Hacking Your Executive Function: Breaking Down Large Tasks

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So we’ve taken a look at what might STOP you from beginning a task. But now we’re going to jump in to SOLUTIONS. Woohoo!!! Today’s post is all about taking a task that seems large or unmanageable and turning it into reasonably sized chunks that you can tackle with ease. It’s easy to tell someone “if a project seems really overwhelming, start by identifying each individual step”. But hey it turns out that converting one big project into many little tasks is hard so I’m going to give you the steps so you don’t have to figure it out yourself.

The first thing to do is to plan time for breaking a large task into smaller tasks. If you have a large project like a school paper, or even something like cleaning your whole house, allow yourself an hour that you set aside to write down or think through the steps. If you’re looking at something smaller like how to get everything into your backpack, take five minutes before you begin to plan.

In addition to setting aside time to plan, I’m also going to make a recommendation that sounds a little bit weird: half ass it. If you’re intimidated by the scope of a project, it feels too large, you don’t have the energy to do all of it, don’t plan to do all of it. Doing one dish is still better than doing no dishes, and by the time you’ve started running the water and broken out the dish soap you might feel up to doing one or two more dishes or maybe even the whole sink full. Don’t feel ashamed of working on a chunk that seems pointlessly small, because you’re still getting something done. Sometimes it’s not just putting all the steps in order, it’s also the scope that feels overwhelming and you might think that a particular task can’t be broken down further. It can be! start with the smallest increment possible and work up from there.

Ok, now let’s get into the meat and potatoes.

I’d suggest starting by looking at the project you have to complete and listing off all the different things that need to get done. You don’t necessarily need to put them in order yet, just start writing down everything you can think of that will need to happen before you say “it’s done”! For example if I’m writing a paper I might say I need to research, I need to write a draft, I need to edit, I need to print it or e-mail it.

If you’re having trouble coming up with these steps, you can think about the different phases you might need. For example in writing this book I had to have a phase of content creation, a phase of pencil drafts, a phase of digital drafts, and a phase of cleaning up those drafts. You might think about categories: if you’re planning a wedding you can look at the invitations, the venue, the food, the clothes, etc. Or you might imagine the different parts: when cleaning you can divide by the spaces that need to be tackled. Once you’ve got some large tasks, you might split them down into sub tasks, so if I say that I need to clean the living room I can break that into dusting, sweeping, picking up, and mopping.

The next step is to make sure that each task is fairly simple: it is actually just one thing, and that it’s not too big: it should only take 30 min-1 hour. If you look at one of your tasks and realize it seems unmanageable, you may actually have listed a multi-step task instead of a single-step task. So “research dogs” is not a great task. Instead you might break it into three parts: “go to the library and find books about dogs then read them, look up dogs online and find resources, speak with a dog expert.” If you look at each of those and find that you could spend more than an hour on each one, you can split it into three steps of the same thing, so you might write down “read books about dogs for 30 minutes” three times so that you know that’s the amount of time you plan to spend on it.

One good indicator of a strong task is that it has a very specific verb (not do, make etc. but outline, vacuum, etc) and it has a time constraint. Another way to break up longer tasks (like “write a first draft”) is to give yourself milestones. One goal would be “write the first 500 words” or “find three quotations to include”. I like to choose either milestones or time constraints to split up larger tasks.

From there you put them in chronological order. If you start to notice other things that need to happen as you think about the order, add those in. I find that using a digital format for writing out my outline is nice because I can copy and paste tasks where I want them, but you might want to use Post It notes or index cards so that you can stick them in the correct order.

Depending on the type of project you’re looking at, this is where you can assign yourself due dates or create a time line. I wouldn’t do this step for a project like cleaning my house, but if my project was decorating my house I would give myself one room to do each weekend for a few months. If you have a final due date it’s always a good idea to work backwards through your steps to figure out when you want your smaller due dates. I also love to work in a little bit of extra time in case I fall behind or need to add a step or want to review before I need the project finished.

So that’s it! If you are struggling to get started on something because you don’t know where to start, or you’re worried you don’t have the energy to finish all of it, start by walking through this post and breaking your project into tasks. Then all you have to do is follow the plan (so easy hahahaha).

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