Break projects into small tasks for increased success

autumnleaves“Write article” is unfathomable to me. “Brainstorm ideas” is not. This is how I get through the day. If not for a house full of autistic kids, I never would have had that realization.

My malfunctioning brain puts every task into one of two categories: easy or impossible. Most people, I’ve learned, have more than two. For example, when I consider raking the autumn leaves in the yard, I step outside and see what looks like every leaf that has ever existed, spread across a track of land the size of the Louisiana Purchase. I think, “This is literally impossible. No human being could rake all of these leaves.” Then I go back inside, and the leaves enjoy a quiet victory.

I also know that “Find rake” and “Buy landscape-quality trash bags” are two discreet, simple tasks I can complete easily. So is, “Rake around fire pit” and “Move the car to the end of the driveway.” Each has a distinct beginning and an end. Each can be completed within a few minutes. The behavioral technique of chaining allows me to perform these small tasks which, when complete, form the more complex behavior of finishing the larger task.

Many years ago, I supervised a group home of seven students with autism and other developmental delays. As a good little behaviorist, I wrote my students’ annual educational objectives with an eye towards Applied Behavior Analysis. My staff and I often taught the kids their lessons by breaking them down into very small steps, which could be chained together to form a complex task. It worked very well.

Today, I do the same thing with myself. When a project falls on my plate, [1. I use David Allen’s definition of project: anything that requires more than one action step before it can be marked as “done.”], I begin breaking it down into several small tasks. Deadlines are attached to these small parts. As I move through them, the large task will get done. Like magic. While a large project can feel overwhelming, each component feels quite manageable. Here’s a good way to get started:

  1. Consider one project.
  2. Ask yourself, “If I had nothing else to do, what’s the first step I could take on this project?”
  3. Write it down. Repeat with step two.
  4. Continue until you’ve written every step necessary. There’s your next to-do list.

One note: action steps start with a verb. Call the garage. Brainstorm ideas. Talk with Janie. In other words, “The procrastination article” is not an action step. “Outline the procrastination article” is.

I’ve spoken about this on Home Work a few times, and it does work. People with fantastical brains like mine often go through life feeling inadequate, untrustworthy and just plain stupid. Setting oneself up for success combats that, and this is the best way I know how.

So watch out, leaves.

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