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.
The pieces of advice in this post are so simple yet so great and useful, I cannot believe I didn’t come up with this by myself earlier! Thanks for the great ideas!
Glad this post was helpful for you, Jesus! 🙂
I Nyoman Indra Darmawan
Very helpful article. It really open my mind about manage complexity of many productivity apps i have been used. Without knowing how to break into smaller task. It is the key point.
Looks like simple information, but very powerful.
Very glad this was helpful to you. You are right, breaking down large tasks is a key point. Thanks for your comment! 🙂
This really is an excellent set of strategies for ADHD individuals such as myself! Starts with the whole picture and breaks down to the details. Excellent!!
Thanks, Sean! Glad you found the strategies helpful. 🙂
Completely agree. I struggle with ADD and have been looking for tips like these for a long time. Decided to stop searching for whole books on productivity (too overwhelming) and search for short, pithy, but excellently written and structures articles such as this one. Will definitely check out the authors other posts.
Wow, my mushy thoughts around breaking tasks down are way more solid now. You even figured out how to tie it back to timeboxing! Really amazing article. Thank you for sharing.
I am so glad the article could bring you some more clarity! 🙂
This post is amazing. I was looking for software recommendations that would do the splitting of tasks for me, but your guide is software-agnostic. I was so despearte and un-creative that I was expecting someone to solve this for me, but it was simply a matter of changing how I think about tasks! Thanks for taking the time to write this!
So happy to hear this article was so helpful to you! 🙂 Thanks for letting me know.
THANK YOU! I have been struggling with breaking down my project plans and from your post, have realized that I am doing these things but simply have been looking to make them complicated. Not believing I have been doing them “right”. I have picked up some great suggestions here and appreciate that you took time to write and post this.
So glad to hear that! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Plus one on the helpfulness of this article…and it was a joy to read!
So glad you liked it! 🙂
These tips are very useful for me. I have always struggled breaking multi-action tasks into bite-sized ones.
Glad the tips were useful! 🙂
these tips truly helped out an ADHD reader. It’s hard not to feel helpless when people keep throwing “break down daunting projects into smaller ones!” and don’t tell you how! The concept of milestones really helps me pace out the steps and organize a project. Thank you!
Really happy to hear that it helped you! haha I totally hear you on hearing generic advice without actual action steps! Always so grateful too when someone breaks stuff down step by step.
I watched a very motivating video of Elon Musk. It was about how he never gave up, which led to his great success. It led me to think about how he repetitively takes HUGE ideas and makes them come to life.
However, I couldn’t find anything about how he breaks down those HUGE ideas into actionable chunks. I came here hoping to find exactly what you wrote.
I’d love to see you do a case study on one of his companies, and watch you break down his progress. It would take significant research considering you arent him, and don’t know what’s in his head. Haha I believe with careful attention you could come very close to how exactly he progressed and make a close report on how he broke down his seemingly impossible goal into attainable and actionable bites. PLEASE give this a shot. It could help many others to eventually take their world changing ideas and make them reality.
I absolutely love this idea! It is mind boggling how some people have taken a big idea and turned it into reality. Seeing the exact steps they took and the actual process behind it would indeed be helpful to many. If I ever get access to Elon Musk, I will do my best. 🙂 But I might be able to find other inspirational people who want to share this. One step at a time. Thanks for your comment and the wonderful idea.
This is very helpful, thank you so much! I usually struggle with breaking down a project into small tasks. I have learned a few very good tips that I’m going to try right away, for instance to use specific verbs instead of “do x” or “finish y” which are not very useful… Thanks!
There’s an age-old question that asks: How do you eat an elephant? The answer: one bite at a time. Granted, you might not plan on eating any elephants any time soon, but this same adage can be applied to your business. When facing a big task, you focus on one step at a time, until those many smaller steps or tasks turn into big outcomes.
I like your blog. Its one of the best blogs online
Just the advice I needed. Love the concept of tastey tasks and not being longer than an hour. I hadn’t considered how a task made someone feel like before. Thanks
This is an amazing post. I go back to this once a month or so (this and the one on writing tasty tasks) as a refresher.
I can’t thank-you enough Christina.
Oh, that is great to hear. So glad these posts are helpful to you! 🙂
Wow what a great post, Amazing well done !!!