How To Break Projects Down Into Tasks

When you’re faced with a big project, it can be overwhelming. Even more so when you’re working to tight deadlines.

Not knowing where to start can cause stress and panic and lead to that dreaded time and productivity killer: procrastination.

But there’s no need to panic because the reality is, if you can complete a single task, you can complete a project.

That’s because a project is simply a series of single and interconnected tasks that need to be completed to achieve a particular goal!

I’m sure you’ve heard advice about breaking things down into bite-sized chunks, elephant burgers, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and all that.

And the thing is, it really works!

But what exactly does it entail and how do we go about it?

Well, that’s what I want to look at here because breaking down projects is more than just noting down a list of tasks that need to be completed.

So, in this post, I have attempted to put together a simple process you can follow to break everything down and get those projects finished before you know it. It doesn’t matter whether your project is an essay assignment, a home improvement project or a client business proposal – you can use this same process to break everything down.

1. Start with the big picture

It doesn’t matter what kind of project you’re working on, it usually helps to start by confirming you have clarity on what it is you’re trying to achieve.

I compare this to building a Lego set – you have your set of tasks laid out clearly in the instruction manual, but it always helps to see the picture of the completed project on the front of the box, so that you can visualise where you’re headed as you’re working your way through the building process.

Of course, projects rarely come with the luxury of an instruction manual, so you’ll need to map this out yourself.

The first thing you need to do is to get everything out of your head.

Some projects will require you to complete a large number of tasks and the human brain has limits to the amount of information it can process. So never rely on memory to know what you’re supposed to be doing next.

Start by identifying and making a list of steps that need to be taken to complete your project. I sometimes do this in the form of a hand-written mind map.

When doing this, consider that tasks can be broken down into phases, into parts, by theme, by duration and by difficulty. The nature of your project will determine which of these apply.

There may be tasks that are overlooked at the beginning but become apparent later. That’s fine. Just map out everything that occurs to you at this point.

Once you have done that, check each task and identify any bigger chunks that can be divided into smaller tasks or sub-tasks.

2. Prioritize your tasks

The next step is to rank the tasks according to priority. I consider four main factors when doing this:

~ Some tasks will be more critical to the success of the project than others.
~ Some tasks may be more time-consuming than others.
~ Some will be dependent on others being completed first.
~ And some will require more focus and attention than others

If you want to get really serious you can use a Gantt chart and there are some specialist productivity apps that can handle things like task dependency (which I hope to cover at a later date), but I use the following basic spreadsheet to help me organize out my tasks:

How critical: 1=High, 2=Medium, 3=Low
Focus Rating: 1=High, 2=Medium, 3=Low
Estimated Duration: in minutes
Dependent on others: Yes or No

This is not particularly sophisticated and has its limitations, but laying out my tasks in this way enables me to quickly see which ones take priority. When I add up the sum of the estimated duration for all of the tasks, I will also have an idea of how long the project is likely to take me.

Having some clarity makes it easier to do the next part, which is scheduling.

3. Create a schedule

Work backwards from the deadline and calculate how much time you have available to work on the project.

My personal preference is to never plan right up to the deadline because things invariably go wrong or take longer than expected. Therefore I tend to shift the deadline forward by 48 hours (or more if possible), which creates some wiggle room in the event of delays and unforeseen problems cropping up.

Exactly how you schedule the tasks will depend on your current schedule and commitments.

But, if for example, your deadline in is 12 days’ time and the total estimated duration of your tasks is 10 hours, you know that blocking out one hour per day to work on the project will suffice and still give you the 48 hours’ wiggle room before the deadline.

Read more: How To Create A Schedule >>>

4. Use time blocking

Scheduling is the practice of putting things in your diary. For example, “Appointment with John from 1:30 pm-2:30 pm”, “Meeting with the boss at 4 pm”, etc.

Time blocking takes this a bit further and is the practice of blocking out and protecting whole periods of time for specific activities.

This is an effective way to manage your time as it allows you to “theme” your blocks, meaning that you can create an environment in which allows you to focus on one particular type of task at a time, without being distracted by other, non-related tasks.

For example, I have times during the week that are blocked out specifically to write content for this blog, which for me has a high Focus Rating, so I don’t look at anything else during this blocked-out time, which gives me the best possible chance of completing a post within the time I have allocated to it. Trying to write a bit here and a bit there in between numerous other tasks just isn’t an efficient way of working.

Read more: How To Use Time Blocking >>>

5. Set milestones

For big projects, you might want to review where you are on a weekly basis to ensure that you are on track to complete by the deadline.

Feedback, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, keeps us moving forward.

Other tips

  • Using strategies such as the Pomodoro Technique can help break things down further and really help you to work with laser-focus for short bursts of time
  • Be clear about the definition of “done”
  • Reward yourself when a task has been completed or a milestone reached
  • Try using a kanban board if you like to keep a helicopter view of your workflow

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

Breaking projects down into bite-sized chunks is a strategy that works well for several reasons.

Firstly, psychologically, handling one task at a time is far less daunting than facing the project as a whole.

Secondly, we know that multi-tasking is not an efficient way to work, so breaking a project down into clear, single tasks and then focusing on each one until it has been completed is the way to go.

Thirdly, we can exploit the fact that we humans hate delayed gratification. So, breaking a big project down into tasks gives us the opportunity for numerous dopamine rushes in the short term.

When your brain releases those hits, we’re motivated to do what we need to find the next one. Scientists call this self-directed learning.

I prefer these small, frequent dopamine rushes that result from crossing off small tasks because, from my own experience, the completion of a big project never results in much excitement anyway – it’s usually more of a feeling of relief.

Lastly, finishing each small task feels like an accomplishment and helps to build momentum for the next one.

[Featured image credit: Gerd Altmann]

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