The magic of breaking it down
Have you ever come back from a conference, full of big exciting ideas to implement? You took copious notes and felt so ready to change the trajectory of your career. Now that you are back to your office, you also need to catch up on the voice mails and emails from the time you were gone. If you are like my colleagues, here is what follows.
By the end of the first day back at work, you are exhausted. You think to yourself, “the notes I took at the conference are not my priority right now. May be I will look at them later this week.” The week goes by. You are working hard at your job and have not been able to start on even one of those bright conference ideas. You think, may be in a few weeks, you will get back to those ideas. You never do that, though.
The conference notes stay buried somewhere at your desk. Two months later, you look at the conference notes and think, “What was I thinking? I cannot do all that.” The same scribbles that excited you months ago, seem overwhelming and almost paralyzing now. If you are like the professionals I know, you don’t act on those ideas. The ideas don’t even make to your vision, forget roadmap and projects.
I admit, I have been guilty of it myself.
I used to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed with just the thought of undertaking a new self improvement task, while also busy at my day job. With a work schedule that only got busier and more intense with time, I couldn’t find time for a self improvement task (or at least that’s what I thought). After trying multiple methods and mostly failing to get traction, I realized that the problem was not the task itself but how I thought and felt about the task. Whenever I had a few minutes to work on the task, I would think about how much effort it would be take to accomplish it. My thinking went something like this: “I have other really important work to do right. This task might take 100 hours. There is no way I could take on this task now.” This thinking produced a feeling of overwhelm. With the feeling of overwhelm came procrastination. “May be, I can do it later when I have some spare time”, I reasoned, shoving the conference notes into a folder never to be reviewed again.
My problem was not the the skills needed for the task. It was the perception of what it will take to get started. Many great ideas die without execution because they seem so laborious and intense to get started.
I kept trying ways to solve this problem with little success. Eventually, I found a simple method that works.
We know the benefit of breaking down a large task into smaller subtasks. Henry Ford once remarked, “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” The small jobs can be assigned to multiple team members. The small jobs can even be worked upon in parallel, hitting a deadline early. What if the strategy of breaking down a major task into smaller ones can also help us break the inertia of staying stuck and not starting a task? This strategy worked for me. I contend that it will work for you too. Here is what I recommend:
Break down a task so much, to such small subtasks, that it becomes a no brainer to get started on the first subtask.
A task that you think of doing but do not start, has this prominent feature: the task seems and feels overwhelming. The most difficult step seems to be starting up…
Let us take an example. My friend Mark does not cook, and is absolutely convinced that he just cannot do it. He has frequently said, “I cannot cook. I definitely cannot cook vegetables. It is just so much work.” I can hear the overwhelm in his voice. He intellectually understands that eating his own cooked vegetables is the key to dropping off a few pounds he wants to get rid of.
What if he breaks down cooking vegetables into small subtasks, i.e. steps:
- Take Onions out of the pantry.
- Chop the onions into big pieces.
- Take Broccolis and peppers out of the refrigerator.
- Cut the peppers and broccoli into big pieces.
- Take ginger and garlic out of the spice rack.
- Put the vegetables (Onions, Garlic and Broccoli) on the kitchen island.
- Take out a frying pan. Put the frying pan on the stove.
- Turn on the stove. Set the flame to medium.
- Add 1 teaspoon oil to the pan.
- Add Ginger and Garlic to the pan. Let the oil, ginger and garlic heat up for a few minutes.
- Add the vegetables to the pan
- Take salt from the spice rack.
- Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the vegetables.
- Use a spatula to turn the vegetables over in 2 minutes.
- Watch the vegetables cook. Smell the ginger aroma. Relish the experience.
- Stir the vegetables every 2 minutes, for 6 minutes.
- Turn off the stove.
- Transfer the vegetables onto a plate.
- Enjoy the cooked vegetables.
Every subtask listed above is small, almost to a ridiculous extent. That is the idea, though. They need to be so small that it is ridiculous to not act on them. The key is to focus on just one step at a time, and accomplishing that step. Mark needs to think just about the step he is on, and work on that step. He can worry about the next step when the times for that step comes;not now. Let’s just work on taking the onions out of the pantry, not on chopping the onions; not yet.
Our brain can become an excuse making machine, if we let it. When we make starting up so easy that we defeat our own brain’s tendency to make excuses, we get stuff done. Just focus on the step and do it.
Breaking down tasks takes the mental block away from executing. The subtask is ridiculously small to not do; your brain won’t conjure up any excuses. Once you get started on the first step, you will have momentum and your brain will come up with ideas on how to keep the task going. You will be on the path to accomplishing the task that you’ve dreaded so far.