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:
- Hold one lace in each hand.
- Cross the laces to form an “X.”
- Grasp the center of the “X” with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.
- 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.”
- Add date and time of conference to calendar.
- Make appointment to have car serviced prior to travel.
- Pre-load travel route on GPS map.
- Brainstorm presentation ideas.
- Devise outline from brainstorm session.
- Review outline, expand upon it.
- Write first draft of presentation.
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.
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:
- Review calendar to identify free days.
- Call favorite mechanic’s shop to make appointment.
- Travel to garage on given day and time.
The beach trip would look like this:
- Confirm availability on target day.
- RSVP to teacher request.
- Buy sunscreen.
- Clean out cooler in basement.
- 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.