The Break Down that Prevents a Breakdown

The deadline for a significant project looms. Knowing it needs to get done and yet also knowing you haven’t started on it yet creates a pervasive gnawing at your brain. The dread can go anywhere from a sense of unease to full blown panic.

You know the anxiety will diminish as soon as you can get started but right now you don’t have what you need because what you need is a large block of time. In this large block of time you’ll be able to focus completely on this important project and, step by step, close loops on consecutive tasks until finally your project is wrapped up neatly and triumphantly.

You need a large block of time

And a large block of time is exactly what you’ll never get.

Deep down you already know this.  You also know that in order to get this project done you’ll have to break it down into manageable tasks — a concept that’s nothing new. Anyone who has tried to improve their own productivity knows about simplifying a project by defining tasks which when dealt with one at a time move progress forward bit by bit to completion.

But in the dozen plus years that I’ve been helping clients with just such challenges I consistently see an error which throws off the entire process and puts a roadblock in the path to getting things done.

That immobilizing error is that the tasks aren’t broken down into small enough pieces. Here’s how to know if your pieces are small enough.

A task is one step.  If an item on your task list includes more than one step, you have a sub-project not a task. Following, a very basic example and one that is more complex.

Basic —

If you need to make a call and have the phone number handy, that phone call is a task. If you have to acquire the phone number via quick research (call this a speed bump) before you can make the call, that call is a project which includes the tasks of acquiring the number and then making the call. If you have “make the call” on your task list and don’t have the number available, you’ll continually bypass the task and take care of perhaps less important tasks that don’t have speed bumps involved. This happened to a client of mine who was simply so busy he just kept passing over the phone call task, not even knowing the reason. By taking a second to examine why the task kept lingering, he realized not having the phone numbers was the speed bump. Sound like a “duh” moment?  It’s not.  I see it all of the time.

Complex —

What I see as well is the giant project that needs to be broken down. For instance, if you need to create or update a business plan, this is a complex project with many sub-projects each of which could involve dozens of tasks. Breaking down the giant project into manageable tasks is a project in itself and that’s the step most people skip!  For the business plan project you might have as your first task “find sample of business plan” (so you know what pieces you’ll need to develop) followed by “review sample business plan” and then “draft outline of business plan.”  With the draft outline in hand your sub projects can be defined and those can be broken down into tasks.

Sounds easy?

It’s deceptively simple, but not easy – which I know from helping many clients take on the breaking down of a complex project. Working as a team we get down to the very core of each task to make certain what’s on the task list is do-able as a task and that items are in the proper order. (Sometimes it takes two of us to get it done because it’s hard to maintain focus tackling it alone.)

As you break down your project the question to ask for each item is whether you’ll be able to complete that task in one step and in the order you’ve placed it on the list.  If you can’t complete it in one step, it must be broken down further.  And the order of tasks must be listed in the order you can complete them. Or as one of my more humorous clients puts it, “socks first, then shoes.”

Being faced with a complex project can create varying levels of anxiety  but by harnessing this process you’ll avoid overwhelm and worse – a breakdown.

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