Break it down – Turn big things into small things

I’ve needed to clean, stain and seal my deck for the past several months. I know that it needs to be done – the wood is old and needs to be better protected before winter. Yet, that knowledge had no impact on my actions until yesterday.

So what changed? I became highly motivated. Based on the weather forecast, I knew that yesterday might be one of my last days of the season to work on this project.

As I got started, I kept thinking, “why didn’t I clean out my sprayer a week ago?” or “why didn’t I move a piece of furniture a day off the deck?” It became clear that this large project, which I put off until the last second, was just several small projects sequenced together.

Isn’t every project like this? We focus on the enormity of the major task – in my case, staining the deck. But in reality, there are a lot of small tasks that we can be working on to build momentum.

The beauty of small tasks is that they don’t require you to be highly motivated to complete. If I had created the small task of “get out staining materials”, I would have been able to do that in three minutes and on a day when it was raining.

Do you have a project (home or work) that you keep putting off? Take five minutes to break it down into all the smaller tasks that are required. The smaller you can make the tasks the better. Start building momentum and you will find yourself getting bigger items off of your list.

Quenched Consciousness

November is National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo). This post is part of my post-a-day challenge. I have picked a theme for the challenge: song titles. These songs have been featured on live albums from KEXP (an awesome alternative radio station in Seattle), so at a minimum you will hear some great music.

I looked at my to do list. It contained eighteen items, several having been there since the summer. I glanced at my inbox – 1400 unread items. It was becoming clear to me that I needed some help.

My consciousness was far from quenched. I was spending time anxious about emails unread and items not crossed off of my to do list.

Then it changed. I had a friend talk about a personal productivity system called Getting Things Done (note #1: sometimes abbreviated as “GTD”, note #2: if you find yourself talking about personal productivity systems, you might be a geek).

The basic premise of the system is simple:

1) Separate actionable items from reference items. In other words, do let a report that you might need to use, sit right beside an email from your boss that you need to act on?

2) If an item is actionable, go ahead and define the next action. (e.g. send analysis on top accounts to Jim)

3) Organize the actions by the context in which they can be done. (e.g. office, home, calls, etc). When you have twenty minutes open up because a meeting finished early, you check you office list to see what is there.

The reason to-do lists are not very effective is that you haven’t defined what you have to do next. You might have an item on your list labeled “401k”, but what is it you need to do with your 401k? Do you need to research new fund options? Do you need to change allocations? Do you need to change your home address?

According to David Allen, if you haven’t defined next actions, then your brain will be straining to think “what the hell does “401k” mean?” Alternatively, if you’ve written down “research new fund option”, then your brain doesn’t keeping thinking about a vuage item on a to-do list.

I’ve been using GTD for a couple of weeks and it’s been a nice change. My inbox is consistently at zero a couple of times a day. When I have a few minutes to make phone calls, I check out my call list to see who I should get in touch with. I keep a list of things I want to discuss with my wife.

If you’re looking to get some of life’s craziness under control, then I’d highly recommend GTD.


photo credit:

My guess is that most of my co-workers, friends and associates have no clue how un-focused I can be. At current I feel like I have 13 different projects going on, without sole focus on one thing.

Small batch theory advocates that we are more efficient when we focus on completing one project (or batch), rather than pushing along several projects along (as I am doing now). – See The Power of Small Batches

I am learning that focus and control of your schedule comes and goes. There are times when it is clear the one thing that must get done. There are other days when I push along 15 different tasks. My hope is that most days I am able to focus on a few important (small batch) task, but embrace the days where life and work get crazy.

How focused does your work/life feel?