Breaking Down

Instead of Falling Apart

Large tasks are overwhelming. Tasks that loom large in our minds or our emotions are overwhelming. The uncertain scopes of unexamined tasks are overwhelming. It all seems overwhelming, at least at first. But no one completes large tasks, only smaller tasks that appear large from a distance. You’re already right in front of your next task.

How can you break down your most overwhelming tasks into smaller steps? How granular would you have to get before you can picture yourself completing the first task on that list? If you know how long you can work on a task before you’ll be interrupted or exhausted, how can you break off just enough smaller tasks to fit into that space? How can you wear those tasks down until they’re smaller than you or your stress?

The greatest individual barrier to accomplishments may be the inability to picture oneself completing each step. Separating out each step can lead to a list of tasks that overwhelms one with its length. And yet, so many todo systems and apps fail us by revealing every task it can with the perverse result of making it harder to pick out the one task we can complete next. You can’t expect to succeed - and others shouldn’t expect you to succeed - with a system that works against the grain of human psychology.

Instead, limit your view of this list where you can. If you can’t complete a task today, then leave it in a backlog you won’t see until it’s time to plan for tomorrow. If you can’t complete a task within the hour, then leave it in a backlog you won’t see until it’s time to plan for the next hour. Try to have no more than 1-3 tasks in front of you at a given time. The less that your subconscious thinks needs to be done, the easier it is to buckle down and just do what can be done.

What can you change about your system to make it work? Who can you ask for help with this? What kind of reminders energize you? What kind exhaust you? Track your results. Adjust course as necessary. Trim those tasks that no one, besides yourself, would notice if left undone (while respecting security, safety, and such, of course). Large tasks break our brains, but we can break them down before they do. Which overwhelming task will you break down next?