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.

iPhone apps for ADD – Pomorodo Pro

I was recently diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. In short, I’m thrilled; years of frustration have been explained and I’ve got a comprehensive plan for the future. The iPhone is a part of that plan. This week I’ll be identifying the apps that compliment my treatment plan, noting how and why I use them. [3. Please note that any ADD treatment plan is multi-faceted, individualized and must involve a trained, experienced professional. This post is presented for your information only and not meant as medical advice.]

Pomorodo Pro ($2.99)

One of the hallmarks of ADD is a reduced ability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. I’m often tempted to do who-knows-what at any moment: watch a YouTube video, look outside, play the piano, etc. Today I’m combating that trait — in part — with specific behavioral change. A part of that is Pomorodo Pro.

The so-called Pomodoro Technique [2. “Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato, and refers to a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.] of personal productivity is a simple, structured mix of on-task behavior and off. Basically, you work for 25 minutes and then break for five minutes. When the break is complete, you start another 25-minute work session, followed by another 5-minute break. After the fourth time through, the break is extended to 15 minutes, and the cycle then reverts to the original 25/5 pattern.

I love it because I can focus for 25 minutes. When my mind wanders onto something other than the task at hand, I can say, “Ah! But soon I’ll have my break, during which I can do this silly thing — if I still remember it then — or whatever else seems interesting.” That’s often helpful in keeping me on task.

There are many Pomodoro apps available for iOS, but my favorite is Pomodoro Pro. Here’s how it works. Simply name the task you’re about to begin and start the timer. That’s it, really. It will run in the background and ding when the work session is complete.

What I like the most is something that many other Pomodoro iPhone apps don’t do. Specifically, it automatically starts the break timer when a work session is complete. Also, it won’t automatically start a work session when a break is complete. It’s nice to simply get up when a work session ends, and to be assured that the work timer won’t begin if I’m away from my desk when the break period ends (as I often am).

Yes, you can use a kitchen timer, the iPhone’s native Clock app, a watch or any number of things you currently have (and have already paid for), but all those represent one more “thing” to keep track of. Since my iPhone never leaves my side, it’s logical to assign Pomodoro duty to it, and not clutter my desk with more stuff.

You can read about the Pomodoro Technique here. There’s more to it than I’ve described, but the work/break sessions are enough for me.

iPhone apps for ADD: Due

I was recently diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, [1. A note on the term. In my admittedly anecdotal yet first-hand experience, ADD does not represent a deficit of attention. Rather, it’s a surplus. I attend to everything almost all the time. In fact, I don’t habituate to things you tune out, like a barking dog or fleeting thoughts. Instead, each says, “Look at me!” In that way I don’t lack attention, I lack the ability to focus it on any one thing for a significant amount of time. Of course, I’m not a doctor, so don’t take my word for i–OH A BUTTERFLY.] or ADD. In short, I’m thrilled; years of frustration have been explained and I’ve got a comprehensive plan for the future. The iPhone is a part of that plan.

This week I’ll be identifying the apps that compliment my treatment plan, noting how and why I use them. [2. Please note that any ADD treatment plan is multi-faceted, individualized and must involve a trained, experienced professional. This post is presented for your information only and not meant as medical advice.]

Due ($4.99)

I have a terrible time remembering to do those little tasks that must be completed every day. I can write a note to myself, yes, but that’s an incomplete solution. How will I remember to read the list? Most of the time, I don’t. Or I lose the note. Fortunately, the answer is simple; have the list read itself to me at the appropriate time.

Due is that list. It’s a reminder app for iPhone and iPad that’s perfect for quick additions and relentless with the reminders. Due is not a calendar, GTD solution or a to-do list. It won’t sort items by context or project. What it does is answer the question, “Will you remind be about ____?” with a resounding “Yes.”

Here’s how it works. Upon launch, you’re presented with a list of reminders. Tap the “+” to add a new one. The edit screen appears. Enter the task’s title (call the babysitter) and deadline, then tap “Add.”

That’s it.

Additional customization is available. For example, you can designate four often-used start times for one-tap access. Items can also repeat and be reactivated, or “recycled,” after completion.

Once a reminder has been created, you can edit its repeat settings, change the alert behavior or delay the reminder  by 10-minute, hour-long or day-long intervals, all from the list screen. The most beneficial feature for me is snooze.

By default, Due will ping and pop up a dialog box at the designated time and every 60 seconds thereafter until you act upon the reminder by either marking it done or putting it off. This is how the list “tells me” what to do. Its persistence won’t let me forget about the task, so I’m likely to either complete it or delay it if necessary. Also, delaying the deadline doesn’t affect the snooze function. Those pesky but immensely helpful reminders are also pushed ahead.

iCal, on the other hand, pops up a message and then disappears. If I’m engaged in something when that happens, it might as well not have happened at all. I’ll forget to complete the task. Due, however, is just the nag I need.

Most importantly, Due inspires confidence. By outsourcing my short-term memory to an app that I trust, anxiety is reduced. I know that Due will remind me of what needs to be done, I know it won’t beep once and then let me forget and I know I’ll always have my iPhone with me. As a busy person with ADD, Due is indispensable.