When you’re working on a substantial project, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task (or tasks) you’re responsible for completing. This feeling can prevent you from making progress, not only through damaging your morale but also through making your workload seem impenetrable (and thus impossible).
But just as you’d eat a large meal through small bites, you can get through any task — no matter how long and complicated — if you can break it down into manageable pieces. Once you’ve done so, you need only address those pieces one by one. In this guide, we take you through how to do this. Ready? Then let’s get started.
Before we run through a 5-step process for breaking down tasks into manageable pieces, it’s important to define exactly what a task is. This might seem like an obvious question to ask, but a typical answer — something like “A thing you need to do” — won’t be helpful when you’re trying to create a plan. Outlining your tasks is the first thing you need to do, and the difficulty lies in how finely you split your work.
You could define “Tie shoelaces” as a task, for instance, but you could just as easily narrow it down further into steps such as “Kneel down” and “Pull the shoelaces taut”. So how narrow should you go? Well, you should cut each project into tasks based on how long you expect them to take. One common framing of a task is something that takes between two days and two weeks, while another is something that takes fewer than 80 hours. Choose for yourself.
That “Tie shoelaces” action isn’t long enough to be a distinct task, obviously — whereas something like “Renovate the house” is far too long and must be broken down. Here’s a tip: if you can’t be very confident about how long something might take, imagine the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario and go with the middle point.
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So, let’s say you’re ready to start breaking down your new project into its component tasks. Start by identifying all your tasks: write down everything important that springs to mind, focusing on the required result, and working backward to figure out everything that’s necessary to get you through a successful project strategy.
Take this list and pass it to someone you’re working with on the project and/or someone who’s familiar with the overall goal. They might be able to point out some steps you’ve missed, or note that you’ve accidentally doubled-up on particular steps. They can also screen the list for big actions that need to be broken down further.
Once this is done and you’ve analysed the full list of tasks, you need to work out the task dependencies. It can help to sort them into the overall stages of your project, such as planning, preparation, and implementation. With a rough order set out, you can group tasks into smaller milestones (for example, you might have a sublist of tasks for each week).
Task analysis is the process of assessing exactly how a task can be completed (and ultimately determining how it should be completed). Each task is analysed to understand exactly how complicated it is, what resources it will need, what actions will go into achieving it, and how long it should take.
Once you’ve completed this process for all your identified tasks, you can define certain key elements for each one: where it fits into the order of priority, which person should be dealing with it (you, someone on your team, a freelancer, etc.), and how much time the chosen person will need to complete it to the required level of quality.
Let’s delve deeper into the ordering process. You can't just break down a project into a long list of tasks and start working on them in the order you thought of them (or pick out the easiest ones first). You need to prioritise your task list so that you know which tasks need to be done in which order for your project to keep moving forward.
Decide how you're going to prioritise them. It could be as simple as labeling tasks as Urgent, High Priority, Medium Priority, or Low Priority. Alternatively, you could use a method that prioritises them by importance and urgency, such as the Eisenhower decision matrix.
Once you've broken down your project and organised your tasks, you might find that some of them will take longer (or require more work to be completed) than is ideal. These complex tasks need to be broken down further, either into separate tasks or into subtasks that can be completed individually. It’s essential that each task be actionable.
If a given task will take several weeks to complete, it’s surely possible to break it down into different stages. To manage this, write out each action it will require, and estimate how long each of these actions will take. You’ll then be able to decide which of those actions should be distinct tasks and which should be subtasks.
After you've decided on task priority, you can set your time estimates, and define deadlines. This is especially important if one task is dependent on another one being completed first. You need to set realistic deadlines that will ensure all the work is completed by the overall deadline for the project - so it's important to clearly outline how long you expect each task to take.
To get a clear overview of a project's progress it's going to be helpful to group tasks into milestones that signify an identifiable part of the project is complete. Milestones should be aligned with your project goals to ensure that you make steady progress towards achievement. They’re vital for breaking up a big list of tasks into manageable chunks of work, making it easier for workers to make progress (and for project managers to monitor and assess that progress).
When you have an idea of timing, you can start assigning the tasks to relevant team members. Each of your assigned tasks must have enough detail for anyone who looks at it to understand those key points of when it’s due, where it stands in the list of priorities, who’s responsible for it, and what actions will be needed to get it done.
It’s a good idea to use a task management tool to store and organise all the tasks being worked on. You can use it to break projects down into tasks with start dates and deadlines that can be assigned to individual team members. The team will then have access to view the list of tasks assigned to them for different projects, and it's clear which ones they need to work on first.
With tasks assigned to different team members, you need a system in place to ensure that each task is completed on time. Keeping track of tasks manually is unproductive and time-consuming, and often leads to important project components being undervalued or overlooked entirely.
Using a task management tool like GetBusy, you'll be able to track all the tasks for each task and any team members involved will be automatically reminded about the tasks assigned to them until they complete them.
It's also really important to track the time spent on each task to make sure it doesn't take too long and it fits in with the project plan. Additionally, all time-tracking you carry out will leave you with vital information for scheduling future projects with comparable tasks.
For more information on task management read our blog on the best task management apps.
The 5-step plan outlined above is great for long-term task planning, but if you have a lengthy to-do list for your daily tasks, you can make your life easier by taking all the most pressing tasks and putting them into a separate list or view. After all, building up a huge list of tasks you aren’t actively working on will put more pressure on you and most likely leave you feeling that you’re not making good progress.
At the beginning of each day, make a note of any imminent deadlines and focus on those. Once you’ve picked out the tasks you need to get done quickly, it’s advisable to tackle the hardest ones first instead of putting them off. If this sounds too daunting, you could queue up tasks of alternating difficulty to help you stay productive throughout the day.
It’s also vital that you be flexible in your day-to-day scheduling, though. Keep an eye on the overview of every project you’re working on — you never know when a given task might be moved up or down the list of priorities (or taken off the project altogether). And if a priority task is dependent upon someone else doing something, acknowledge that you can do little more than push them to complete it promptly — while you’re waiting, there’s no sense in wasting time thinking about it when you could be doing something else.
Wrapping up, breaking tasks down into manageable pieces takes a bit of planning and effort, but it’s an important process that will help maintain productivity, enable thorough tracking of project progress, and ensure that work is completed on time. Use these tips to improve your task management and yield better results.