always important to clearly define what reaching a milestone entails.
Here are a few ways a large project can be broken down into smaller subprojects (aka milestones):
- different phases (e.g. when creating something: planning, producing, testing/refining)
- different categories (e.g. when planning a party: entertainment, food, invites)
- different parts (e.g. when cleaning your house: living room, bathroom, bedroom)
At this step you don’t have to think about all the tasks inside the project yet. You are just trying to break the project down into smaller chunks which will make it easier to think of all the action steps involved.
3) List out the steps
Take your large task or project and envision the individual steps you will do to finish the project. Write each one down.
Don’t worry too much yet if the steps are too long or short. Just write every step down in a brainstorm kind of way.
If you are struggling with thinking of concrete action steps, it could be a sign that you are not familiar enough with the type of project or task and need more info.
In that case, just think of the steps you need to take in order to gain more clarity. Write them down as tasks:
Figure out who can help me plan project X
Contact Person Y to ask how to do project X
Read up on how to do project X
Google how to do project X
Sometimes a project is just very complex or needs to stay flexible and you can’t list all the steps in advance. For those projects, just make sure you always have at least the next 2-3 action steps listed out so there is always something to do.
After this step you should have a list of much smaller steps already. Now ask yourself for each step, how long will this take me? If the answer is longer than 1 hour (or whatever upper limit you decided) go to step 4 to break your task down further.
If a task will take you less than 1 hour to do but still feels a bit complex, also read through step 4 to see if you want to break it down further.
4) Break multi-step tasks into single-step tasks
Often we combine multiple steps into a single task. This is completely fine for sequences we are performing all the time, like making a phone call. We wouldn’t write out: pick up phone, navigate to dial screen, type in number, press call. But if we were making a note for our grandmother we would… because she is not used to the sequence.
So think about how easy this step is for you to perform if you had to do it right now. If it really feels like a single simple action to you, go to step 5.
Otherwise we want to break this multi-step task into single-step tasks.
Often multi-step tasks use broad verbs: “do”, “finish” or “work on”. (If you don’t use verbs in your tasks, read this post on how to write good tasks.)
So try to use more specific verbs for your smaller tasks. The more specific the verb, the easier it will be for your brain to ease into the action when it’s time to get the task done.
For example, if your large task/project is: “Do Taxes” you can break it up into the following steps:
Make checklist of documents needed for taxes
Find all documents on checklist
Download all tax documents
Buy “TurboTax” Software
Ask John if he will sit and do taxes with me
Fill out tax forms
Bring taxes to the post office
You should now have a list of steps that are highly focused on single actions. But your individual steps might still take longer than your ideal task size… When will this end?!
Almost there! We are getting to the last 2 techniques.
5) Break long stretches of work into smaller sessions
To break down a single step action into smaller tasks, you can use a nifty trick called time boxing.
Time boxing is adding an artificial time limit to a task. Let’s take the tax example from before: We estimate that actually filing the taxes will take us 3 hours.
We can then create three identical tasks, each one hour long:
File taxes for 1 hour
File taxes for 1 hour
File taxes for 1 hour
As soon as you get to work on this you will start a 1 hour timer and check off the task when the timer is up.
If you need longer to complete the filing, make more time-boxed tasks. If you finish sooner, remove the extra tasks. Easy peasy.
Alternative to time boxing
Similarly, you can break down large tasks by other numerical units:
Fill out 2 pages of tax report
Read 5 pages of…
Email 3 people
Write 300 words on…
Do Exercises 2.3 and 2.5
Sort out one box of old stuff
After going through all these steps you should now have nice bite-sized tasks you can do one at a time.