WORKPLACE / JAN. 12, 2015
version 5, draft 5

How to Make Large Tasks Small

We all have them – those incredibly complicated and difficult tasks that loom large over our work lives. While they may not be fun to look forward to, you’re going to have to confront them eventually, and in the interest of your sanity, the sooner the better.

When you’re struggling to tackle that large task, here’s how to make it feel smaller.

Do the most difficult work earlier in the day. Several studies, including one published in Psychology and Aging in 2014, have discovered that the human brain performs best on cognitive tasks in the morning – especially in older adults. With that in mind, the best time to get going on that large task is probably not after you’ve returned from lunch, having eaten a heavy meal. What’s more, putting off that task is only going to increase your feelings of dread about getting it done.

Break the task into chunks.

When you’re handling a really, really complicated task, you probably can’t get it all done in one sitting – so why not plan for benchmarks or stopping points in the work? First, sketch out all the steps that you’ll need to take in order to get the task done. Then try to determine where you’ll be able to stop what you’re doing. If you’re like a lot of people, chances are you have other tasks to juggle as well, so by breaking up the large task, you’ll make time to get other things done in your day too.

Take breaks on a regular basis.

If you are facing a task that has to be done all in one shot, look for little ways to take breaks and allow your brain time to rest. While numerous recent studies have posited that adults’ attention span is rapidly decreasing – going as low as 8 seconds – attributed at least in part to the Internet and social media, a more conservative estimate is between 10 and 15 minutes. Whatever it is, studies have also shown that little breaks can actually help you stay more focused.

When you’re dealing with an important task, that’s still not terribly long, but you’ll simply need to plan for it and to give your brain the little distractions it needs. Stop and stretch for a few seconds. Go for a coffee break, or make that doctor’s appointment you’ve been meaning to make, and then get back on task. It might sound counterintuitive, but those breaks can actually really help you focus.

Look for parts you can delegate.

Finally, ask yourself whether you really need to go it all alone. Is there a part of that large task you can delegate to someone else? Even if you’re responsible for the meat of the work, maybe you can get someone to staple documents, organize files or otherwise share some part of the load and help you get through this thing faster.

There may not be any way around tackling that large task, but by getting help and breaking it up into smaller pieces, it suddenly might not seem quite so monumental.

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