Stop Procrastination With This Simple Method – How To Break Down Big Projects Into Small Tasks

Do you find yourself repeatedly putting the same tasks on your daily to-do list?
Are you waiting to work on projects until the deadline gets dangerously close?

Procrastination is a prevalent problem that often causes stress. In fact, a study published by the American Psychological Association revealed that 94% of the respondents indicated that procrastination has a negative effect on their happiness, and for 18% that effect is “extremely negative”.

While there are many reasons people procrastinate, one common cause amongst professionals is the lack of a clear overview or a sense of overwhelm by the scope of the project.

This is where the 7 Minute Life Micro-Action Method comes in. Instead of leaving bigger tasks on your to-do list and increasing the chances you’ll procrastinate, you’ll break it down into smaller steps that help you get it done with less stress.

What’s the 7 Minute Life Micro-Action Method?

One of the foundational time management concepts of the 7 Minute Life is the difference between Projects and Micro-Actions. We define Micro-Actions as tasks that take 20 minutes or less to complete. Any task that takes more than 20 minutes is considered a Project that needs to go through a simple, repeatable process to be broken down into smaller steps. An effective to-do list [link to blog] exists of only micro-actions, because this pushes you to more clearly define each step, more accurately estimate the time it takes to complete it, and more easily fit the task into your busy schedule.

Why you should replace any projects on your to-do list

Most to-do lists resemble something like this:

  • Prepare for tomorrow’s meeting 
  • Create the slide deck for next week’s training  
  • Answer emails  
  • Call HR during lunch  

Not only are these tasks not specific or measurable enough, but most of these tasks are also Projects that take more than an hour to complete.

Why does this matter? Why should you replace Projects with Micro-Actions on your to-do list?  

  1. It’s harder to accurately estimate how long it takes to complete a Project  
    How long will it take to complete this? The bigger the task, the less accurate your estimate will be. Breaking down Projects into Micro-Actions gives you a clear picture of what’s required and how long each step will take, which avoids constantly feeling behind on your tasks!  
  1. You’re more likely to procrastinate on a Project  
    People procrastinate because they don’t have clarity on the action they need to take or because they feel overwhelmed. The 7 Minute Life Micro-Action Method combats procrastination on both fronts. First, replacing one big Project with a list of Micro-Actions provides you with a clear outline of what you need to do. Second, tasks that take less than 20 minutes are far less daunting than a project that may take several hours. 
  1. A to-do list consisting of Projects is harder to fit into a busy schedule  
    When was the last time you had 3 uninterrupted hours to work on a single project? Most professionals have meetings and events spread out throughout their workday, leaving them with short, scattered timeslots to work on other tasks. What if you could use every spare 15 minutes to contribute to the completion of an important project instead of merely spending it on endless emails or busywork? Micro-Actions are easier to fit into a busy schedule, because the tasks are easy to fit into small gaps in your schedule. This empowers you to be productive even during your busiest days.  
  1. Distractions and interruptions make you lose track of a Project  
    What about “deep work”? Aren’t we supposed to do our best thinking when we can focus on one thing for an extended amount of time? Breaking down Projects into Micro-Actions doesn’t replace deep work, it enables it! Realistically, you rarely can go offline for hours. Even if you have an afternoon without meetings or conference calls, you have to regularly check your phone and email to stay in the loop. When working with a to-do list filled with Micro-Actions instead of Projects, it allows you to be productive even on days where your team needs answers to questions, phone calls need to be returned promptly, and email replies can’t wait several hours. Simply work on one Micro-Action without distractions, followed by a few minutes to check your phone or email. You won’t lose track of your progress because each Micro-Action has a clear endpoint. You can easily pick up where you left off by starting the next Micro-Action after you have returned that important phone call.  

How to break Projects down into Micro-Actions  

Luckily, the 7 Minute Life Micro-Action Method is designed to be repeatable and applicable in a myriad of situations. Whether you apply it to your personal goals or to manage your projects at work, it takes merely 3 simple steps to break down a project into smaller steps.  

Step 1. Identify the desired end result 

Most people skip this step, but it’s arguably the most important one! If you don’t define the desired end result of your project, how do you know it’s done? Moreso, how will you know if it’s done well? Your project is likely a part of a bigger goal, one that matters to you. Allowing your picture of the final product to be too ambiguous affects your ability to successfully accomplish other aspects of the goal. This negative ripple effect can be prevented by starting each project with one simple question:

What does it look like for this project to be finished and done well?

Write down the answer to this question, using no more than 3 sentences. This forces you to clarify your desired result to the point it can be contained in concise language and brief description.

Tempted to skip this step? Consider the results of a goal-setting study led by Psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews, reported by Inc. It reveals you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down!

Step 2. Break down the project into phases

Like a good story, each project has a beginning, middle, and end. This step may be brief, but even the most straightforward projects can be broken down into simple phases like prepare, execute and review. For bigger or more complex projects, make sure you define the desired end result for each phase.

For example, say that you have to create a PowerPoint presentation for a meeting. The phases could be defined as:

  • Prepare information and visuals
  • Write
  • Design
  • Review

This shouldn’t take more than a minute, but it provides a helpful skeleton to guide you during the next step.

Step 3. List all micro-actions for each phase

Ask yourself for each phase: what does it look like for this phase to be finished and done well? What do I need to do to get there? With that in mind, create a list of steps that are necessary to complete each phase.

In the example of the PowerPoint presentation, this could result in a list of Micro-Actions like this:

Phase 1 – Prepare:

  • Ask John for last month’s report
  • Select 3-5 product photos
  • Create the graph that shows this year’s industry trend
  • Research how competitor A has dealt with this issue
  • Write one paragraph about the board’s decision based on the meeting notes from last week

The second phase would include tasks like “write an outline of topics” or “create 5 slides in the Analysis Section”, the third phase could have micro-actions like “update all colors to the brand colors and include our logo in the footer”, and the final phase would include micro-actions that relate to proofreading and implementing feedback from a supervisor.

No matter the project and the number of defined phases, the most important thing to note is that each task in this list should be able to be completed in 20 minutes or less. If it takes more than that, it needs to be broken down into several, smaller tasks again.

You can apply the 7 Minute Life Micro-Action Method to far more areas than project management alone. This method can help you effectively manage your household, work on a complex research project, achieve a personal goal, establish great habits, and even run meetings more efficiently. Stay tuned to learn more advanced applications of the Micro-Action Method, by signing up for the 7 Minute Life newsletter.

What projects will you successfully finish on time with less stress using the Micro-Action Method?