Breaking projects down into simple, achievable steps

Years ago I worked as a special needs teacher, creating and implementing educational goals for students with autism and other developmental delays. It was an amazing experience and, in many ways, has affected the way I manage projects and tasks today. A few tricks I learned back then now help to keep me productive and confident, even when my project list is overwhelming.

Break It Down

My students, being individuals, performed best under teaching conditions tailored to their abilities. We’d identify their strengths and areas of need and go from there. I also found that certain methods benefited a large number of students, including the practice of breaking complex tasks down into small, sequential steps. Once the first step was learned, the second step was introduced. After that, the third, fourth, and so on. Eventually, many of our students could perform all of the small steps in succession, thereby completing a larger task. Today, I use this technique when devising the steps that must be completed before I can mark a project as “done.” Here are two examples:

Learning to tie one’s shoe is challenging for most kids. However, the individual steps that lead to a properly tied shoe are simple:

  1. Hold one lace in each hand.
  2. Cross the laces to form an “X.”
  3. Grasp the center of the “X” with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.
  4. Push the left lace through the opening at the bottom of the “X.”

You get the idea. While “tie your shoes” is tricky, “hold one lace in each hand” is not. The same goes for the projects we must complete in our personal and professional lives. “Get ready for the conference” is complex and possibly overwhelming. If you’re like me, you’ll avoid something so daunting. To make it more manageable, identify some of the steps that must be completed before this project can be marked as “done.”

  1. Add date and time of conference to calendar.
  2. Make appointment to have car serviced prior to travel.
  3. Pre-load travel route on GPS map.
  4. Brainstorm presentation ideas.
  5. Devise outline from brainstorm session.
  6. Review outline, expand upon it.
  7. Write first draft of presentation.
  8. Etc.

There are two things to notice here. First, each small task is easily accomplished and leads to the next one. Also notice that every task on the list starts with an action verb.

Action Steps

The key to burning through your to-do list is clearly defining what must be done. “The presentation” is not a good action step. “Write first draft of presentation” is. The difference is that the first word is a verb. In fact, all of the steps listed above start with a verb. Try it when writing your own to-do lists. It’s great to know exactly what must be done.

What is a Project?

David Allen defines a project as “anything that requires more than one action step to be completed” (is my fascination with David Allen obvious yet?). This means that things we might not consider projects actually are projects. In my example above, get ready for the conference, definitely is. But so is getting an oil change for the car or volunteering for a 3rd grade field trip to the beach. Going back to my days as a teacher, I’d break down the oil change project like this:

  1. Review calendar to identify free days.
  2. Call favorite mechanic’s shop to make appointment.
  3. Travel to garage on given day and time.

The beach trip would look like this:

  1. Confirm availability on target day.
  2. RSVP to teacher request.
  3. Buy sunscreen.
  4. Clean out cooler in basement.
  5. Gas up the car.

Breaking projects into small, easily achieved tasks is beneficial in many ways. First, it makes a big project seems less daunting. It also allows you to clearly define exactly what must be done, and provides a real sense of being on top of things.

8 Comments for “Breaking projects down into simple, achievable steps”

  1. posted by LoriBeth on

    We did something similar for our camping trip last month. We made a “needs to be done before” list, i.e. making car rental/tent site/fixing beach umbrella string, wash beach towels – “to pack” list – and a “to buy” list for groceries, sunscreen, etc. It worked so well for us, since both my sister and I are scatterbrains. We had the entire car packed in less than 2 hours, and were ready to roll the next morning with no fuss.

  2. posted by Erika on

    I agree with the “babysteps” approach, and use it often…but I do have to be careful I’m not confusing the planning of the steps with the actual doing of the tasks. I think a lot of people use the planning time to feel productive without actually getting much done. Sometimes it takes less time, and is less overwhelming, to just go get my oil changed.

  3. posted by Patty Gardner on

    I like to make charts. Having boxes to highlight or check off is motivating and it helps me see my progress. I definitely have to break things down into steps or I never start!

  4. posted by Charlie on

    I couldn’t agree more about breaking projects into small chunks. Two years ago I watched Joshua Becker speak at our local church on minimalism, and he said start small. Start so small as a junk drawer or a small closet. Either way, just accomplishing something small will help you feel like you’ve started, and will be the building blocks.

    I’m going to use your tips breaking down my wife and I’s projects for next weekend when the in-laws have the kids! :) Starting my list now!

  5. posted by heathercheryl on

    I do this for most of my projects, even a large family Holiday dinner. I list all the things that need to be done in order from the menu to the shopping list, to the shopping, to the preparation of some dishes ahead of time, to the house and table preparation, making sure only the essentials are left for the day of the dinner. My list is extensive and posted on the fridge door. The day of the event I am prepared, organized and relaxed.

    I learned to do this years ago when I watched a friend prepare to paint my whole house and do minor renovations. He wrote a list of every single step in order, from buying the painting materials through to the final steps of cleanup and replacing the furniture. He told me he did this for all his big projects.

  6. posted by Pamela on

    Yes! I do this all the time. As a certified Project Manager(PMP) we employ the ‘work breakdown structure’ or WBS when planning projects- each task is accounted for, and each task likely has a predecessor, which must be completed before the task can be done.

    In my personal life, I often use project management concepts when planning events or major tasks like re decorating.

  7. Profile photo of DavidCaolo

    posted by DavidCaolo on

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone! Glad to know I’m not the only one who does this.

  8. posted by Ben Jones on

    You are absolutly not alone in this. I think most of the time it is better when starting out on any project, job, etc.

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